NOAH: An Artist’s Review [of Sorts]
The following review is, for lack of a better word, thorough. You have been warned.
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments is filled with artistic liberties, fabricated subplots, utterly fictional characters, and it takes nearly four hours to play out. And yet, as biblical films go, it is still considered one of the best in the genre.
Writer/director Darren Aronofsky set out to reinvent the biblical epic with his latest film Noah. The film has drawn an immense amount of controversy from many high-profile religious leaders. Many Muslims are opposed to the film due to its depiction of a prophet. Many Christians are upset with the filmmakers for their mythical and fantastical rendering of the biblical tale. The social networks are a-buzz with people criticizing elements of the film that they find either non-Scriptural or downright blasphemous. But is all the controversy warranted? I don’t think so. Not at all, actually. And if you’ve got a good attention span and an open mind, I’d like to tell you why. Before we get into my thoughts on the film, however, the nature of the story of Noah needs to be addressed.
The New American Bible contains an informative footnote for Genesis 6:5-8:22 stating: “The story of the great flood here recorded is a composite narrative based on two separate sources interwoven into an intricate patchwork.” The footnote refers to those sources as the “Yahwist source” and the “Priestly document,” stating that “both biblical sources go back ultimately to an ancient Mesopotamian story of a great flood, preserved in the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic.” In their introduction to the Book of Genesis, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says the following: “How should modern readers interpret the creation-flood story in Gn 2–11? The stories are neither history nor myth. ‘Myth’ is an unsuitable term, for it has several different meanings and connotes untruth in popular English. ‘History’ is equally misleading, for it suggests that the events actually took place. The best term is creation-flood story.” So the story of Noah is not a literal, factual, historical account. Rather, it is an account [delivered to the Israelites] of an historical event “expressed through elements prevailing among that people at that time” (NAB).
With this in mind, I would now like to examine what I’ve found to be the eight most prevalent criticisms or objections to Noah in the wake of its release. There will be spoilers, so if you’re planning on seeing the film, you have been warned. I’ve written this review [of sorts] as food for thought for those who’ve already seen the film. As a general rule, I would rather give your mind something of substance to chew on than shock it into submission. So I have tried my best, sincerely, to convey my thoughts herein without resorting to sensational rhetoric or sarcasm. They are tired instruments in this day and age. And I am tired of them. I hope I have succeeded. Now, onto the first objection…
1. “God” is not mentioned once
He wouldn’t have been. That is, historically, “God” wouldn’t have been mentioned. The only reason that “God” and “LORD” appear anywhere in Genesis 1 through Exodus 2 is because these chapters, along with the rest of the Pentateuch, were written in the time of Moses and it was Moses to whom God first revealed His name. Yes, throughout the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Scripture has its human subjects using the name “LORD,” but that is a name for God that they simply would not have known yet, as evidenced in Exodus 6:2-3: “God also said to Moses, ‘I am the LORD. As God the Almighty I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but my name, LORD, I did not make known to them.’” I address this here solely in order to emphasize the fact that the human author recounting these events had a different and more developed understanding of God than the characters involved in the events being recounted would have had. In other words, the Pentateuch’s human author infused his fuller concept of God onto the characters appearing in Genesis 1 through Exodus 2, who would have had a much more primitive understanding of their Creator. This is not to be seen as an error or an inconsistency within Scripture. Rather, it should be seen as an element of the human author’s literary form, a creative decision, so to speak, most likely made for the sake of the audience to which he was writing.
For the first few years of my life, I knew my father only as “Dad” or “Father.” That was my relationship to him. He fathered me. He was my father. As I grew and observed and began to understand my father apart from my relationship to him, I came to realize that Dad had another name that grown-ups would call him – Joe. This is why all of the characters in the film only ever refer to God as “Creator,” because they understand God merely in terms of their relationship to Him. He created them. He was their Creator. But His name had not yet been revealed. Now that I’m older and I know a whole lot more about Joe and about what Joe’s own life was like before I came along, I am able to look back at my childhood with a different perspective and better understand why my father made some of the parenting decisions he made. But in their lack of understanding, children don’t have that luxury. The filmmakers of Noah understood that the concept of God was an utterly crude one in Noah’s time, that God had not yet revealed His name (YAHWEH) to man. They subsequently chose to portray Noah’s environment with that understanding, and I can appreciate that creative decision on a spiritual, theological, historical, and artistic level. I have read and heard many objections to the absence of “God” in the film. Maybe that bothered you. It did not bother me in the slightest. Chronologically, contextually, it’s accurate.
