Writer’s Block: Out of Biblical Proportion

“The right-wing protesters are coming! RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!”

For those of you who may not remember, Writer’s Block was started by Nicole Melkonian to examine and celebrate the writing talents of cinema’s most famous auteurs. She has since bid us farewell to pursue greener pastures, and we wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors. Not wanting to see a good idea go to waste, I have taken up this column in her stead to not only highlight noted screenwriters but also to generate discussion about the art of screenwriting itself, different writing styles, and how other written works (novels, plays, etc.) have been translated to 2014’s biggest releases. And what better way to re-start this column than to look at a cinematic treatment of one of the bestselling books of all time? No, not Fifty Shades of Grey; that’ll be next year. I am of course kicking off with The Holy Bible and how the man who gave us aggressive, ecstasy-induced lesbian sex between Padme Amidala and Jackie Burkhart decided to bring the classic story of The Flood and Noah’s Ark to the big screen.

Note: This article contains spoilers.

So I saw Noah this weekend and it is…completely bonkers. I had always expected Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel’s take on the classic story to be, shall we say, offbeat, but man they even outdid my expectations on the “WTF” scale. It’s one thing for a director to present recurring themes in their films; it’s quite another to balloon one’s fixation on self-punishment and destructive obsessions to (literally!) Biblical proportions with such ludicrous results in tone and story logic that it approaches self-parody. Come to think of it, he would be the perfect subject of his next movie: a young, bright filmmaker slowly descends into neurotic insanity over repeatedly portraying characters inflicting progressively bizarre wounds on themselves…

That that discussion is not being held in the public sphere is not surprising, I guess, but what a shame it is that the fundamentalists have hijacked the discussion away from the content of the film and into accusations of blasphemy. Of course, the loudest complainers in this regard also bemoan the lack of Biblical stories getting the Hollywood treatment these days, conveniently forgetting that their own stubborn insistence on sterile, paint-by-numbers Sunday School adaptations is what caused that. As if on cue, right-wing bloviators like Glenn Beck have attacked the movie because it might not line up completely with the Biblical account (read: their own fragile, narrow-minded view of religion).

Warning: The knee-jerk stupidity contained in this video might cause nausea, headaches, and frustration at the current state of political and cultural discourse in this country:

I decided to see what exactly made those like Mr. Beck so mad by actually comparing the Biblical account to Noah’s account, since none of those idiots could be bothered to do it. Now, before I begin I should note a few things:

1)      This is not a review of the film itself. My thoughts on Noah’s artistic merits will be discussed elsewhere on the site. This compare/contrast between Biblical and Aronofical versions of the story is not intended as any kind of statement on its quality, but rather an attempt to provide food-for-thought on how one very singular filmmaker interpreted this classic tale for his movie (remember, this has been his passion project ever since he broke into directing).

2)      I happen to not believe that any of these events happened literally. Even moving aside the fact that there has never been any scientific evidence confirming the existence of a worldwide flood or an Ark, the very notion of one family gathering two of every species of living thing on a single vessel and taking care of them all while riding out a worldwide flood for several days is completely absurd and in my opinion misses the allegorical point of the story.

3)      I will be using the King James Version of the Bible as my reference.

In the beginning, there is…a prologue about the beginning. Makes sense I guess, though I would argue recounting the story of Creation and The Fall is sort of like rehashing Superman’s origin in Man of Steel (and then there’s the fact that Noah recounts the story to his children later on, making the prologue redundant, but I said this wasn’t going to be a review so I’ll stop now). This part – as well as Noah’s telling of it – is brief enough where even the stranger parts don’t really contradict the first two Chapters of Genesis. I mean, it doesn’t say that Adam and Eve didn’t look like weird shiny gold-hued alien things before eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And it’s certainly possible that the fruit looked like some gross beating heart/papaya hybrid. I mean, why not? In fact, the only tiny deviation he makes here is portraying the Serpent without any legs, since the little bastard only lost those after God punished it.

From there we go through a mostly Biblically accurate recounting of the descendants of Seth and Cain…until we get to Lamech, Noah’s father. You see, one of the oft-forgotten aspects of early Biblical genealogy was that the descendants of Adam had long lifespans; so long, in fact, that Adam himself was still alive when his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Lamech was born. Now, in the movie, Noah witnesses Lamech’s brutal murder at the hands of Tubal-cain (more on him shortly), but in the Bible he had lived for another 595 years after Noah’s birth, and you’d think that if he had been killed that would have been mentioned in a book full of gruesome deaths. It’s kind of impressive, actually, that Aronofsky managed to actually make his version more violent than what was in the Bible, and it won’t be the only time either.

“Oy dere, guv’nur! ‘Tis your hawt wyf’s brotha, I am!”

