By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
November 7, 2014
Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah inspired me to plumb the depths of the Dalenberg Library, find the great flood stories of human history, and re-read them. While there are many flood legends from many cultures, the three biggies of Western civilization are 1) Noah’s flood from the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, 2) Deucalion’s flood from ancient Greek and Roman sources, most notably from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” and 3) Utnapishtim’s flood from the ancient Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh.” The relationships between these three versions of the “universal flood” that was sent by a God or gods to wipe out humanity are uncanny. The more you read these three versions, and the more you study them, you realize that they are really all three the same story, for the most part. Well, I suspect that Darren Aronofsky read these sources too, before writing his Noah movie, but it doesn’t look like he relied much on the old writings. Aronofsky’s film is not so much a re-telling of the Noah story or an explication of what the Noah story means in human history; the film is rather a free fantasia on Noah-related themes, and frankly it is more about modern stuff than ancient stuff altogether. In fact (and Aronofsky readily admits this), Noah isn’t even a particularly religious movie, despite being based on a Bible story. The film is firmly rooted in a modern, agnostic Hollywood liberal ethic. The impulse that caused it to be made was a curious desire to put Star Wars/Lord of the Rings-style special effects in a biblical epic and try to draw a blockbuster crowd. All the more of a Hollywood in-joke if you could convince gullible fundamentalist Christians (many of whom actually believe the Noah story more as fact than as legend) that you were actually making a Bible movie with a big Hollywood budget. But rather than being a gift to the Born-agains, the moral imperative that drives this film is a subliminally preachy liberal subtext about the virtues of vegetarianism and the sins of destroying the environment, and the financial imperative was a desire to put CGI to work super-sizing a Sunday School story.
Noah has been done before as a Hollywood film. John Huston tackled it in his mostly forgotten 1968 film The Bible, which I recall from a childhood family drive-in theater outing, and which was a straight-ahead retelling of The Creation through Abraham that would have been approved by any group of Southern Baptists who were willing to swear (on the Bible, of course) that God actually whispered this stuff in Moses’ ear so he could write it down. And then there was Walt Disney’s whimsical 1959 stop-motion animation short subject, which was very cutesy with people and animals made of pieces of felt and string and buttons. My main problem with the Disney version is how light-hearted and tuneful it is about the wholesale destruction of the human race. The Sunday School version of the Noah story has always been more interested in the animals than in the humans, presumably to keep the story kid-friendly. It’s not cool to talk about evil and sin and people drowning to death in Sunday School. Aronofsky’s film is certainly more realistic, because it is more about the people than the animals. To be sure, the animals are in this film, for a minute or two, but they are mostly forgotten on the lower decks of the ark while the people go about having people-conflicts that move the contrived story along.
I was put off by this film from the get-go. From Frame 1 it was clunkily obvious that the film was carefully designed not to offend Christians, atheists, or agnostics. God is carefully referred to throughout as “The Creator,” and the film is very careful not to delve too deeply into The Creator’s nature. Noah has a vision, which could be from God or could be a crazed delusion, we are never really told. After the initial vision, Noah is pretty much left to his own devices without any real dialogue with “The Creator,” so at first he almost arbitrarily decides that all of mankind should die, and then he reverses himself by the end of the story to declare his family free to repopulate the flooded world. While we never hear the voice of God talking to Noah (because the film-maker is at pains to allow us to believe–if we are so inclined–that maybe these voices are all inside his head), there are miracles depicted in the film, such as the sudden sprouting of a forest to provide wood for the ark and the almost supernatural migration of the animals to the ark. It is this lack of religious conviction, this money-mongering act of catering to the widest possible audience, atheists and Christians alike, which puts the film on a shaky foundation from the outset. Aronofsky is torn between making this Noah a revisionist agnostic version of a human myth and making an all-out fantasy film with monsters and special effects and a Yoda-like shaman who lives in a mountain (that role filled by Methuselah, who delivers wise pronouncements and at one point works a bit of magic to make Shem’s betrothed fertile again after a childhood injury had left her barren.) By casting off the religious vestiges of the story in order to turn it into a 21st Century California-style allegory about vegetarianism and going green, Aronofsky leaves gaping moral and ethical holes in his story logic. For example, if Methuselah is so holy that he can cure a barren woman of her infertility with a mere touch, why is he allowed to die in the flood? And what was so special about Noah that he was chosen by The Creator to be spared? The story does nothing to make Noah look especially virtuous, and in fact he descends into an Ahab-like madness in the course of the story, at one point coming perilously close to stabbing his newborn baby grand-daughters to death to keep them from propagating the human race.
