The ‘Noah’ Movie Controversies: Questions and Answers
The Register’s film critic offers perspective on the arguments and allegations around the new movie about the story of the flood.
The punning headlines write themselves: “Noah Awash in Flood of Controversy.” “Deluge of Criticism Inundates Filmmakers.” In the weeks preceding the release of Noah, controversy has swirled around the film — and will no doubt continue to do so in the weeks ahead.
Does Noah replace the biblical theme of judgment of sin with environmental themes? Is Noah a radical environmentalist? Does the movie mention God at all? Is the director an atheist? Why are there giant rock monsters? And so on.
I touched on some of these questions in my review of the film (and my interview with writer-director Darren Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel). Others kept coming up in the combox. Eventually, I decided another article was warranted to provide additional perspective on the questions around the film.
Whether you decide to see Noah or not, this article may be helpful to you in sorting through the claims and counter-claims being made about the film. (I’ll try to keep things as spoiler-free as possible.)
Does Noah follow the biblical story or not?
There are really two questions here: First, what does the film add to the biblical story? Second, what does the film take away from the biblical story?
Adding to the story is normal and expected in any biblical adaptation or any adaptation of any literary source material. Virtually all Bible movies add or elaborate upon characters, dialogue, motivations and other elements, either to help clarify the story, to imagine how it could have been or for other artistic reasons.
Obviously, not all additions or elaborations are comparable. There is a difference between adding dramatic color to a story and adding so much drama that you’re essentially telling a new story. Yet as long as the key events of the original story aren’t taken away, the merits or demerits of even substantial additions are largely in the area of taste and personal interest.
Taking away from the story is more problematic. A biblical film that takes away significant elements of the source material may weaken or even subvert the story. Any biblical film should preserve the core elements of the story it adapts — not necessarily every detail, but the essential points.
Noah adds a great deal of drama to the flood story — so much so that, in the second half, it is essentially telling another story along with, or on top of, the biblical story. Still, the essential elements of the flood story in Genesis are generally preserved, with some caveats.
That’s not to say everyone will appreciate this retelling. Aronofsky is not a populist filmmaker; he doesn’t make movies for everyone. His work is generally dark, divisive and personal, and Noah is no exception. The story Aronofsky tells alongside the flood story of Genesis is provocative and disturbing — one that, as I noted in my review, stretches the biblical text to the breaking point. For many viewers, as I said, this will be a bridge too far. Others will appreciate the seriousness with which Aronofsky deals with moral and religious issues, including Noah’s efforts to be faithful to God at any cost.
How does the film follow or not follow the essential elements of the flood story?
Key elements of the flood story in Genesis preserved in the film include the following. (If you know the flood story, none of this is a spoiler, unless you want to discover for yourself what the film preserves or omits.)
- The story takes place 10 generations from Adam. (The six days of creation are seen in flashbacks, along with Adam and Eve, the serpent, the forbidden fruit, Cain murdering Abel and the city founded by Cain. Enoch, who “walked with God,” is mentioned, and Methuselah appears in the story.)
- Human wickedness and violence are widespread, even ubiquitous. (See below.)
- Noah is “righteous in his generation.” (This needs unpacking; see below.)
- Noah receives revelations regarding God’s intention to wipe out life on earth and the ark Noah is to build to preserve life.
- The animals come to the ark of their own accord, presumably summoned by God. (Noah’s efforts are attended by other miracles as well.)
- The flood wipes out all life on earth outside the ark. Only Noah and his family — eight in all — survive.
- The rainbow effect, like the flood itself, is persuasively presented as a heavenly sign rather than a natural phenomenon (though its interpretation is given by Noah, not God).
- The film also depicts Ham witnessing his father’s postdiluvian drunken nakedness, and Shem and Japeth covering their father. (Nothing more than this happens. Some Bible commentators believe the story euphemistically suggests something far more disturbing, but nothing like these readings happens in the film.)
How does Noah depart from (as opposed to add to) the biblical text? Mostly, in minor ways:
- The biblical order of events is not always followed. For example, the birds are sent out before, not after, the ark comes to rest on the mountain. (Also, one of Noah’s sons, not Noah himself, sends them out.)
- The film doesn’t depict the sacrifices Noah offers after the flood, though it also doesn’t say Noah didn’t offer sacrifices. (If you watch the animals closely, you may spot more than two of some species, foreshadowing the sacrifice.)
- Since the film depicts God communicating with Noah through signs and visions, God’s will and actions are a matter of interpretation. (For example, it’s impossible to prove that the animals were miraculously summoned by God — though, for that matter, Genesis doesn’t say they were either.)
Two more substantial issues will be more controversial:
- While Noah is more righteous than his contemporaries (“righteous in his generation”), he follows a disturbing course of action he believes to be God’s will. Noah’s understanding of God’s will is not always clear, and for a key part of the story, he believes God wants him to do something appalling. While this is not contrary to the biblical text (and while God actually does command other people in Scripture to do similar things), some will not appreciate this disturbing portrait of Noah.