2. Giant Rock People
Yes, the film has giant rock people. I knew this going in and felt prepared for it. Though I admit, my first glimpse of them about 90 seconds in was still weird. The film refers to them as “The Watchers” and they serve an allegorical purpose in a story that is and always was meant to be largely allegorical. What bothers me about all of the complaining and scoffing at the filmmakers’ decision to have these Watchers in the film, however, is that the same people who think that these giant rock people were merely stupid, ridiculous, laugh-able, blasphemous creative liberties are simultaneously [and adamantly] condemning the filmmakers for ignoring Scripture. But the reality is that the Nephilim are in the story of Noah. There’s just no way around it. So we must ask: What are the Nephilim?
The first four verses of Genesis 6 are dedicated to the origin of the Nephilim. The book of Numbers 3:13 refers to the Anakim as “a race of giants.” The Hebrew word for “giants” is nephilim. The New American Bible contains a footnote on Genesis 6:4 which reads: “According to Nm 3, 33, when the Israelites invaded Palestine and found there the tall aboriginal Anakim, they likened them to the Nephilim; cf Dt 2, 10f. Perhaps the huge megalithic structures in Palestine were thought to have been built by a race of giants, whose superhuman strength was attributed to semi-divine origin.” There is an obvious parallel in the film here, as we watch The Watchers help Noah and his family build the Ark.
So for all who found the film’s inclusion of “giant rock people” blasphemous and yet are outraged at the filmmakers’ alleged negligence of Scripture, my question for you is this: How would you have depicted the Nephilim? And I’m asking you sincerely. They’re in the Bible. How would you have depicted the Nephilim, this “race of giants?” The filmmakers chose to do so in a way that enhanced certain mythical aspects of a story that is both mythical and historical. (As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, the terms “myth” and “history” are inadequate on their own when talking about the creation-flood story.) Since seeing the film, I have increasingly appreciated this particular creative decision, even though it seemed to me, at the outset, quite strange. As for as I’m concerned, the filmmakers’ decision to portray the mythical elements of the story as such only enhanced the allegory. In this regard, I am grateful for Steven Greydanus’ thoughtful, calm voice of reason amidst the outcry. So again, I pose the question: How would you have depicted the Nephilim, this race of giants? To take that question one step further, once depicted, how would you explain their existence to your audience? Or would you have simply left out this part of Scripture? I ask because, to my knowledge, no one has yet made a fuss over the filmmakers’ decision to leave out the part of this story where “the sons of heaven had intercourse with the daughters of man” (Gn. 6:4).
3. It’s full of leftist environmentalism and vegetarian propaganda
An unfortunate reality of our time is that concern for the environment has become a [primarily] political issue. The reality, however, is that proper care and concern for our natural world is not merely a political problem but a moral one. We are called to be good stewards of the earth. This concept permeates the language of our faith. Even as I’m writing this I am reminded of a part of the Intercessions from the Morning Prayer (from Monday in the Fourth Week of Lent) I prayed earlier today: “Teach us the meaning and value of creation, so that we may join its voice to ours as we sing your praise.” God gave us “dominion” over the earth in the very first book of creation. But to have dominion over something does not necessitate the right to destroy it. In his expulsion from the Garden, man was sent away “to till the ground from which he had been taken” (Gn. 3:24). He was sent away to “till” the ground and to cultivate it, not simply to exploit it and render it barren. The film’s portrayal of Noah’s devotion to the earth and all living things is in accordance with Scripture and respectful of God’s covenant with Adam. Any accusations, therefore, that the film has a “liberal” or “environmentalist” slant are simply misguided and unfair.
