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Screenwriter, director, and producer Darren Aronofsky is known for dark, edgy independent films that center on characters with obsessive and self-destructive personalities: the drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream, for example, or the ballet dancer in Black Swan, the latter of which earned Aronofsky an Oscar nomination (and an actual win for the film's star, Natalie Portman).
But Aronofsky has also explored religious themes in films like Pi and The Fountain, which played on Jewish mysticism and Edenic imagery, respectively. Now the director, who was raised culturally Jewish, has made a full-fledged biblical epic with Noah, a $125 million-budget film that puts an unorthodox spin on one of the most familiar stories from Scripture. While Noah and the animals on the Ark have often been played for laughs on the big screen (e.g. Evan Almighty), Aronofsky considers the Flood "the first apocalypse story," and his film underscores the psychological toll it takes on Noah (played by Russell Crowe) and his family (Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins, among others). Aronofsky sees his interpretation of the Genesis story as part of the midrash tradition, in which Jewish teachers create stories meant to explain the deeper truths of the Tanakh.
Aronofsky and co-writer and -producer Ari Handel spoke with Christianity Today at a screening room in New York City a few weeks before the film's release date. The following is an edited version of their conversation with Peter Chattaway, who has a forthcoming CT print essay on 2014 Bible movies.
I was struck by how your film addresses justice and mercy.
Darren Aronofsky: That was a big part of the movie for us. When Ari and I started working on the project and started reading the Bible over and over, there's this term where they call Noah "righteous," so what does that word mean? There are a lot of ways to define it. So we started talking to a lot of people, a lot of the different theologians and scholars, and looking it up and trying to understand it. We came upon this idea that "righteous" is a perfect balance of justice and mercy.
Ari put it a good way by defining it—since we're both parents—as this: If you're a parent with too much justice, you destroy your child with strictness. And if you're a parent with too much mercy, you destroy them with leniency. So being a really good parent is about finding that balance, which I think is in the story of Noah. Actually, it's similar to the story that God goes through. At the beginning of the story of Noah, he wants justice, and by the end he [offers] mercy through the rainbow, and grace. It was that balance that interested us.
Multiple characters in Noah are trying to imitate God. Noah is trying to follow the will of God as he understands it, and that means possibly going too far, but Tubal-Cain, the film's villain, also says a couple times, "I'm made in God's image too."
DA: The normal way to go with this, in a movie, is the bad guy wouldn't believe in God; but of course, the bad guy in Noah does believe in God, because they're ten generations descended from Adam, so creation is a recent memory for all these characters. So of course God exists.
What's reported in Genesis, after the mark of Cain, is that God doesn't show up until he calls Noah. So from Tubal-Cain's point of view, he thinks, "Well, God's left us alone, and now we messed things up and now he wants to come back and punish us?" He's a little upset, and I think Ray [Winstone, who plays Tubal-Cain] was like, "I'm a latchkey kid and I've burned down the kitchen, and now Dad's mad at me." That's the way he perceived it. But it was very important that his character always believed in God.
In developing the script, you have the biblical text, obviously. What attention did you pay to other sources, such as the Book of Enoch [an extrabiblical Jewish source traditionally attributed to Noah's great-grandfather]?
Ari Handel: We read a lot. We read Enoch, we read the Jubilees, we read a lot of midrash [Jewish literature that explains Torah], we read a lot of different legends, and in midrashic tradition, there are tons of competing stories and legends and ideas circulating.
Some of those extrabiblical stories posit that God wanted to wipe out everybody, including Noah.
AH: I don't remember seeing that specifically, but almost every idea you can imagine is floated, because they're all debated. Certainly, the righteousness of Noah and what that means is something that people have thought about a lot.
DA: There's that one line, he's "righteous in his generation" [Gen. 6:9].
AH: And a lot of people have said that, compared to some prophets of later generations, Noah would not have been righteous. Particularly compared to Abraham.
DA: Abraham pled with God [on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah]. He said let me go and try to save humanity.
AH: He said, "Don't, don't. What if there are 50 righteous men? What if there are 10?" But Noah didn't say, "God, don't." Noah just built the boat. So it's not that he was a bad man, but where was the mercy in that? Whereas Abraham was merciful. So a lot of people have been exploring these ideas, to try to make sense of the tale. We tried to read everything we could.
DA: Is it okay that we're getting so theological?
DA: Oh good. What intrigued me and Ari was that Noah is the fourth story in the Bible. You have creation, original sin, the first murder, and then it jumps forward and everything's terrible, and God wants to start over again. What was clear to us was that Noah is a descendant of original sin. There are three sons, and he's a descendant of Seth, so his ancestors are Adam and Eve, so he has that inside him. That brought to us this weird question: Why restart if that possibility [of being sinful] is still there? Man still has the possibility of being tempted.
AH: Especially because you finish reading Noah and all the wicked people have been wiped out, and one family survived, and you flip the page and it's Babel. So it immediately raises the question, what does that mean? If you look at the context of the story within the Bible, what is that trying to say about the sinfulness and wickedness within us? That was what we had to explore, not the good guys and the bad guys, but both the good and the bad within us.
DA: Within our tradition, being Jews—a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on the biblical story—there isn't anything we're doing that's out of line or out of sync, but within that, you don't want to contradict what's there. In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it.