Aronofsky’s Noah: Dark, Mythic, Biblical Environmentalism?

Heather Greene —  March 26, 2014 — 16 Comments

On Friday, March 28, Paramount Pictures will release Noah into U.S. theaters after a flood of controversy. Noah, dubbed a biblical blockbuster, was co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the award winning director oBlack Swan (2010.) Noah has an all-star cast including Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connolley and Emma Watson.

Almost any time a biblical story is adapted to film, there will be controversy. Does the movie adhere to the original narrative? Does it represent its characters and thematics accurately?  Are the creative elements born of the spirit in the original text? These are some of the questions that circle around all biblical films. Realistically these are the same questions that arise with the adaptation of any famous text. However when religion is the story’s birth-mother and caretaker, the questions are far more poignant and the debate more heated.

“Noah’s Ark” is arguably one of the most well-known Old Testament stories and is often used as a children’s tale. It has been re-told in so many formats that it almost transcends its biblical roots becoming a mythical story in our over culture. “Noah’s Ark” has even found its way into the whimsical world of Disney cartoons (Fantasia 2000) and Broadway musicals (Two By Two).

Considering the amount of creative license needed to produce a Broadway or Disney rendition of the story, it may seem surprising that anyone would consider protesting a live-action adaptation by an award-winning director. However that is exactly what has been happening.

To date the film is banned in four Islamic countries (UAE, Indonesia, Bahrain and Qatar) and is expected to be banned in Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait. Their objections are based upon the Islamic rejection of “any acts depicting the messengers and prophets of God.” as reported by Reuters.  Paramount expected these bans.

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Paramount Films Noah 2014

Back here in the U.S. viewer complaints center mostly on Noah’s characterization as well as its sub-themes. According to The Hollywood Reporter, a group of Christian viewers invited to test market the film “questioned [its] adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character.” One interviewee described Noah as a “crazy, irrational, religious nut who is fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation.” In response, Russell Crowe  has told an ABC interviewer, “This is a dude who stood by and watched the entire population of the planet perish. He’s not benevolent. He’s not even nice.”

Similar complaints have been pouring in since the movie’s inception. In 2012 Brian Godawa coined the now famous title “Noah: Environmentalist Wacko.” After reading the script, he wrote “This movie will be rejected by millions of devoted Bible readers worldwide because once again it subverts their own sacred narrative with a political agenda of pagan earth religion.” Godawa has also been quoted  as saying, “the director had transformed a scriptural story into ‘environmental paganism’ by blaming the great flood on man’s “disrespect” for the environment.”

It is no secret that Hollywood breathes contemporary issues into its adaptations. Was this film project born after an executive finished reading a report on global warming and the potential drowning of populated coastal areas? It is conceivable. The international media has billed Noah as “the original disaster story.” Interestingly enough, a 1928 Warner Brothers version of Noah’s Ark is largely considered the first melodramatic Hollywood disaster movie. There is an undeniable narrative correlation and, realistically, disaster movies are hot box office fodder.

Returning to 2014, Aronofsky’s Noah is just that: Aronofksy’s Noah. As filming progressed, Paramount became increasingly nervous that his creative license would not appeal to its target audience – conservative Christians. They began to test market various cuts of the film at the risk of straining the producer-director relationship. In the end, Paramount has opted to release the director’s cut despite viewer concerns.

According to the Washington Times, Aronofsky calls his film a mythic,“dark parable of sin, justice and mercy.” He also said it is the “least biblical Bible film ever made” calling Noah the “first environmentalist.” However Aronofsky also notes that biblically-based details directly informed the film’s development including the shape of the Ark and Noah’s drinking bout. In a recent ABC interview he said, “You don’t want to mess with it [the story]. You just want to bring it to life and … breathe life into it.”

Although Paramount will be releasing Aronofsky’s version, they are doing so with the following message attached:

The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.

Paramount’s decision to add this disclaimer was based upon a request from the National Religious Broadcasters, “a non-partisan international association of …Christian communicators coming together to spread the life-changing Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through every electronic medium available.” Having spent a reported $130 million on the biblical blockbuster, Paramount felt the disclaimer was fiscally prudent.

There are many Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders who have come out in support of the film. Most recently, the Pope himself granted Crowe an audience after three requests.  According to several reports, he blessed the film’s release.

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014)  Starring: Russell Crowe

Paramount Pictures Noah (2014) Starring: Russell Crowe

Despite Papal approval, viewer objections still haunt the film. Creationist Ken Ham has asked his followers to see Ray Comfort’s Noah film, being released the same day, “instead of wasting money by supporting a pagan Hollywood Noah movie that really makes a mockery of the account of Noah, the Ark and the Flood.”

Once again the primary accusation is one of fostering “paganism” (lowercase intended.)  In most cases, the word is simply used to refer to “secularism or environmentalism.”  However in many of these reviews, the writers are in fact referring to what they call “pagan earth religions.”

This begs the question: Does the film have Pagan themes?  After hearing such complaints, did Paramount ask the opinion of people practicing “Earth Religions?” If so there are no such indications or media reports.

Will you go see the film? Pagan blogger Jonathan Korman is looking forward to its release. He wrote, “I have been joking that Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming film Noah is a film for which I may be the only audience. I’m ethnically Jewish, a former atheist, and a Modern Pagan, with a fascination with the whole range of religions and myth.”

He may be right in its very eclectic appeal. Compressing the flurry of mainstream articles and reviews, here’s a glimpse at the global scope that has and still is surrounding the film and its production. In the mythic style of Lord of the Rings, Aronofsky’s Noah is a creative retelling of a beloved biblical story written and directed by Jews; containing contemporary Pagan Earth Religion themes; marketed specifically to a conservative Christian audience and banned by the world’s Islamic community.

And they call Hollywood secular.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.