Besides, this also serves to introduce us to the villain who will later age into Ray Winstone, totally not typecast at all as a gruff, cockney brute named Tubal-cain. He’s only mentioned once in the Bible, as a metalsmith, which he does display in the film version; there are also some scholars who theorize that he might have been a miner as well. The “evil warlord” part of his character is the film’s addition. The “destructive industrialist who disrespects the environment and incurs God’s wrath as a result” part of his character is…debatable, and seems to be at the center of the religious right’s gripes with this film. But like a lot of political issues that had religion needlessly injected into it, this is one of those situations where one can cherry-pick verses from the Bible either for or against environmentalism, and Tubal-cain’s speech to Ham about how humans were meant to “take dominion over the earth” ironically has been argued to be perfectly in line with the will of the Biblical god.

As for the other characters, Noah did have three sons who were named Shem, Ham, and Japheth…in one year…when he was five hundred years old. With a wife who isn’t named. Aronofsky and Handel decided that his wife in their version would be Naamah, who in the Bible is actually Tubal-cain’s sister! Why they didn’t take dramatic advantage of that little family connection is kind of baffling to me. Anyway, since there aren’t any named women in the Biblical Flood story, Aronofsky and Handel create another named female character: Ila, the wife of eldest brother Shem. Shem did, in fact, have a wife in the Bible story…and so did Japheth. And Ham! All three of the sons took wives aboard the Ark to repopulate the planet, but in the film version poor Na’el is trampled to death and Ham gets screwed with permanent bachelordom and blue balls.

Of course, the reason why he and Handel change that part is due to arguably the most debated part of the film among almost everyone, believers and non-Christians alike, where Noah becomes convinced that all of mankind – including his own family – is inherently wicked and that he cannot allow his sons to reproduce heirs (why he sets himself to this misanthropic mindset practically on a dime based on one nebulous vision isn’t made clear, nor is it explained why he sticks to this idea despite his trusted grandfather magically making Ila fertile again when it’s already been established that his powers are the will of “the Creator” because of that magical seed AND WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING I SWORE THIS WASN’T GOING TO BE A MOVIE REVIEW SORRY I’M DONE NOW). I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but…in Noah’s defense, “the Creator” does seem to have it out for humanity in this tale. He regrets even creating humanity in the first place and hates them so much that he’s willing to kill nearly all of the innocent animals just to get rid of them. There are also several verses in the Bible that agree with Noah’s contention that all men are inherently wicked. It’s not until the flood actually subsides that “the Creator” commands Noah’s sons and their wiv-oh right, sorry, Ham-Shem and his wife (and Japheth when he gets older) to repopulate. So perhaps Noah’s confusion over what exactly he was supposed to do with the future of a creation as supposedly wretched as mankind was a least somewhat understandable.

Ham: Screwed In Both Versions

Then there’s the part of the Biblical story after they survive the flood that I honestly wasn’t sure if the film was going to touch, and amazingly, it did. That scene where Noah drinks too much, gets naked and passes out? Yeah, that was in the Bible, too. It’s what happens after Ham sees him naked that the Bible and the movie diverge significantly. In the film, Ham decides that he’s had enough of his dad’s foolishness and takes off on his own to…I don’t know, live as a hermit or something. Shem and Japheth react pretty much the same way I would if I saw my old man passed out naked in a drunken stupor: feel mildly embarrassed that pops couldn’t handle his booze, cover him up and nurse him back too sobriety. But on the page, not only does Noah act a fool for no reason (in the movie, he gets drunk out of shame for having “failed” to kill off those two babies…wow, did I just write that?), but apparently in the Bible seeing your father naked is a big freaking deal and in response to what his “younger son had done unto him,” (wait, what did he do?) he literally curses his descendants into servitude. Holy shit, Ham just can’t catch a break in either version of this story, can he?!

After that, well…there’s not much more to say really. I mean, I could go into even greater detail about how it was actually God and not Noah who said, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” I could note the impressive, if admittedly minute, detail that the film included where a dove and a raven were sent out to see if there was land (most adaptations of the story only show a dove). I could even compare the two Arks. But I’ve covered all the key deviations and conformities to the source in this adaptation, so now the question is why? What can we learn from comparing this latest adaptation to such a well-known source? At the risk of being accused of intellectual cowardice, I leave the final conclusion of these observations up to you, dear readers. I’ve made it clear before how unimportant source fidelity is in my eyes to the actual quality of a movie adapted from something else, but even I have to admit that seeing exactly where someone deviates in their interpretation of the original work can provide some interesting insights into the creative minds behind an adaptation. Then again, after seeing Noah I’m pretty sure it’s going to take a lot more than one article to figure out what in the world was going through Darren Aronofsky’s head. Let us know your own thoughts on how this film portrayed the Noah’s Ark story in the comments!

Oh right, I almost forgot the rock monsters. Uh…yeah, I got nothin’ on them. No mention of any Hobbit-style rock monsters in the Bible. Giants, yes…but no rock monsters. That would’ve been cool, though…