The old adage goes that the book is always better than the movie, but what happens when a filmmaker takes on what is perhaps the most influential book for European civilisation? Like many book adaptations, Darren Aronofsky’s version of the great Biblical flood butchers the spirit of the original but still manages to entertain.
The story will be somewhat recognisable to anyone familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, but this isn’t Sunday school Noah. Set in an invented ancient civilisation (it’s far removed from anything in the Bible), a man named Noah (Russell Crowe) lives with his family on the outskirts of a corrupt society ruled by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a descendent of Cain. Noah begins to receive visions, and after consulting his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), realises that he is receiving messages from their “Creator”. Humanity is to be destroyed by water, he deduces, and it is the Creator’s will for Noah to build an ark and save the only innocents left: animals. But while he originally plans to find wives for his three sons so they may repopulate the earth, Noah eventually decides that even his lineage must perish and his family, not pleased by his conclusion, breaks as a result.
It’s a stellar cast: Russell Crowe is as good as ever, while Jennifer Connelly, who plays Noah’s wife Naameh, demonstrates that she can successfully take on older characters now she is no longer a kid. And Emma Watson, who plays Noah’s adopted daughter Ila, manages to get through the movie without invoking too many memories of Hermione Granger – no easy feat in a movie full of magic.
The movie’s main problem is that it feels like a bait and switch. Although some of Genesis is left intact, including the creation of the world in six days, the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah is better described as an appropriation of Judeo-Christian scripture rather than an adaptation.
While some creative licence would have been understandable, Aronofsky undermines the essence of Genesis at every turn, going so far as to never once use the word “God” in the script. He even uses sentient rock monsters, who have no Biblical counterpart, as a central plot point. And Noah’s core environmentalist message– that people are wicked for destroying nature – is completely alien to the original story. Although Aronofsky admits that his film is not a Biblical epic in the vein of The Ten Commandments, a cynic may wonder if he only invoked Genesis to draw Christians, who have given the movie mixed reviews, to the box office.
All that said, the acting is great and Aronofsky lives up to his reputation as a talented director. The protagonist’s moral reckoning, which peaks onboard the Ark after the rest of humanity dies, makes for a compelling climax, although the ending’s incestuous implications are a little weird. But Aronofsky would have been better off forgoing the pretensions of an adaptation and keeping the Biblical connections allegorical at most. To get the most out of the movie, you’ll have to walk into the theatre completely forgetting the Bible.
Noah is screening at Legend Cinema at City Mall and in Toul Kork.