From what I remember learning in catechism class, the entire story of Noah’s Ark is chronicled in only four chapters of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and its plot-line is simple: Noah, after receiving detailed instructions from Mister Almighty, builds an ark to act as a safe-house against the Great Flood for his family and all the world’s animals. Although I’m sure there is more to the story than that, I’m not sure how Darren Aronofsky, with Noah (2014), successfully adapted four brief chapters of ancient text into a 136min Hollywood epic. Maybe Aronofsky was raised as an inquiring Jewish boy and knows a more detailed version of the Noah’s Ark story than the one I, who was raised as an unquestioning Catholic boy, know.
But it’s more likely that, in the telling of his Noah tale, Aronofsky made a series of fabrications and additions to the film’s biblical source material to fully express his vision. . . and to meet the demands of Hollywood producers and the special-effect addicted modern movie-goer. Directors of big-budget epics — whether it was Michael Bay with Pearl Harbor (2001) or Zach Snyder with 300 (2007) — are practically required to adapt their particular historic tales in a way that either perverts or ignores the source material in which their stories are based. And when such movies are attacked critically, it is the historically inaccurate alterations that are targeted and the director who made them that bleeds.
Blaming the failure of these films on any given director’s adaptation choices, however, is not only lazy but also irrational. Bay’s Pearl Harbor and Snyder’s 300 are critical failures not because of their historical inaccuracy, but rather because they do little more than highlight an array of one-dimensional characters speaking lines better suited for energy drink commercials. All the greatest book to film adaptations — such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Fight Club (1999), The Graduate (1967), Blade Runner (1982), The Long Goodbye (1973), and 2001: Space Odyssey (1968) — are, like Noah, far removed from the source material that inspired them. While Noah doesn’t deserve to be compared to those great films, it does, like them, prove that a good adaptation is rarely an accurate adaptation.
I believe, since I was raised as a Catholic cinephile, that it is a cinematic sin to critically attack a book to film adaptation because its director took creative liberties. Just as a Double O agent has a license to kill, a director has a license to reinterpret. Different mediums require different approaches. When you go to the South of France, you don’t expect every starry night to look like a Van Gogh painting. . . so when you go to a Daniel Craig Bond movie, you shouldn’t expect the color of his hair to match the description in Ian Fleming’s novels. It is, in fact, Aronofsky’s unique interpretation of the Noah’s Ark story that makes his film one of the better biblical epics to ever come out of Hollywood.
Instead of trying to accurately reproduce the simple Noah’s Ark story in the Book of Geneis, Aronofsky uses it as a vehicle to ask questions. Most critics have focused entirely on the biblical questions inherent to the film — questions about sin and righteousness, survival and sacrifice, faith and reason, God and Man, life and death, judgment and mercy — but I believe that although these biblical questions are important to the story they are not what makes Noah a good film. What makes Noah good is the questions it asks viewers to answer about spirituality and animality — and how the artist responds to these two contrasting, yet equally present forces that exist within all of us.
While Aronofsky does provide some answers to these questions, he isn’t confident in his answers. The answers he provides — much like the original story of Noah’s Ark — have many holes and inconsistencies in them. But unlike the Book of Genesis and those who take it too literally, Aronofsky not only acknowledges these holes and inconsistencies, but he actually, if you look through the fog of distracting Hollywood CGI, points them out to his viewers. . . and then assists in the exploration of them by turning each character into a sort of symbol. He has the character of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) symbolize the spirituality of Man and has Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) symbolize the animality of Man. And then there is Noah (Russell Crowe), the artist who, like Aronofsky himself, must respond to these opposing forces. Aronofsky responds with his film, and Noah responds with his Ark.
The spiritual Methuselah is Noah’s great-grandfather. According to the bible, he lived 960 years. Theoretically, it is because he was born before Adam and Eve introduced sin that Mister Almighty’s shortening of the human lifespan didn’t affect him. As the last sinless human-being, Methuselah, as you can imagine, has a dull existence. Aronofsky shows him living alone in a cave atop a mountain where he spends his time napping and cravings berries. But, because of the spiritual wisdom that naturally accompanies his old-age, he is the one who supplies Noah, the artist, with the inspiration needed to create his masterpiece. “Remember Noah,” he says after handing him the seed from the Garden of Eden which produces the trees needed to build the Ark, “God chose you for a reason.”