It is difficult to convey exactly how dreadful this movie really is, because it is horrendous on so many planes at once. The prehistoric clothing looks like it came from a chic mail-order catalogue, only a little more rough-hewn around the edges, like it was sewn a year or two before the advent of commercial sergers. It looks very comfy and very “Lands End,” down to the fur lined boots. Aronofsky has Noah being assisted by fallen angels who look like rock robots that have been borrowed from every other CGI effects-laden picture we have seen in the past few years. It was hard not to see flashes of the tree-people (Ents) marching on Orthanc from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, as these rock angels move with the same gait and make the same gestures. Perhaps God (excuse me—The Creator) used the same software for his fallen rock angels. When the movie descends into melodrama, it gets worse and worse. As the film wears on, the characters get speechier and deliver some real agonized moments right out of the Stanislavski Method, which would have been fine except that all the histrionics are in the service of this particular plot. This crazy screenplay has Tubal-Cain (a name plucked from the pages of Genesis and grafted onto the Noah story for this movie) stowing away on the ark for the express purpose of having a climactic showdown with Noah. And Noah’s son Ham turns against him and conspires with Tubal-Cain simply because Noah fails to secure Ham a woman for the long sea voyage. As tensions mount and everyone gets their Stanislavski moments, one can’t help but wish this all-star cast of Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connolly, and Emma Watson were in a different, better movie.
Still, I did pick up one thing from Aronofsky’s film that I hadn’t previously remembered about the Noah story from Sunday School. In one of the more grandiose moments, the water is spurting out of the ground as well as falling from the sky. I was thinking, that’s a bit ridiculous and over-the-top. But, it turns out, that story detail actually does come from the Bible: “. . .all the springs of the great deep burst out, the windows of the heavens were opened, and rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.”
For me, the fascination of the Noah story is its anthropological and literary implications. Where do the flood stories, ubiquitous in human cultures, originate? Are they all related, or have many of them, such as the ones in the New World, arisen independently? Do they have to do with the seasonal flooding of the river deltas in Mesopotamia in Neolithic times, or the filling in of the Persian gulf destroying the original human settlements, or the observations by ancient people of fossil sea life far from shore, or other local floods, like the creation of post-glacial lakes in the receding Ice Ages? Re-reading and studying the three big flood stories (Noah, Deucalion, and Utnapishtim) is a fascinating exercise in comparative literature and myth. One assumes that the Hebrews appropriated the story from the Babylonians, most likely during the Captivity. Ovid probably didn’t have anything like the Old Testament at his fingertips, but the similarities between Ovid and the Genesis account are too great to be coincidence. Later, as the Deucalion story in Ovid morphed into a version told by Lucian in the 2nd Century, the story had obvious borrowings from Genesis. For instance, Deucalion and his wife didn’t save any animals in the Ovid version, but Lucian has them saving pairs of animals, just like Noah and Utnapishtim before him. Robert Graves also points out in The Greek Myths that Deucalion’s name means “new-wine sailor” and he was likely originally associated with the invention of wine, although that invention was later ascribed to Dionysus, so Deucalion’s claim to wine was suppressed (except that he got to keep his name.) This relates Deucalion to Noah, who (after the flood) was described in Genesis 9:10 as the “first tiller of the soil,” and the fact that he planted a vineyard and became drunk on his own wine has led to the tradition that Noah invented wine. Thus, Deucalion and Noah are really one and the same mythologically. It might be that the Babylonian and Hebrew stories were fused with some local Greek flood legend (or legends, as Deucalion’s ark came to rest on one of no fewer than four peaks, depending on which version of the Greek myth you read), but there are so many parallels that Utnapishtim, Deucalion, and Noah are either all the same guy or at least mythological cognates of each other.
In the final analysis, the Aronofsky Noah leaves the broader implications of the story unexplored as it plies us with a weak Californian vegetarian go-green message beneath a mere excuse for Lord of the Rings-style CGI overkill. A more interesting film is waiting to be made, one which tackles the topic of a deity questioning His/Her creation to the point of wanting it destroyed, or at least one which explores the universality of this legend. There is ample opportunity here for a special effects bonanza—the ark, and all the animals, and the logistics of such an impossible voyage are ripe materials to work from. No doubt those are the things that attracted Aronofsky to the story. Problems are he didn’t tackle any of the interesting questions, and his soap opera plot and rock-robot fallen angels make the whole watery production bubble over with a surfeit of silliness.
The Holkham Bible is a 14th Century story Bible, present in the Dalenberg Library in a beautiful Folio Society facsimile. Depicted here is Noah releasing a raven and a dove from the ark, which is floating above a harrowing scene of two drowned humans, a drowned cow, and a drowned horse. The raven is seen again below, plucking at the eyes of the dead; the dove is seen picking the olive branch that she returned to Noah. The language is Anglo-Norman French, which existed alongside Middle English and Latin during this transitional period in the English language, not long before Chaucer. The Holkham Bible devotes a disproportionate number of pages to the Noah story, showing that its appeal as a Bible story goes way back. However, death was more ubiquitous in those days when there were bad things like the Plague about, so even a Bible story-book like this provided rather graphic depictions of the Final Judgment and a world engulfed by the wrath of God. The Disney-fication of the Noah story came much later.