Noah: Literary Fiction of Biblical Proportions
Flood epics litter Ancient literature, describing in various fashions G-d’s destruction and reconstruction of the world. Much like the story recorded in our Bible, these accounts often involve G-d choosing one man to survive the apocalypse and a few careful changes to ensure the new world necessitates no further destruction. These stories focus on the flood itself and G-d’s role in changing, perhaps even recreating, the world. Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, although it involves the story of a flood, would not directly fall into this genre of flood epics. In accordance with its title, the movie revolves around the character Noah. While the flood occupies a large place in furthering the film’s plot, the film conveys its themes and messages through the exploration of its title character.
The movie’s Biblical grounding created a storm (pun intended) of controversy. Many religious Christian groups have strongly denounced the movie for its inaccuracies. Although much of Noah follows the text of the Bible, either closely or often imaginatively, at times it clearly strays from the text, rendering it Biblical fiction—a movie based on the Biblical narrative of Noah but not entirely accurate to this narrative. The movie succeeds greatly in both the Biblical realm and the fictional, offering new perspectives on the Bible (despite its liberties with the text, the movie sheds light on the simple meaning of the story and its characters) and creating a thought-provoking and moving piece of fiction.
The overall plot of the movie remains similar to our Noah story. G-d wishes to destroy the world, so he commands Noah to build an ark and save the animals. True to form, the Torah remains terse about the details of this story, allowing Aronofsky the opportunity to fill these details by creating an engrossing story with complex characters. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel attempted to tie most of these embellishments to Biblical roots, sometimes mimicking a tactic Midrashim employ (Aronofsky enjoys calling his film a Midrash), using characters or plots mentioned elsewhere to fill the holes of his story. The most jarring element the film introduces comes in the form of giant rock monsters called “the Watchers.” Though they may seem wholly fictional, the Torah mentions “Nephilim” (Genesis 6:8) who roamed the land before the flood, remaining vague about any further details regarding these creatures. Aronofsky reimagines these creatures as merciful angels descended from the heavens to help the humans. Like G-d, they too become disappointed in the conduct of humans, causing their mercy to fade. They represent a thematic foil to the themes of mercy and justice carried throughout the film.
Noah builds his ark with the help of these “Watchers” angering the society around him. This society, led by the villain Tubal-Cain, lives up to its infamy, performing many immoral and often gory acts of violence to humans and animals. Aronofsky’s Noah passionately believes in environmentalism and the respectful way we must interact with the plants and animals around us. The villainous society betrays far more than Noah’s environmentalist beliefs, committing sins greater than simply the misuse of land or plants. Here Aronosky invokes pacifist themes and gut-churning shots of animal cruelty. Despite this seeming black-and-white conflict between the evil Tubal-Cain and the righteous Noah, the movie creates characters and conflicts whose subtlety and complexity will lead the viewer to question this dichotomy.
Aronofsky achieves this goal using the Rambam’s view on prophecy, which believes visions from G-d arrive in the form of dreams. In Noah’s case, these dreams remain undescriptive and require Noah to fill in the blanks. This concept lends the movie its great moral and religious depth. Tubal-Cain and Noah, the leaders of their generation, both seek religious insight in a world where G-d remains silent. G-d speaks cryptically to Noah and he attempts to understand this message, while Tubal-Cain seeks to uncover the meaning of G-d’s silence. Both characters strive to interpret these messages and fulfill their perceived will of G-d, struggles which are almost too relatable from a religious perspective.
The movie portrays many different shades of religious life. The overhead scenes of animals entering the ark leave the viewer breathless, evoking awe-inspiring and majestic beauty. The film also portrays the more difficult and lonely aspects of religious life through Noah’s struggle as the sole bearer of G-d’s prophecy. The movie details the loss and hardships Noah and his family must encounter watching humanity crumble around them while they alone survive. The exploration of this aspect of the flood forms the basis for a large portion of the movie’s plot and themes.
When reading the story of Noah in the Torah, readers often perceive this facet of Noah’s life involving the relationship he and his family developed with the surrounding peoples differently and more simply, sometimes overlooking it entirely. The movie succeeds in shining a new light on this Biblical story—opening readers’ eyes to previously unseen complexities and tensions within the story, thereby granting new depth and meaning to the narrative. The film’s greatest contribution though, lies in its qualities as a stand-alone piece of literature. Though it leaves some questions unresolved and a world that we do not fully understand, the movie uses its Biblical roots to create and explore deep religious questions and complex characters. Due to its Biblical ties, the viewer may find many scenes discomforting because they question assumptions the viewer may hold. But literature’s strength lies in its ability to question our previous understandings and shed new light on the world and the people around us, and Noah succeeds profoundly in these categories.