‘Noah’: The Bible vs. the Blockbuster

Director Darren Aronofsky takes plenty of liberties with the biblical myth, but also brings back parts of the story we've forgotten.

Paramount Pictures; Shutterstock

With Noah, Darren Aronofsky has made a surprisingly good movie about a man who saves his family and the animal kingdom from a catastrophic worldwide flood. For those who entered the theater expecting to be entertained, and even perhaps made to think, by a cinematic adaptation of a biblical story, they no doubt left happy. For those who expected to see the biblical story rendered into glorious IMAX, every detail preserved exactly as it is told in Genesis, disillusion probably set in around the third minute and lasted until the hundred and thirty-third.

This is the film that will introduce most of the country to the Watchers: fallen angels who, according to Aronofsky’s version, have been encrusted in stone and, with a little persuading, help Noah construct the ark (for giants with gobs of rock for hands, they are extraordinarily dexterous). The Watchers are a very ancient tradition, going back over two thousand years in Jewish and Christian interpretation. But they don’t go as far back as Genesis.

At least the Watchers have a good long pedigree. The same cannot be said for the antagonistic narrative the film creates between Noah and the movie’s villain, Tubal-Cain (a real biblical character, but I never quite pictured him looking so much like he came out of a Mad Max movie). This is the flood story with fight scenes. Plenty of them. Every movie must have its bad guy, I suppose, but in the Bible the only characters in the Flood story are either on the ark or in heaven. And I’m tempted to say that there is already a bad guy in the story.

God doesn’t appear in this movie, at least not directly—probably a safe directing choice. But God doesn’t speak, either, which leads to all sorts of confusion that isn’t present in the biblical narrative, where we know from the start that Noah will be spared in order to do a reboot on humanity. In the Bible we also know that everything—not just humans, but animals too—have become evil and violent, because God says so: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.” This flies somewhat in the face of Aronofsky’s repeated claims in the movie that animals are entirely innocent and require protection.

The film makes some choices that are very good for the movie, but not so good for the Bible. Most notably, all of the animals are magically put to sleep for the entirety of the flood. It’s a smart film-making choice: it eliminates the obvious problems of how the animals refrained from eating each other, of where they got their food from, and where they put their food once they were done digesting it. It also must have diminished significantly the CGI budget, as well as removed an intolerable amount of background noise. But in the Bible, Noah brings food on board for the animals—in fact, he brings on some of everything that is eaten. It wasn’t pretty, but Noah’s ark must have been a noisy, smelly, seriously unpleasant place. Whereas Noah’s ark looked like it had potential as a cruise ship for people who like to feel as if they’re “roughing it” a little.

Aronofsky avoids some of the pitfalls of the biblical story with deliberate vagueness. How long does the Flood last? The Bible itself isn’t clear—either 40 days and nights or 150 days, depending on which verse you read. The movie’s flood lasts an indeterminate length, though there is pretty good reason to believe it might be closer to 270 days, if we had to choose a number. The film never says the words “two by two,” though Noah does point out the male and female doves (foreshadowing); certainly no mention is made of God’s other set of instructions, to bring seven pairs of every clean animal, and of every bird. This is again probably for the best on a cinematic level: even with only one pair of every animal, the ark in the movie (despite its impressive size) still doesn’t even come remotely close to appearing large enough to carry its intended load.

The most egregious departure from the biblical story, or at least the most readily apparent to the naked eye, is the ages of the characters. In the Bible, Noah is 600 years old when the Flood comes, and his sons are almost a hundred years old. Everyone understands the filmmaker’s choice here: the cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was probably unavailable. But Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly look like they could (and should) still be having kids.

Along the same lines, the Bible tells us that Noah’s three sons took their wives onto the ark with them. The lack of mates for these three males is one of the driving narrative elements of the movie, adding a subplot and layer of suspense that, to be honest, the film probably didn’t really need. As if the death of all living creatures wasn’t dramatic enough. (Though, not to spoil anything, Aronofsky does a very clever job of getting Noah’s sons’ wives onto the ark.)

One could pick on other little differences were one so inclined. It takes 10 years for Noah to build the ark in the movie, whereas in the Bible he gets seven days (and does it, by God!). In the film, Noah blesses his children with fruitfulness, instead of God doing it. The film leaves open a serious question about the descendants of Ham, Noah’s middle son. And, just eyeballing it here, that ark looked closer to four hundred cubits than the biblically prescribed three hundred.

At the same time, we should point out that this is a deeply, deeply biblical movie. Not only is the speech stuffed full of biblical idiom—almost every sentence can be pegged to a biblical verse—but there are references to parts of the biblical story that don’t usually make it into the kids’ versions. The waters of the flood come from both rain and from the opening of cosmic openings in the heavens and earth—very good indeed. There is both a raven and a dove in the movie, and in that order—perfectly biblical. Immediately after the flood Noah gets stark naked drunk, so that his kids have to cover him with a blanket—yes, that’s what the Bible says.

This is a movie based on a book based on a myth. But it is a fine, insightful, and often quite challenging version of that myth. If the purpose was to make us think about how the biblical story might still speak to us today, that purpose was certainly fulfilled.