- Without getting into major spoilers, as the drama unfolds, the exact cast of characters on the ark is somewhat fuzzy. However, as my review notes, “in the end, the filmmakers can claim to have satisfied the text — just barely.” (Moderate spoiler warning: While on the ark, not all of Noah’s three sons are married. However, the film has not forgotten their wives, or the ones they will marry.)
These caveats noted, the film generally preserves the essential points of the biblical story, while also adding a great deal of drama not found in Genesis.
Does Noah present the flood as punishment for wickedness — or as punishment for despoiling the environment?
Both. That is, despoiling the environment is presented as part of a larger pattern of sinful behavior. Wickedness in general, man’s inhumanity to man and impiety against God are all themes in the film, along with environmental concerns.
How does the film deal with wickedness and sin?
- Violence — the one sin specifically mentioned in the flood story — is a major theme.
- The film shows Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, choosing, in Noah’s words, “the temptation of darkness” over “the blessing of light.”
- Cain murdering Abel is presented as emblematic of human wickedness.
- The city founded by Cain becomes a nightmarish center of iniquity. Both Noah and Ham witness people being abused in horrific ways. Noah and his family are presented as the last of the righteous line of Seth.
- The film’s embodiment of evil is the villainous Tubal-cain, king of the Cainite civilization. Tubal-cain acknowledges God’s existence, but he is angry at him and defies him. “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” Tubal-cain says, but “by his will.” He also boasts of being like God in having power over life and death. For Tubal-cain, to be a man is equivalent to being able and willing to kill.
Here is how Noah describes the justice of God’s judgment:
“For 10 generations since Adam, sin has walked within us. Brother against brother, nation against nation, man against creation. We murdered each other. We broke the world.”
Environmental concerns are certainly notable here, but they are not pitted against concerns about wickedness and violence.
How are environmental themes depicted? Is Noah a radical environmentalist?
Following sources such as the Old Testament-era book of Enoch, the film depicts the Cainite civilization as a depraved but technologically developed society (with know-how derived from the Watchers; see below), here represented as having reduced the world around them to a blasted, Mordor-like waste. By contrast, Noah and his family live simple, nomadic lives. This contrast between corrupt cities and virtuous nomads converges with themes in Genesis, although the environmental themes are not in Scripture.
Noah’s first words in the film are to his son Ham, correcting him for picking a tiny flower because it’s pretty. Noah explains that all living things have a purpose, and men should take only what they need and can use. This tendentious exchange strikes an unfortunate note on which to introduce Noah. On the other hand, Noah has no problem felling thousands of trees to build the ark.
While environmental themes can be heavy-handed, they don’t replace or negate the moral themes of sin and rebellion against God. They are also broadly consistent with the biblical principle “In the beginning, God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2402).
Is Noah a vegetarian?
In keeping with Genesis, Noah and his family do not hunt or eat animals. Prior to the flood, mankind (and animals) had permission from God to eat plants and fruit, but permission to eat animals was given to human beings only after the flood. (Extrapolating from this principle, the film depicts the wicked sons of Cain, who break God’s law in so many other ways, hunting and eating animals when God has not permitted this.)
Does the film depict animals as better than people?
Animals are described in the film as “innocent,” because they live “as they did in the garden.” Human beings are said to have been made by the Creator “in his image.” Both Noah’s father Lamech and Noah say this. However, the original sin and its effects loom larger than man’s dignity or the imago Dei.
As my review notes, the film’s most serious theological drawback is its lack of a clear vision in Genesis of man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Noah’s retelling of Genesis 1 somewhat demotes man from his privileged place in the sequence of creation (culminating in the summary benediction, “God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good”), and rushes to temptation and the Fall.
For Noah (and Lamech), to be in God’s image is strongly associated with man’s responsibility as stewards of creation. Only the villain, Tubal-cain, speaks of the “greatness” of man, though he has a distorted idea of it.
Even more than the added environmental themes, the lack of a clear vision of man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work is a mark of the film’s contemporary perspective, an implicit naturalism at odds with Genesis and the Bible as a whole.
Is the writer-director a self-described atheist?
Yes, but many moving stories about religious subjects or with religious themes have been told by storytellers who were not believers. Consider Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Consider such films as A Man for All Seasons (1966), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), The Mission (1986), Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) and Of Gods and Men (2010) — all written or directed by non-Christians or atheists.
What matters about Aronofsky with respect to Noah is not that he is an atheist, but that he cares about the story of Noah and has for a long time. Aronofsky’s father taught at a yeshiva school, and he was brought up with a Jewish education. Although he is not a believing or practicing Jew, he is not out to dishonor the book of Genesis.
Does Noah avoid mentioning God?
This is the silliest controversy around the film.
God is a constant presence in Noah. Noah’s visions of the flood and the ark, the gathering of the animals, the flood itself and the rainbow are all from God. God’s existence is taken for granted by everyone, even the villain.
