Noah received a C grade from the Cinemascore audience polling service on its opening weekend, but I can’t imagine many of the polled individuals giving it a mere C. As was the case with The Wolf of Wall Street, the last big controversial wide release to get a C Cinemascore, I imagine there’s a lot of people who gave it very high grades and a lot of people who gave it very low ones, with very few people in the middle. From perusing any internet comments section, it’s clear most of those low grades come from people offended at the very idea of a movie “changing” what’s in the Bible (there’s also a large section of internet commenters offended at the very idea of anyone taking the Bible seriously enough to make a movie based on it, though I don’t think they’ve even seen the movie, and should probably learn you can appreciate stories as stories and take them seriously even if you don’t believe them to be literally true).
But what has Darren Aronofsky actually changed from Genesis? I recall one actual plot change, one notable omission, and two major stylistic differences. The plot change is that while in Genesis all of Noah’s sons had wives on the arc, in this version only Shem has a wife. This change streamlines the cast and intensifies the drama, not at all different from any of the dramatic changes made in movies like The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt (it also makes the whole repopulating the Earth thing even more weird and incestuous, but that was always beside the point of the story). The omission is of God’s commandments about humane animal slaughter and the subsequent sacrifice; Aronofsky prefers to take a more radical position taking Noah and his family’s veganism as the ultimate moral position, positioning meat as symbolic of the fallen world and possibly the Forbidden Fruit itself. Definitely thought-provoking regardless of if you agree with this stance. Stylistically the movie changes the way God “speaks” with Noah from words to visions, a smart decision for a visual medium. It also changes the characters from Middle-Eastern to white and mostly British, problematic for obvious reasons but slightly less so than for adapting later Bible stories given this takes place in a mythic Pangea before the formation of modern nations and ethnicities. Given how many Americans still think Jesus was a white dude, somehow I doubt this is the source of most of the offense at the movie. (There’s also some interesting modern visuals that could be interpreted as hints of the film actually being set in the far future, which would be a major change from the original, though the visuals could just as easily be illustrating the timelessness of the concerns)
So what is getting people so offended by Noah if it’s mostly faithful to the text? If you look at the common complaints, it seems people are offended the movie, while not changing the text, adds to it. “They added rock monsters!” “They show evolution!” “They made Noah crazy and violent!” “A product of Godless anti-Christian Hollywood!”
I’m no expert on Christianity, but I know what this movie is, and if it is somehow “anti-Christian,” I do not think that is its purpose. What it is is profoundly Jewish. It’s a midrash.
Midrash, for those who don’t know, are a genre of stories by rabbis and other Jewish thinkers reading between the lines of the Torah to explain and illuminate the text. Think of it as the first fan-fiction. Sometimes midrash are so powerful they become part of basic Jewish understanding of the Torah, sometimes they’re completely bizarre and even contradict the text they’re explaining, but they’re all accepted as part of a valuable cultural tradition. Aronofsky’s atheist but culturally Jewish, and treats his film seriously as a midrash. That we get an imaginative origin of tefillin within the opening scenes shows what tradition Aronofsky’s working in.
The rock monsters? They’re fallen angels trapped in stone, an elaboration of the “giants” described in Genesis influenced by the non-canonical Book of Enoch, and conveniently answer the question of how Noah built the arc. The scene of their redemption is simultaneously moving and eerie. The evolution sequence? A stop motion wonder set to the direct words of the opening chapter of Genesis, showing how evolution and God are not incompatible concepts. Noah being crazy and violent? Noah’s characterization is where midrash is most necessary in any adaptation, because Noah doesn’t really have characterization in Genesis. We’re told he’s righteous but what does that mean when you’re surrounded by evil, and doesn’t righteousness usually involve empathy and trying to save people as opposed to letting everyone drown? The movie answers this question: he’s righteous in his time because he cares for nature, but he’s misanthropic, needing to learn mercy towards humanity as God learns mercy.
Noah plays as a strange and compelling mish-mash of Lord of the Rings, The Road, and The Shining. It’s not quite a great movie but it’s a fascinating, beautiful one. I’m amazed this movie got made, even moreso that it got released with its director’s final cut. I recommend everyone who cares about religion engage with it. It’s not going to attack you for your faith or lack thereof, but it’s not going to pander to you either. May your conversations be fruitful and multiply.