To address similar accusations that the film has a vegan/vegetarian agenda, it is best to go straight to the source. In Genesis 1:29, God says to Adam and Eve: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food…” The meat of the animals is not mentioned as being given for food; only the seed-bearing plants and fruit are given. Several chapters later, after the great flood, Genesis 9:2 reads: “Dread fear of you shall come upon all the animals of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon all the creatures that move about on the ground and all the fishes of the sea; into your power they are delivered.” This implies a drastic change in the relationship between the man and the animals. It implies that, prior to the flood, the animals were not naturally afraid of man. Genesis 9:3 reads: “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” This implies that man was not previously given the animals to eat, in accord with the Adamic covenant. The New American Bible actually has a footnote for this verse that reads: “Antediluvian creatures, including man, are depicted as vegetarians (Gn 1:29), becoming carnivorous only after the flood.”
All of this shows that the filmmakers’ decision to make Noah and his family vegetarians [with a deep love for their natural world] was not simply “leftist” or “environmentalist” propaganda. It was based in Scripture and in accordance with the Adamic covenant. Similarly, the filmmakers’ decision to depict the wicked men’s carnivorous appetite was not merely pro-vegan or pro-vegetarian propaganda, was not meant to vilify modern-day meat-eaters. Rather, these decisions were made to illustrate part of the Adamic covenant, which was, contextually, the only covenant.
4. They lulled the animals to sleep…really?!?
In the film, Noah and his family burn an incense of sorts that essentially lulls the animals to sleep. They remain asleep until they can all safely exit the Ark. I’ve read many complaints about this. I’ve read comments from people about how “dumb” it was to invent this occurrence for the film. While I cannot defend it Scripturally, as the text gives virtually no details about what life was like on the Ark, I will simply say this: I thought it was beautiful– yet another example of an artistic decision the filmmakers made that, for me, truly enhanced the allegory. As the scene plays out, Noah and his wife and his sons walk slowly down the aisles of the Ark gently swinging their trays while the incense burns and the animals fall asleep. As a lifelong Catholic, this scene immediately felt familiar to me. I’ve seen it so many times before. At Mass. At Vespers. At Benediction. Noah and his family swung their incense like the priest swings the thurible, peacefully lulling the animals to sleep as though they were resting in the Spirit. I saw in this scene a clear allusion, whether intended or not, to an ancient Judeo-Christian ritual.
NewAdvent.org writes that the thurible “played an important part in the ancient religious worship both of the Jews and Pagans.” Fr. William Saunders wrote the following in a piece on EWTN.com: “The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification…The usage of incense adds a sense of solemnity and mystery to the Mass. The visual imagery of the smoke and the smell remind us of the transcendence of the Mass which links heaven with earth, and allow us to enter into the presence of God.” Noah and his family were like priests in this moment, preparing their altar, walking reverently down the aisles of the Ark, their church, incensing their sheep in anticipation of the their Shepherd’s presence about to flood the earth. At least, that’s what I saw. While I don’t expect everyone to see all that I saw in this film, when I see something that, to me, is a reminder of the timeless beauty and the ancient mystery of Catholic faith traditions, I am inclined to share it.
5. Noah goes murderously mad on the Ark
The character arc for this film version of Noah seems to be this: He understands justice, but he [quite painstakingly] needs to learn mercy. If you approach the film with this perspective, what happens once they’re aboard the Ark makes sense. At least, it did to me (though not until I had spent a day or two reflecting on it.…which was not entirely intentional and which drove my wife a little mad). Without a clear sign from God about what to do once the rain the starts, the film’s Noah discerns that in order to obey God he needs to fulfill a call similar to the testing of Abraham, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son. It’s dark territory. But so is the story of the testing of Abraham. In the film, it isn’t until Noah is finally faced with having to follow through with the murderous act he genuinely believes that God wants him to commit that his heart is softened, he feels an overwhelming love, and he learns of God’s mercy. For the record, this isn’t simply my interpretation of the film. Writer/director Darren Aronofsky intended for this to come through. In a recent interview with ReligionNews.com he said: “We started to realize these big ideas about justice and mercy in the film. It started with Noah being called righteous in his generation, and we tried to figure out what that meant. What we’ve discovered is that people who are a lot smarter than us and who study theology talk about righteousness as having a balance of justice and mercy…For us, since Noah is called righteous, we asked, ‘OK, what is his balance of justice and mercy?’ So at the beginning of the film, he clearly wants justice, very much like God. By the end, when the rainbow happens, he has learned mercy, forgiveness and grace.”
