Noah–The man, the myth, the movie

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah. If you don’t want any major plot points revealed before you see it, don’t continue reading. If spoilers don’t bother you, go ahead. If you don’t intend to see the movie and nothing anyone says could possibly persuade you otherwise, you’re probably safe too, but whether or not you’re interested is another story. Don’t worry if you haven’t yet read the Bible story; nothing could possibly spoil that.

noah true storyLast Thursday Brother J and I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. My husband and I both very much enjoyed The Fountain, so we were eager to see what Aronofsky would do with a big Hollywood budget. I didn’t realize there was any controversy over the movie until right around opening weekend, when I started seeing indignant posts on Facebook about how much the movie gets “wrong,” i.e. deviates from the Biblical account.

Frankly, I was a bit surprised by it. Maybe I’ve just gotten oblivious and insensitive in my old age, but I would not have expected this level of defensiveness about an Old Testament prophet. I mean, have you read Genesis? Even the “good” people were pretty messed up. I understand people freaking out about movies that take artistic liberties with Jesus because Jesus is supposed to be God. Naturally people are going to get offended when you start messing with their God. I mean, their outrage may be unreasonable or out of proportion or whatever, but it’s understandable when it’s God you’re talking about. Noah, on the other hand, was just a guy. A righteous guy, sure, but not divine. A prophet, but not someone we’re supposed to worship.

I’m not the type of person who gets more interested in something because it’s controversial. I never read The Satanic Verses, I never read (or saw) The Last Temptation of Christ, and I will never see The Book of Mormon Musical, because those things just don’t interest me. However, since I was already planning to see Noah anyway, I was interested to see what the big deal was. Perhaps I would be offended also! That would certainly be exciting.

Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I liked Noah, and the more I reflected on it, the more I liked it. I’ll be straight with you, kids. One thing I am not is a film geek. I hardly ever watch movies. I see maybe two or three movies a year. (Although 2014 is shaping up to be a record-breaker because I have already seen Frozen, Veronica Mars, and now Noah, and it’s not even Christmas yet.) Another thing I’m not is an Old Testament scholar. I’m not really any kind of scholar. I’m just a housewife with a free blog and an opinion, and you know what they say about free blogs. But I found Noah a powerful and thought-provoking film (in addition to being visually awesome). It is not without its flaws. The pacing is a little off. Perhaps it does not deserve the Oscar for Best Editing. [1] But it also does not deserve to be labeled irreverent or disrespectful. It takes artistic liberties with the Bible narrative, but, no offense, so what? Ever see The Ten Commandments? (“Moses, Moses, Moses!”) Not exactly a documentary.

Noah is not intended to be an historical account. It’s a variation on a popular myth. [2] Artists will do that from time to time. The Bible contains many archetypal stories; it is always getting ripped off. One might argue that John Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost, is just glorified Bible fan fiction. (If one might be so gauche.) I’m not one to argue that Noah and his family weren’t real people or that a worldwide flood didn’t really happen. (Like anyone could possibly know that, Napoleon.) I would argue that whether or not the flood really happened the way the Bible says it did is not the point of the Bible story. The point of the Bible story—for those of us who aren’t Biblical scholars—is that people suck, but God expects us to be better; also, God cares about all of his creations and intervenes in human affairs. Aronofsky himself may not be a theist, but the main character in his movie is, and this version of Noah, while not Christian or Jewish, is concerned with themes similar to those of the original story. [3]

For that reason, I will take issue with people taking issue with the following things:

The rock monsters – Yes, there are rock monsters in this movie. Well, Genesis 6:4 says, “There were giants in the earth in those days.” What the crap does that mean? I, not being a Bible scholar, would not know. But in the movie, the giant rock monsters are fallen angels who’d had compassion on humans and came to help them but became hardened and trapped by the earth. I don’t know what Genesis means by “giants,” but in the movie these rock monsters symbolize the fallen nature of this world. Their eventual fate is a plot point that drives home the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Also, they’re really cool-looking.

The stowaway – A bad guy sneaks onto the ark. Artistic license, to be sure, but…artistic license, people. Did you notice that he was in the serpent cabin on the ark? Do you think that was a coincidence? He’s hanging out with the serpents and convincing Ham that he ought to disobey the Creator and to commit murder. Does any of this sound familiar? (See Genesis 3 and Genesis 4.) In addition to symbolizing the human inclination toward evil, he’s also a necessary player in Ham’s character development. And let’s face it–if this movie were just a straightforward filming of the Bible story, it would be about 15 minutes long, and ain’t nobody paying $12.50 for that. (Your movie prices may vary.)