If Methuselah symbolizes the spirituality that inspires great artists to create their great works, Tubal-Cain symbolizes the animality that drives them to complete their great works . He is a beastly man with an unrelenting desire for meat and women, and he both welds and wields weapons in order to quench his desires. Aronofsky depicts Tubal-Cain as an industrializing individualist — a man who proclaims that “We are abandoned, orphan children damned to live by the sweet of our brow.” He destroys the earth by mining the metal to make his weapons, and he kills any creature, including his fellow man, to satisfy his hunger. “The beasts are for us,” he says. “The Creator needed something to take dominion over this world and subdue it, so He made us in His image.”
Noah, an environmentalist and vegan, views Tubal-Cain, who murders his father at the start of the film, as his nemesis. And when Noah learns that Mister Almighty is going to send the Great Flood to cleanse the Earth of corrupted men like Tubal-Cain, he is eager to do his part. His eagerness, however, is not spiritual in nature. It is rooted in revenge which is, as anyone who has ever worked in the fast-food industry and defiled a self-entitled customer’s sandwich knows, a defining and uncontrollable trait of our animality. It is because of Noah’s spirituality that he receives God’s message and becomes inspired to build the Ark, but it is because of his animality that his desire for revenge gives him the drive needed to complete his task. Noah, like us all, has both of these opposing forces living inside him.
But unlike most of us, he is a great artist who, in order to create his great masterpiece, must embrace the bio-polar nature of his existence. Noah realizes this when he sneaks into Tubal-Cain’s camp to seek-out and recruit a fertile female to accompany his horny teenage son, Ham (Logan Lerman), on the Ark. While all of the people in the camp come off as beasts far more savage and inhumane than any animal, Noah focuses on a man who pulls a leg off a live lamb and begins to tear its flesh apart with his teeth. This man, in what is perhaps the most uniquely Aronofsky visual of the film, turns with blood dripping from his face and reveals himself to Noah as Noah himself. It is at this moment he realizes that “The wickedness is not just in them” but that “it’s in all of us,” and that in order to fulfill the spiritual task God gave him, he must embrace his inner animal and have no mercy on mankind.
He returns to the Ark womanless, and he even leaves a young girl for dead who Ham personally tries to rescue from the Great Flood. Noah says he is sorry but “we have been entrusted with a task much greater than our desires,” and for the remainder of the film he dismisses his family’s pleas and dedicates himself to ensuring that mankind will end and that only the animals will live on. When Noah reveals his intentions to kill the child that, by way of a miracle, his oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) is going to have with his daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson), his family turns against him. “I thought you were good,” says Shem. “I thought that was why He chose you.” To which Noah replies, “He chose me because He knew I would complete the task. Nothing more.”
By this point in the film, Aronofsky has turned Noah into a mad artist on a mission. In the Book of Genesis Noah is a saintly figure that can do no wrong, but in Noah he is a selfish visionary who is willing to do anything, even if it means committing the same sins he persecutes Tubal-Cain for, in order to fully realize his vision and the task he believes God has given him. Like most of Aronofsky’s previous protagonists — Maximillian Cohen in Pi (1998), Tom Creo in The Fountain (2006), Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler (2008), and Nina Sayers in Black Swan (2010) — Noah is willing to sacrifice everything, including himself, to complete his masterpiece and all that it entails. Even Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his wife and the unconditionally loving mother of his children, cannot convince him otherwise.
Because of this reoccurring character of the mad artist in Aronofksy’s films, I view the director himself as such a character. If he isn’t a mad artist, he wouldn’t be able to depict the madness of Noah so convincingly. And the same is true with all of his masterpiece seeking protagonists. Why, then, is Noah only a good film and nowhere close to being the masterpiece most of his other films are? The answer is obvious: Just as Noah failed to realize his vision with the Ark — he wasn’t able to kill the twins Ila gave birth to and mankind lived on as a result — Aronofsky failed to fully realize his vision with his film.
Both characters had barriers they couldn’t overcome. Noah gave in to the pressures of his family, and Aronofsky gave in to the pressures of Hollywood — there are reports that the studio executives at Paramount made around a half dozen alternate cuts to his film, and while none of them made it to the big screen, I am sure they hindered his vision. Ultimately, I believe both artists failed. . . but you could argue otherwise. You could argue that Naameh is right when she tells Noah, “The choice was put in your hands because He put it there,” and that God wanted Noah to sell out to his heart and give mankind a second chance all along. You could even argue that Aronofsky, in selling Noah out to Hollywood, made the right choice because it allowed him to bring his vision, though only partially realized, to the masses who missed out on his other films, his masterpieces.