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.
Interestingly, while this film does not explicitly depict the drunkenness that took place after the Flood, as described in Genesis 9, it does allude to Noah's love of alcohol when Noah suggests he might need to bring some extra liquor aboard the Ark—for medicinal purposes, you understand, because of all the potential snakebites.
One of the most famous big-screen adaptations of the Noah story came a few decades later, in The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966).
Directed by John Huston—who also plays Noah and provides the voice of God, too—this film covers the first 22 chapters of Genesis, from Creation to Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, and the most striking thing about the Noah sequence is how utterly different it is in tone from the rest of the film.
While the stories about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Abraham and Lot are all treated fairly seriously, the Noah sequence plays like a comedy, as Noah's wife worries about cleaning the house before the Flood comes, or as Noah interacts with the animals. The fact that it is also the first sequence in the film to contain substantially new dialogue—all of it tailored to fit the King James dialogue of the earlier scenes—adds to the effect.
Huston's film was one of the last big-screen Bible epics ever made by a major studio. The biblical genre has been absent from theatres for the most part since then, but a steady stream of Bible-based productions have been made for television, and the story of Noah has come up there a few times, too.
One of the more notable examples is Genesis: The Creation and the Flood (1994), directed by Ermanno Olmi, an Italian best-known for The Tree of the Wooden Clogs. This film was the first installment in a 13-part series known as "The Bible Collection".
But unlike all the subsequent films in that series—which starred well-known actors and had scripts that were conventional in structure and format, sometimes to the point of being downright banal—Genesis plays more like an arthouse film, with a cast of unknowns and a structure that, in its English form at least, relies heavily on a single narrator (Paul Scofield).
Most of the film depicts people living in the wilderness, wearing ancient clothes and living in ancient tents. But in one key moment, the film's depiction of the sinners in Noah's day shifts to a documentary-like depiction of modern wars and environmental devastation, such as the oil wells that were left burning at the end of the first Gulf War.
The narrator also quotes passages such as Psalm 50 throughout the film to underscore how the theme of judgment—but also mercy towards the righteous—is not unique to the story of Noah but runs throughout the Bible.
At the completely opposite end of the artistic and theological spectrum, this was followed a few years later by the two-part Hallmark movie Noah's Ark (1999), which starred Jon Voight as the Ark builder and F. Murray Abraham as Lot. Yes, that Lot.
When this film begins, Noah is a native of the city of Sodom who barely escapes along with his family; the Flood comes several years later. Lot, meanwhile, is a friend of Noah's who also escapes the destruction of Sodom—but he shows up again much, much later, after the Flood has arrived, as a pirate who leads an assault on the Ark.
The original broadcast version of Noah's Ark ran about three hours without commercials; on DVD, it is just over two. And it pads things out with lots of nonsense, from post-modern one-liners ("Up the creek without a rudder") and Singin' in the Rain quotes to a scene in which God decides he might as well destroy Noah's family too, but then Noah starts to dance, which amuses God, so God lets him live after all.
In addition to films that depict the biblical story itself, there have also been a few that modernize the story by imagining what would happen if God asked someone to build an Ark today. The Disney TV-movie Noah (1998), starring Tony Danza, and the big-budget comedy Evan Almighty (2007), starring Steve Carell, are both examples of this.
Neither of those films takes a remotely serious approach to the story. Instead, both films play the story for laughs, and are far more concerned with dads learning to spend more time with their kids than they are with anything resembling themes of divine judgment. The floods in both films are very local, and in Evan Almighty it is caused not by God but by land developers who cut corners when building a new dam.
One interesting development lately has been the way some filmmakers have turned the story of Creation into a tradition that Noah passes on to his family while they are aboard the Ark. This has the effect of underscoring the relationship between the original sin and the sins for which Noah's contemporaries are punished, and also the role that the Flood played in essentially un-doing Creation.
The earliest example of this story device that I am aware of is in the Noah-themed episode of Testament: The Bible in Animation (1996), an excellent British-Russian series of Old Testament stories that was made by the same team that went on to make the equally excellent stop-motion life-of-Jesus film The Miracle Maker (2000).
This episode uses a conventional form of hand-drawn animation for the Noah sequences and a more elaborate style involving digitally-manipulated pictures for the Creation sequence—but when Adam and Eve sin, they are suddenly rendered in the more conventional hand-drawn format. This becomes an interesting way to suggest, artistically, what it might have been like for them to suddenly realize that they are naked.
Something similar happens in Darren Aronofsky's Noah. To explain to his children why God is punishing mankind, Noah tells the story of Creation and the Fall—and this time, we see Adam and Eve rendered as beings who glow with the light of their unfallenness (similar, perhaps, to how Moses glowed after he met with God on Sinai, or how Jesus glowed at his Transfiguration). It is only after Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit that humanity assumes its current, duller form.
The Creation sequence isn't the only nod to other parts of the Bible in Aronofsky's film. There is also a striking moment in which Tubal-Cain—a descendant of Cain mentioned very briefly in Genesis 4, who is depicted here as a sort of early warlord—rallies his troops by shouting, "Men united are invincible!" This clearly echoes what God says about the descendants of Noah who build the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. By alluding to the Babel story, the film acknowledges that, to the extent that God was merciful to Noah and his family, it was with the knowledge that humanity would continue to go on sinning.
In addition, Aronofsky borrows heavily from Jewish traditions that are not exactly part of the canonical Bible, but are sometimes alluded to in the Bible. One key background text for Aronofsky's film, because it gives the name "Watchers" to the fallen angels who share forbidden knowledge with the descendants of Adam and Eve, is the Book of Enoch, which is cited and even directly quoted in the epistles of Peter and Jude.
Aronofsky also alludes to modern issues as well. The film, which has a broadly environmental subtext, depicts the devastation of the planet as an inevitable consequence of the violence of humankind; but it also has a rapid-fire montage in which this violence, and the possibility that the human race will keep on sinning if it survives the Flood, is represented by soldiers in many different kinds of armour—including modern uniforms.
From its big-budget visual effects to its deadly-serious approach to this particular story, Aronofsky's Noah is a highly unusual entry in the Bible-movie genre. But in its creative use of traditions outside of Genesis 6-9, and in its application of the story to the social issues of our time, Aronofsky's film is not unlike the films that came before it.