The 'Terror' of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky Interprets the Bible

The controversial director talks about his lifelong fascination with Noah's ark and why it's the messages of biblical stories—not the historical details—that matter.
Christian Palma / AP; Niko Tavernise / Paramount Pictures

When a seed is planted in the mind of a child, it’s impossible to predict accurately how it might take root and blossom in years to come. Surely whoever first told Darren Aronofsky the Bible story of Noah and the great flood had no idea how powerfully it would capture his imagination. Nor did he or she know that, more than 30 years later, Aronofsky would be a sometimes controversial, Oscar-nominated film director—or that the story of Noah would become his cinematic passion project.

Aronofsky’s Noah is an epic, $150 million-dollar feature film that has managed to raise the hackles of some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders (the vast majority of whom haven’t yet seen it) long before its official release on Friday. Some critics say Aronofsky strayed from the Bible story and took liberties with the narrative that they deem to be offensive and “unbiblical.”

Last Sunday, Aronofsky, who directed and co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Ari Handel, sat down with me in Los Angeles to talk at length about his own spiritual predilections, the inspiration behind his Noah, the research and biblical scholarship that went into reimagining a story held sacred by three religious traditions, and what ideas he hopes to sow into the minds (and hearts) of his audience.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Noah story?

I’m always talking about the poem I wrote when I was 13. But just last week, I was talking to my co-writer, and I kind of had a flash of a memory before that that I can’t place. I remember the feeling of being afraid, of terror. And I think hearing the story of Noah, I thought about, What if I was not one of the good ones to get on the boat? And I recognized that there’s wickedness in all of us.

When it’s taught to kids, it’s about the good man and his family. They don’t talk about the duality of original sin. What I think is the fascinating part of the story is the contradiction inherent in the story, which is that we are all descendants of original sin. Clearly, even if you subscribe to the idea that Noah is all good (which he’s not, he’s just righteous—which doesn’t mean good in theological terms, it means a balance of justice and mercy), why go through this act of destruction if the next story [in the Bible] is Babel, which is about how man’s hubris once again needs to be smited?

So, why go through this? What is the reason for it? To me, that’s what’s powerful about it. It’s meant as a lesson. It’s poetry that paints images about the second chance we’ve been given, that even though we have original sin and even though God’s acts are justified, He found mercy. There is punishment for what you do, but we have just kind of inherited this second chance. What are we going to do with it?

When I was a kid, growing up Catholic in CCD, I was shown the picture books with the rainbow and the animals and the ark. But I couldn’t get my head around, first of all, why God would do that? It was terrifying. Or how they would repopulate the earth with just Noah, his wife, his three kids, and their wives.

Well, that’s the old problem with biblical stories.

Yes. So your approach to the Noah story tapped into a really dark question I hadn’t thought about in probably 30 years: What kind of God would do that?

That's not the God of grace and mercy and love that I understand now. But that's part of the history and story. Right after the passage in Genesis that describes the destruction and the flood, God starts again and says, Well I won’t do that again, even though I understand that humans have a bent toward evil. So, was God having a bad day?

We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. [The first three stories in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are the creation, Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is often referred to as “the first murder.”] The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet.

And so it was so bad that He decides that He is going to destroy everything and destroy this creation. So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.

Ari [Handel] and I always talked about it in terms of being a parent: If you are too just with a child you destroy them with strictness. If you’re too merciful you can spoil them. Finding that balance is what makes you a good parent. So that was an interesting character arc for us to see.

Maybe what made Noah righteous was that he mirrored, in some sense, God’s own heart about what was happening.

Sure. That’s another way of looking at it. And we completely connected that. Because really, Noah just follows whatever God tells him to do. So that led us to believe that maybe they were aligned, emotionally, you know? And that paid off for us when you get to the end of the story and [Noah] gets drunk. That was a huge thing; they didn’t teach us that in CCD either, did they? What do we do with this? How do we connect this with this understanding? For me, it was obvious that it was connected to survivor’s guilt or some kind of guilt about doing something wrong.

I mean, to get that drunk—and not just drunk, but it's the first mention of wine in the Bible, which is incredibly significant—but to get so drunk that you’re naked and have a falling out with your child and curse them. That, for some reason, was held onto. That’s part of the story that stayed in there for all time. That’s a huge clue to what this whole story is about.

I know you and Ari spent a great deal of time doing research on the biblical texts for the film. Do I also remember reading somewhere that when you were younger you attended yeshiva for a time?

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Cathleen Falsani is a journalist who writes about faith and culture. She is the author of five nonfiction books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, and the editor of the forthcoming Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels.

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