The sole issue, if you can call it that, is that characters in Noah generally speak, not of “God,” but of “the Creator.” It’s hard to imagine anyone considering this controversial or problematic, but for some reason the claim that “God is never mentioned” in the film refuses to die.
Why call God “the Creator”? For several reasons. A slightly less familiar term helps create a sense of a bygone era, a cultural world remote from our own. When Christians (and Jews) hear “God,” they can hardly help thinking of the Lord who called Abraham and chose Israel, who delivered his people from Egypt, and so on. Noah’s God hasn’t done any of those things. Using a less familiar term for him helps us appreciate this. It also helps nonbelievers watching the film to prescind from their own views and enter the worldview of the characters.
Calling God “the Creator” emphasizes God’s identity as the maker of all things, an especially noteworthy emphasis so close to the time of creation. It highlights that God is not just a big boss in the sky, but the One on whom all that is depends for its existence.
Finally, my friend Peter Chattaway reminds us (in a blog post on this very question) that, in Jewish piety, not only is the divine Name never spoken — with circumlocutions like “the Lord” or even “The Name” (Adonai, HaShem) used instead — the very word “God” is sometimes written “G-d” out of respect. Noah’s general avoidance of “God” can thus be seen as convergent with Jewish piety (particularly given Aronofsky’s Jewish background).
Who or what are the Watchers? Are they the same as the Nephilim in Genesis 6? Why are they giant rock monsters?
In Genesis 6:1-4 we read:
When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair; and they took to wife such of them as they chose. … The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown.
The word Nephilim is sometimes translated “giants”; etymologically, it may mean something like “fallen ones.” Who the Nephilim are depends on who the “sons of God” are. Basically, there are two main interpretations.
One view holds that the “sons of God” are angels — fallen angels who couple with human women, producing demi-angelic offspring, the giant Nephilim. This view is endorsed by the Old Testament-era books of Enoch and Jubilees. (These books are not canonical, although Enoch is quoted in the New Testament book of Jude.)
The other view holds that the “sons of God” are descendants of the righteous line of Seth, while the “daughters of men” are offspring of the corrupt civilization of Cain. On this theory, the Nephilim are warriors, not giants.
Both interpretations have strengths and weaknesses, and the film borrows from both. On the one hand, it differentiates between the wicked line of Cain and the righteous line of Seth (culminating in Noah’s family). On the other hand, it depicts angels of light literally falling from the heavens and crash-landing on Earth, where, in punishment for having disobeyed God, their bodies of light merge with the stuff of earth, becoming imprisoned in rock.
Thus, the fallen angels effectively become the “Nephilim” (though this word isn’t used) or giants. Aronofsky doesn’t delve into the theme of the “sons of God” coupling with the “daughters of men,” although Ham (a “son of God” on the other reading) does seek out a wife from a Cainite city (a “daughter of men”), and the rock-monster Watchers are in a very different way hybrid creatures of heaven and earth.
In Enoch, both good and bad angels are called “Watchers.” The bad Watchers reveal to men secrets of technology, leading to men with arms (swords, shields, breastplates) and women with ornaments (bracelets, makeup, precious stones), with violence and fornication following. Noah likewise depicts the Watchers building up the Cainite civilization with technological knowledge.
Aronofsky’s Watchers are not fallen angels in the Christian sense, demonic rebels who hate God and human beings. In fact, their disobedience to God comes about through pity for fallen mankind, whom God has consigned to live “by the sweat of his brow.” The Watchers came to Earth to help mankind with technological knowledge, which men turned to evil purposes, resulting in the corrupt civilization of Cain — thus vindicating God’s original discipline and exposing the error of the Watchers’ misguided compassion.
This picture of the Watchers disobeying God out of misguided compassion for mankind contrasts strikingly with a traditional Judeo-Christian idea claiming envy of mankind as the motivation for Satan tempting Adam and Eve in the garden. However, Noah does not link the Watchers to the serpent in the garden. In my review, I suggested that they could be thought of as a fictional class of semi-fallen angels, ones who disobeyed God out of misguided good intentions, and thus not wholly corrupted or evil. (Other movies, including classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, have taken creative license with angelology.)
Should Christians see Noah?
Noah is not a movie for everybody, and not all Christians will want to see it. At the same time, there is no reason all Christians, as Christians, should avoid seeing it. It is a movie with notable strengths and drawbacks — one that some will find off-putting and others will appreciate. My review, my interview with Aronofsky and his co-writer and this article are intended to help readers figure out which group they’re likely to fall into, as well as to help those who do see the film think through the issues the film raises.
Correction: This article originally stated that while God is usually called “the Creator,” “the Creator actually is referred to as ‘God’ at least once, when Ham tells Tubal-cain, ‘My father says there can be no king; the Creator is God.’” That’s how I and a number of others heard the line in question in screenings while sound levels were still being tweaked; however, after watching Noah again recently, I now believe we misheard the line. The correct line, I believe, is “My father says there can be no king in the Creator’s garden.” I regret this error, though the larger point remains that there are good reasons for the film’s usage of “the Creator,” and the whole controversy is a silly one. —SDG