Noah working out what God meant for him to do – I have to say, it is much more dramatically compelling, and frankly, more theologically interesting, to see Noah’s struggle to discern the Creator’s will. Those of us who don’t live in the pages of Genesis or Cecil B. DeMille movies don’t often get straightforward answers to our questions. As Mormons would say, faith is not to have a perfect knowledge. The Noah in Genesis may very well have had perfect knowledge; I am ready and willing to stipulate that he did. But this is not a flat retelling of the Genesis account. Artists re-invent myths to make them relevant to people in different ways. The Noah in this movie does not have a perfect knowledge; nevertheless, he is a man of faith and integrity.

Noah keeping other people off the ark – Genesis makes no mention of Noah inviting others to come on the ark and be saved. God tells Noah to take his family and two each of all the animals and that’s it; all flesh and everything on the earth is to be destroyed. Maybe that doesn’t mean what I think it means, but whatever. God’s intention in Genesis seems to be to destroy the wicked. In the movie, Noah’s visions tell him the Creator means to flood the earth but save the animals, i.e. the innocent. At first he believes that the Creator is sparing him and his family because they are obedient to Him and will serve to repopulate the earth after it has been cleansed. When he goes to find wives for his sons and witnesses the evil and wickedness of other humans close-up, he becomes convinced that mankind itself is irredeemably corrupt and that the Creator means to do away with humans for good; there’s no point making a new Eden if humans are just going to screw it up again. He concludes that he was chosen not because he is good—because no man is—but because he is obedient: the Creator trusts him to get the job done, even if it means the end of humanity itself.

Noah’s plan to do away with his granddaughters – Yes, Noah’s determination to put an end to humanity even though it requires the murder of his grandchildren is odious. Something maybe a psychopath might do. But is it really any more odious—or crazy—than Abraham’s determination to sacrifice Isaac because God told him to? Is it really any different, for that matter? And yet we’re supposed to revere Abraham as a model of faith, while this fictional Noah is beyond the pale. Noah in Genesis is a good man. Noah in this movie is also a good man. He doesn’t want to kill anybody. (He’s a vegetarian, for Pete’s sake.) At one point he begs the Creator not to make him do this (which is more than Abraham ever did, if we’re to take Genesis at face value). And in the end (SPOILER ALERT), he finds he can’t. At first he thinks he has failed to do the Creator’s will. But his daughter-in-law points out that the Creator gave Noah the job for a reason: He trusted him because Noah was good. He knew Noah would do the right thing.

In other words, the movie ends the same way the book does—humanity survives! (There’s even a rainbow.)jonah true story

Now, anyone who wants to argue that Noah is just a poorly made movie or just isn’t their cup of tea, knock yourselves out. All I know is what I like, and I found Noah a very thoughtful and insightful story and a pleasure to watch. Despite not being a religious film, it has a profound message that even religious people can appreciate.

——————————–

 

[1] I also thought that Bryan Adams song, “Our Love (Survived the Flood),” running over the closing credits was kind of cheesy.

[2] I don’t mean “myth” in the sense of “crap somebody made up,” but in the sense of a traditional story that serves to explain a world view.

[3] I understand that there were a lot of ancient flood stories and Noah was not the first.

 

 

“Jonah–The True Story” courtesy of Brother J
“Noah–The True Story” stolen from some guy on the internet

Comments

  1. I saw it and thought it was fine. I was initially jarred by the sins of the people being environmental sins, but once I got past that, it was all good. But make no mistake, the second half of the movie was essentially The Shining on a boat. All Noah needed was a typewriter: “ALL SHIPBUILDING AND NO FECUND WOMEN MAKE NOAH A DULL BOY. ALL SHIPBUILDING AND NO FECUND WOMEN MAKE NOAH A DULL BOY. ALL SHIPBUILDING AND NO FECUND WOMEN MAKE NOAH A DULL BOY….”

  2. I doubt I’ll see this in the theater, since I go to the theater even less often than you do, Rebecca, but I did add it to my Netflix queue and will enjoy it when it’s out on DVD. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    The basic idea behind the Watchers comes from the Book of the Watchers, part of the Ethiopic Book of Enoch, which is inspired by the germ of an idea you point to in Genesis 6:4. The “giants” comes from the LXX (Greek) translation gigantes of Hebrew nephilim. The root of this word has to do with falling, so traditionally these are understood as fallen angels.

    I’ve seen a lot of criticism for the supposed modern environmentalism of the story. But the Noah story in the Bible is a form of a common preexisting flood myth, several versions of which have survived from Mesopotamian sources. And in these older versions, the gods propose to destroy mankind, not because of wickedness, but because of overpopulation! Humans have reproduced so rapidly and have become so numerous upon the face of the earth that they make a huge racket, and the poor gods can’t get any sleep at night. The movie is not just grounded in Genesis, but in a broader array of ancient flood literature (and of course modern artistic license).

    I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  4. “Perhaps I would be offended also! That would certainly be exciting.” You’re the best, Rebecca.

    I really liked the movie, too, and I’m looking forward to a second viewing. My mouth was open during that incredible creation/evolution scene.