While this subplot was obviously a fully fabricated artistic license in and of itself, to discredit the film outright on those grounds alone is to discredit virtually every beloved biblical film ever made. I opened this review [of sorts] by mentioning that Cecil B. DeMille took a wide variety of liberties with The Ten Commandments (1956). I can’t possibly list them all here, but the dramatic love triangle between Moses, his wife, and the Queen of Egypt is definitely not in the Bible. Franco Zeffirelli’s classic Jesus of Nazareth (1977) features hypothetical subplots and un-Scriptural storylines for Mary Magdalene, Herod Antipas, Barabbas, and the relationship between Peter and Matthew. To top off this 6+ hour-long epic, Judas’ decision to betray Jesus is played out as an almost purely rational one. In Jon Voight’s made-for-TV-movie Noah’s Ark (1999), God himself finishes building the Ark (later attacked by pirates), at which point in the film God tells Noah: “Sodom and Gomorrah was a warning. They didn’t change. This time, instead of fire and brimstone, I’ll drown the world in my tears.” You can watch the scene here, and while you do, keep in mind that Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t destroyed until 10 chapters after Noah’s story ends in the Book of Genesis. I don’t really feel the need to mention Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) here, as I’m sure the many artistic, un-Scriptural liberties he took are still fresh in our minds. So the question about Darren Aronofosky’s Noah inevitably becomes: Why this film? With all the creative liberties constantly taken in biblical films, why is this film getting all the heat for trying to flesh out characters and fill in gaps that undeniably exist in this biblical story?
As far as this particular objection is concerned, I believe that what it boils down to is this: You can see the way in which this film’s Noah seems to go murderously mad on the Ark as either (a) a ridiculously fabricated subplot invented by people who are completely out of touch with the essence of Scripture, OR (b) a sincere reflection on justice and mercy set in the context of the biblical account of the great flood. I saw the latter.
6. The bad guy sneaks onto the Ark…give me a break!
Another subplot written for this film involves the villain Tubal-Cain. He’s the leader of the descendants of Cain and the epitome of man’s wickedness. After being injured in a battle for the Ark, Tubal-Cain struggles to crawl his way on board before the flood waters wash him away. Alas, he is the only stowaway on the Ark. I’ve heard countless complaints about what a “stupid” and “ridiculous” subplot this was. I beg to differ. Here is why….
Once on the Ark, Noah tells his family the story of creation, though there are two significant things about his rendering that must be noted: (1) it is far more crude than the version in the Bible, which makes sense given what I discussed earlier, and (2) Noah doesn’t mention the creation of man. That’s right, when telling his family the story of creation Noah leaves out the most important part – that man was created in the image and likeness of God! While this might seem blasphemously problematic at first glance, it ultimately places an enlightening emphasis on Noah’s mindset and creates a significant parallel to the Fall of Man. How so? In the midst of all the madness, Noah seems to have forgotten the most important part of the creation story. On one hand, I really can’t blame him. Man was the reason God’s wrath flooded the earth, after all. On a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to get blinded by sin and forget in Whose image we were made. Because Noah leaves out the most important part of the creation story when he tells it to his family, Ham (one of Noah’s three sons) only ever learns of the creation of man from the Ark’s lone stowaway, Tubal-Cain. Ham is the only one who knows that Tubal-Cain has snuck on board, and he seeks him out to converse with him in the darkness. Like the serpent in the Garden, Tubal-Cain represents the lone force of temptation and corruption in a place filled with innocence. Like the serpent in the Garden, Tubal-Cain twists the truth of man’s creation Imago Dei for the sole purpose of turning the son against his father. In the same scene he even tries to convince Ham that it’s okay for him to eat the meat of the animals (read: the forbidden fruit), which is in direct violation of his father’s will and command. This is a striking parallel, one that can only be drawn because the injured Tubal-Cain literally crawled and slithered, like the serpent in the Garden, on board the Ark. It’s a brilliant parallel to the Temptation of Adam, one that many seem to have missed and one that hardly warrants accusations of a disregard for Scripture.
