When the Biblical Noah listened to that voice in his head (God?) and built a huge ark to survive a flood, he was taking an expensive risk. Paramount Pictures has taken an equally expensive risk — $125 million, give or take — entrusting auteur Darren Aronofsky to somehow bring together epic and indie styles, Biblical narrative and wild innovation, Noah and Russell Crowe.
The good news for Aronofsky fans (and I have been one since “Pi,” his self-produced debut about Kabbalah and mathematics) is that “Noah” mostly pulls it off. It has epic grandeur, fight scenes, and CGI effects worthy of its production and advertising budgets. But underneath all that, it is a quintessentially Aronofskian meditation on obsession. The title character turns out to be an antihero.
Much of the press prior to “Noah” has been about whether conservative Christians will be upset by the way the film diverges from the Biblical narrative. The consensus (real or manufactured) has been that they are. But the film’s midrashic structure is only half the story. Thematically as well as substantively, this Noah is a radical theological text.
As my colleague Ezra Glinter explains in his review, “Noah” the film is much more elaborate than Noah the Biblical story. Really, it had to — from God’s first misgiving until the flood’s last drop, it only takes up 62 verses. So where did Aronofsky get this stuff?
Here’s a field guide:
Some of “Noah’s” extra material is simply made up. Ila, the love interest for Noah’s hunky eldest son Shem, does not appear anywhere in the text or legendary literature. On the other hand, the rabbis do wonder who, exactly, bore the children of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Were they additional children of Noah, not mentioned because of the incest taboo? Ila (played by Emma Watson) solves that problem by being discovered as a baby by Noah’s family. Of course, we still never learn who Cain’s wife was…
Others of the additions are imaginative elaborations of Biblical figures. Tubal-Cain, the villain of the film, is only briefly mentioned in the Torah, as a “forger of tools out of bronze and iron.” In the film, he is the chieftain of a huge, Game of Thrones style clan which has built vast cities – and, in the film’s environmental allegory, depleted and destroyed the land.
But most of Noah’s extra elements come from Jewish legendary sources: Midrash and Kabbalah primarily. Noah’s wife, for example, goes unnamed in the Biblical text, but the midrash in Bereshit Rabba 23:3 identifies her as Naamah, sister of Tubal-Cain. Aronofsky partially follows suit, keeping her name but severing the connection to Tubal-Cain. In Aronofsky’s film, the children of Cain and the children of Seth are almost like two different nations, never to mix.