  5. Great review of a great movie.

  6. Great review. Haven’t seen it yet, but looking forward to it.

    “there’s no point making a new Eden if humans are just going to screw it up again.” Right. Reminds of of Solzhenitsyn, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

  7. Thanks for the review, Rebecca. What a bold soul! I’m very much looking forward to this movie. It’s adherence to the little story in Genesis seems like a minor criteria on which to judge it. The world before the flood was a strange place and it sounds like Aaronofsky nicely evokes a sense of strangeness in one of the strangest stories to come down to us from the earliest epochs. The graphic novels Aaronofsky created about the Noah story before he created the movie aren’t bad either. Nibley’s research led him to all sorts of interesting references to the Watchers.

  8. marginalizedmormon says:

    If you had gone to this movie with a black person (LDS or not), would that person have felt that blacks (because of Ham) were being disregarded?
    After all, one of the reasons many LDS prefer the Book of Mormon is because Joseph Smith said it was a more correct book, and in the Book of Mormon it is clearly stated that all are alike unto God (black and white, etc.) Sorry if I am stating the obvious.
    Many LDS who have studied the Old Testament extensively accept that some of the stories may, in fact, be somewhat mythical or have, at least, been altered to reflect that existing cultural biases.
    Yes, the Genesis story shows some kind of conflict between Noah and Ham, but that story has been used by Christians (and LDS) to justify withholding the priesthood (in the case of LDS) and slavery (in the case of all who accept the Pentateuch).
    Many modern LDS question that Africans are even descended from Cain/Ham, but the stigma is still a sore point to many, especially those who believe that the priesthood was wrongfully taken from blacks after Joseph Smith’s death.
    The idea that it was Ham who had an encounter with an evil being–
    Yes, it’s a myth; yes, there is poetic license. But how would you have felt about it if you were with a black friend or family member–
    if you were black?
    Thank you. I hope you know I don’t mean to argue or to accuse anyone of racism. I just wonder if this story could be appealing to black people.
    I realize your essay is a ‘light’ one, but it is important to me to know if a black person would be offended by the movie.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    The movie doesn’t draw any connection between Ham and blacks.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Solid review, RJ.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    I think the rock monsters are supposed to be more influenced by the Watchers from 1 Enoch which is an expansion off that verse you mentioned. Why he made them rock escapes me though and appears to be what puts most people off. (I’ve not seen it – I don’t get to see movies often so I’m going to Captain America instead)

  12. TataniaAvalon says:

    So my pet peeve with Noah is the myth of two of every kind. Do your research people! It’s
    ” of every clean beast thou shall take to the by sevens, male and female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female.
    Of fowls also of the air by sevens” Genesis 7:2-3
    See not two of every kind more like seven. Okay rant over.

  13. I absolutely hated the film. Thanks for the review though. It helps challenge my contrary opinions. My brother who was with me liked it a lot and was shocked that I so passionately revolted against it:-)

  14. Tatania, the flood story as we have it in Genesis appears to have been combined from two different sources. One of them distinguishes between clean and unclean animals, a priestly/sacrificial distinction that isn’t really valid until later. Obviously if you’re going to offer sacrifice, you can’t take only two animals.
    The other source, however, does not include sacrifice; consequently, the animals are taken in only two-by-two, without exception.

    “And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. (Gen 6:19-20 NRS)

    It’s understandable why most readers would understand the two-by-two, I think.

  15. Christian J says:

    RJ, appreciated the review and I’m also really surprised at the defensiveness. I don’t understand a faith – even the fundy variety – that would hinge on the Noah account.

  16. marginalizedmormon says:

    Thank you, Kevin Barney, for taking the time to tell me that.

    Those of us who have a concern about this will have to suspend our connection to ‘scriptures’ to enjoy the movie. I have a feeling those I care about would like to see the movie (including myself).

  17. jimbob – Ha! Fair enough, I can see that. (Maybe it helped that I’d never actually watched The Shining.) Also – aside from a Lorax-y moment in the beginning, I didn’t get that the environmental sins were the primary evil, but maybe just a symptom thereof.

    Villate – Try to watch it on a big screen TV. It’s a visual spectacle.

    marginalizedmormon – I admit that concern never occurred to me because, as Kevin said, the movie doesn’t draw any connection between Ham and blacks. I think in order to be offended, one would have to a) take it as a given that blacks are the literal descendants of Ham (not something many folks do in this century) and b) ignore the fact that Ham is a sympathetic character in the movie.

  18. marginalizedmormon says:

    Thank you, too, Rebecca J. This really helps.

  19. Just saw it and was pretty pleased. The scene with the ents fighting orcs at Isengard was annoying simply because I don’t like the Peter Jackson touch, but as a modern version of an ancient myth, it was great. Some really interesting ideas.

  20. For example, it does include Noah’s cursing of Ham, but done in a way that was really interesting.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,515 other followers