7. Noah gets drunk and naked…
I’ve read reviews from Christians who have complained about the fact that Noah gets drunk and naked in the film and that it seems to come out of nowhere and that it isn’t really explained. Well, the reality is that this sequence was taken straight from Scripture. Genesis 9:20-25 reads: “Now Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of the wine, he became drunk and lay naked inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside about it. Shem and Japheth, however, took a robe, and holding it on their backs, they walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness; since their faces were turned the other way, they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his drunkenness and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers” (NAB). The significance of all of this is very ambiguous in the film and, on the surface, it doesn’t really seem to make a whole lot of sense in Scripture. A footnote on this passage in the New American Bible suggests that “one purpose of the story is to justify the Israelites’ enslavement of the Canaanites because of certain indecent sexual practices in the Canaanite religion.”
So few details are given in Scripture about the relationship between Noah and his sons that it seems nearly impossible for us 21st century Judeo-Christians to fully understand the cause of the apparent tension that certainly exists in the text. With this in mind, and taking into account that Genesis 9:25-28 are the only verses in the whole story where Noah speaks, how would you go about telling this part of the story on film? How would you portray it in a way that made sense and revealed something profound about the human condition? In a recent interview with ReligionNews.com, writer/director Darren Aronofsky commented on this part of the story: “There’s a complexity that’s not necessarily written in the words of the Bible but it’s hinted at. The second thing Noah does after the flood is he goes and gets drunk and then has this falling-out with his son. To us that was a huge clue to their relationship. So we started to build a whole story out of that relationship between Noah and Ham and how they got there. That led to this whole idea of good and bad within all of us, and the struggle of righteousness in all of us, to try to balance justice and mercy in our lives. If you look at the film, every character is sort of dealing with these ideas of wickedness and forgiveness.”
I thought the filmmakers’ creative decisions in this regard were quite poignant. They forced me to try to step into Noah’s psyche, to empathize with him. He just witnessed the destruction of his race. He could have disobeyed God and saved some people, even just a few of the innocent children. But he didn’t. How would you process all of that? Is your faith so strong that you would feel no guilt or complicity in their deaths at all? Personally, I might want to go be alone somewhere and drink.
8. The director is an atheist!
Caravaggio had a tendency to get into drunken, violent brawls. Some popes had mistresses with whom they fathered illegitimate children. St. Peter denied Christ three times! If all you know about Darren Aronofsky is that he’s an atheist, then you don’t know very much about Darren Aronofsky. What we know about the writer/director of Noah is that he has, regardless of his religious convictions or lack thereof, been fascinated, sincerely fascinated, with the biblical story of Noah since his youth. It has been a dream of his, since he discovered a knack for storytelling at the age of 13, to make this story into a movie. He is also trained in field biology and majored in Social Anthropology at Harvard. There is a narrative being pushed in certain circles that any Christian leader or any Christian with media influence who supports this film has been “bought” by the producers and studio execs in an effort to dupe Christians into buying tickets to a blasphemous “atheist fantasy.” All I’ll say to that is: believe what you will. I do not doubt that “buying off” critics and influential voices is commonplace in the film [or any other] industry, even among Christians. I simply implore you to acknowledge this distinction: While the primary goal of production studios is to make films that make money, Darren Aronofsky has always been a director on the fringe, preferring creative control to monetary insurance. He was so adamant about casting Mickey Rourke in the lead role for his film The Wrestler, for instance, that Aronofsky ended up losing his funding. But he stuck with Rourke, who ended up receiving an Oscar nomination for his performance. My point is that Aronofsky has a proven track record when it comes to preferring the integrity of his artistic vision to money.
