The story of Noah and the Flood is one of the most easily recognized stories in the world, but it hasn't had a whole lot of attention on the big screen—until now, thanks to Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which may be the first feature-length film made for the big screen that devotes its entire running time to Noah's story. (Here's my interview with director Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel.)
The biblical version of the story is fairly brief, so filmmakers who have tackled it in the past have tended to do so either as part of a larger treatment of the early chapters of Genesis, or by pairing it with a completely modern story. They have also tended to pad the story out with elements borrowed from other parts of the Bible.
Filmmakers have turned to the Bible for source material since the earliest days of the silent era, back in the late 19th century. The films they made were usually quite short and often reflected the religious iconography that was popular at the time. Little emphasis was placed on turning the stories into theatrical dramas, per se, let alone on making things "realistic."
Towards the end of this period—just as Hollywood was making the transition from silent films to sound—Warner Brothers produced a film called Noah's Ark (1928).
Based on a script by Daryl F. Zanuck, and plagued by rumours that a few of the extras died while shooting the Flood sequences, it was one of the first American films directed by a Hungarian named Michael Curtiz, who would go on to become famous as the director of films like Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and the Elvis-starring King Creole.
Like a number of silent films—such as D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)—Noah's Ark combined the biblical story with a story set in the modern world, to allow the Bible to comment on modern issues.
Set during World War I, and produced one year before the stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression, Noah's Ark takes aim at the modern belief in military and economic might, and draws an explicit connection between the skyscrapers of our age and the Tower of Babel.
At one point the film tells us that the Flood "was a Deluge of Water drowning a World of Lust," while the war was "a Deluge of Blood drowning a World of Hate!" The film ends with a suggestion—poignant, in retrospect—that, just as the rainbow promised no more global floods, so too there would be no more wars like the one that had just been fought.
The story of Noah itself is enhanced with details that are borrowed liberally from the biblical stories of Moses and others. Noah, for example, has to walk up a mountain to receive his first message from God, and when he does, he witnesses a burning bush.
Several years later, the Noah story surfaced again in Green Pastures (1936), which told several Bible stories in a sort of African-American idiom, with an all-black cast acting out the stories while a preacher tells them to the kids in his church.
While some elements in this film reflect the stereotypes of their day, the film itself follows God—here called "De Lawd"—on an interesting journey from his wrath at the beginning of the Bible to the mercy that is ultimately expressed through Jesus and prophets like Hosea. Along the way, there is a sequence in which De Lawd asks a preacher named Noah to build an Ark.