Well, it was an exciting night at the movies for Rabbi David!
As someone who studies ancient Hebrew texts for a living (#jewishnerd), it isn’t often that I get to see my subject on the big screen! So when I heard they were making a movie of the Noah story from the book of Genesis, well, I did a little dance of joy! (#thehora)
And this wasn’t some B-grade straight-to-video hack job put together by a religious propaganda outfit, turning bible stories into a badly-edited soap opera. This was a big-budget epic, directed by Darren Aronofsky, the guy who did Black Swan and The Wrestler – both of which I loved. So I was expecting good things.
Let me give you the short-version review first (WARNING: Some spoilers ahead): it was basically an amazing movie for almost all of it, until the last ten minutes which were so unbelievably God-awful they almost ruined the whole thing. Ok, now I’ll explain.
So like I said, I’m a rabbi, so the whole time I’m watching, I’m thinking of the original and noticing how accurate is was and wasn’t. And obviously, the big idea – dude builds ark, saves animals from flood – was the same.
But there were also lots of creative little additions that you won’t find anywhere in Genesis.
Here are the main ones (and I’ll try to give them without any real spoilers):
1. Supernatural Creatures
So, these big Rock Monsters called “The Watchers” feature prominently in the story. And they are super cool, all mangled up, with light glowing out of their heads. They feel like a reference to some of the great fantasy movies of my childhood, like The Dark Crystal, or The Neverending Story. Totally awesome, for sure, but you definitely won’t find The Watchers anywhere in the original Noah story.
2. Expanded Characters
Some of the best side-plots in the movie are totally made up, and based on characters that do appear in the Bible, but only really briefly without any real backstory. Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, is listed in Genesis, and – fun fact – is supposed to be the oldest man who ever lived, but that’s about all we know of him. Here he’s played by Anthony Hopkins, and is a total badass. I’d take him as my weird ancient grandpappy any day. But I was surprised that he plays such a major role in the movie, cuz in the Bible, you never see him talk to anyone.
More significant is the role Tubal-Cain, who plays the big villain in the story, who oversees a large army of primitive industrialists. Now, to be fair, this IS actually based on some slight hints in the Bible itself. In Genesis 4:22, it says, “Tubal-Cain forged tools of Copper and Iron.”And there’s even a rabbinic legend that these tools were weapons of violence. So, ok, it’s based on something. But Aronofsky really takes this stuff and runs with it, turning it into a whole major drama.
3. Noah’s Psychology
Speaking of major drama, THE central crisis of the movie has to do with Noah – who’s a pretty intense guy to begin with – having a little bit of a breakdown and going kind of cray cray on his family. Now I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but I will say that this is not only NOT in the original story, it kind of contradicts it.
But you know what, that’s fine! I was fine with all of it! Sure, I’m a rabbi, but I don’t need my Bible movies to be totally accurate. I love the stories in the book of Genesis, but I think that part of what’s so powerful about them is that they stir the imagination and encourage the readers to fill in the gaps with our own visions of what might have been happening behind the scenes. In fact, classical rabbinic tradition is all about interpretation, and some of our best stories based on the Bible are so wild, they make Aronofsky seem tame.
But the one thing about the movie version that totally sucked – as I already said – was the ending. And I don’t have to give anything away to say what the problem was: it was just a typical cheesy Hollywood ending. We’ve all seen them. But, like, this one was REAL BAD. Like nauseating, laugh-out-loud, ridiculously BAD.
And you know what? The disappointing thing is that this lame-o ending was ALSO totally made up. It’s not like that in the Bible. In fact, the Bible story ends on a really dark note, with Noah getting drunk and naked, and then shouting and cursing his son. For real! It’s in there! One of the things that is so great about those old stories is that they weren’t afraid of the dark side of humanity. They ask us to confront it directly and deal with it. Hollywood, with all its corny formulaic endings, could learn a thing or two from the Book of Genesis.
The thing is, most of the time, Darren Aronofsky isn’t afraid of the darkness either. He certainly spends a good chunk of the movie dealing with it. But more than that, if you’ve ever seen his other movies, you know he’s one twisted dude. I mean Requiem for a Dream? WHOA. That is maybe the darkest movie I’ve ever seen. No Hollywood ending there. Even in Black Swan, his biggest hit, Natalie Portman dies in the end!
So, what gives, Darren?! Why did you stink up this great movie with that barfy ending?
Well, it’s SO out of character, that I have a theory. I think he finished the movie, and it probably ended on an deep, challenging note. And he gave it to the studio, and they were like, um….NO. Give us happy. Remember, this is his biggest-budget film to date. The studio execs were probably like, no way we’re risking our money on some gloomy arty ending. We want love and sunsets and happily ever after!
I bet they insisted. They gave Darren no choice. So maybe he was pissed, and said to himself, “Fine, you want happy? I’ll give you happy. I’ll give you so happy it’ll make you sick.” As a way of thumbing his nose at the studio fat cats.
That’s just a theory. Who knows? It probably didn’t happen like that. He probably just got carried away in a sappy moment and botched the ending.
But I wanna believe it. I wanna believe in Aronofsky! I am, after all, a man of faith.