To denounce Noah as nothing more than an “atheist fantasy” aimed at picking the pockets of Christians is to assert that the filmmakers put forth no sincere or learned effort whatsoever to research and understand the culture and literary forms of the Judeo-Christian religion. Such an assertion is wholly unwarranted and unfair. It’s just not true. I have now watched countless interviews in which Aronofsky himself talks about why they chose to have God communicate with Noah through visions and dreams rather than spoken word (watch from 5:05-5:42), how they chose to distinguish the descendants of Seth from the descendants of Cain (watch from 6:48-10:54), and why they chose to present Noah’s world as a world full of seemingly magical, fantastical, wondrous elements (watch from watch 12:23-13:40). The writer/director’s reasons in no way indicate that Noah, as a film, is purely an “atheist fantasy.” Rather, his reasons given show quite clearly that he worked very, very hard to try to capture the time, place, majesty, and mystery of this beloved story. And I appreciate his efforts immensely.
I’m an artist. I write songs. I know how much effort goes into every song I write, especially the ones that require research when reflecting on historical events, philosophical ideas, or other works of art. My efforts are always sincere and passionate, but they are not so because I am Christian – they are so because I am a human being filled with wonder and questions. I believe that Darren Aronofsky and his team were sincere and passionate about this project, if not because of religious convictions, then because of their respect for the religious and cultural traditions out of which the story of Noah emerged, which are, incidentally, the same religious and cultural traditions out of which Aronofsky himself emerged. He was raised, at least culturally, Jewish.
As I discussed in section 5, the makers of biblical films generally feel the need to invent subplots and fabricate storylines in order to fill narrative gaps in the biblical text that certainly do exist. The question for the moviegoer becomes one of a variety of preferences: Do I really like what they did with those characters there? Is this respectful of Scripture? Does it enhance the spiritual dimension of the story for me? Do I even like the tone they’ve set or the style they’ve chosen? In the case of Noah, I would answer with a confident and emphatic “Yes!” to all of those questions, though it’s clear to me that a good number of my contemporaries would not.
I posed the question earlier and I pose it again now: Why this film? With all the creative liberties constantly taken in biblical films, why is this film getting all the heat for trying to flesh out characters and fill in gaps that undeniably exist in this biblical account? Unfortunately, I just can’t help but feel like it’s all political. And with criticisms that the film is “leftist,” “blasphemous,” “typical Hollywood secular doo doo,” and an “atheist fantasy” – all of which are terms I’ve personally seen used to describe it – the language of many of the objections to Noah proves that the outcry is, to a large extent, political.
I can’t help but feel like, as a nation of free-thinking individuals, we’ve [somehow] collectively lost our ability to have reasonable conversations outside of the controlled political talking points we’re fed 24 hours per day. But I have faith in my fellow man. I honestly believe that if you simply take a step back and re-read the first nine chapters of Genesis much more closely than you ever have before, along with the enlightening footnotes the New American Bible provides, you will honestly begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. That, and you will surely start to notice just how immense and sincere an effort the filmmakers put forth to bring a boldly creative, truly epic, Scripturally reverent, and spiritually rich adaption of the story of Noah and the great flood to the big screen.
If you plan on seeing Noah, just be aware, as I’m sure you are by now, that it is quite unlike any biblical epic to date. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Clearly, I got a lot of out of it. So go see it. You might laugh at the strangeness. You might hate it, though I hope you don’t. And despite the negative reviews you might be getting from your fellow Christians, please, don’t be afraid or ashamed if you actually like it. You won’t be alone, if you do. I liked it very much. Then again, I absolutely loved Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I’m still anxiously awaiting its rumored 6-hour-long director’s cut. Long live the dinosaurs!
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