Written by Mike Morris
Darren Aronofsky’s movies are hyper-kinetic morality tales set in trippy, deeply psychologically dreamscapes. As someone who has not yet seen Noah, the movie, I’ve read the novelization, penned by Mark Morris and based of Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel’s script. And I have to say, revisiting the Biblical (and Quranic, and Judaic) story has allowed me to appreciate its bonkers simplicity, surprising amount of suspense, and complex moral undertones. If the movie achieves anywhere near this level of depth and makes one’s noggin start thinkin’, then we are in good company.
The novel begins with a young Noah sitting with his father, Lamech, hearing tales of the Creator in what appears to be a depraved and dangerous landscape. We are introduced right away to the magic; a sacred snakeskin morphs when exposed to fire, and vice versa. A group of hideous and savage vagabonds show up and bash Lamech’s head in in front of his helpless young son. Morris describes this scene in explicit detail—from the dying, glassed over eyes of his father to Noah’s brief hope that his father will “merely be injured”. This type of exposition elevates the story from brutish gratuity to a genuine portrayal of human experience.
In fact, the entire novel feels as if we are witnessing the true story of Noah and the Ark, to the extent that one can imagine the original “book” being penned off real-life characters. Noah, now grown, is a real man in a real time with definite characteristics that make him relatable. He’s a dutiful husband and father, bad-ass yet reluctant protector (early on, he gruesomely kills three poachers who break a dog’s legs to eat it) and a thoughtful, wise survivalist. He never lets obstacles brings him down. His faith and resolution allow him to come off calm and composed, the type of servant God would need and desire to fulfill His mission of destroying mankind and rebuilding it again from scratch.
About His mission. Morris, and by extension Aronofsky and Handel, do a terrific job at creating this apocalyptic, barren, and frankly terrifying world. Who didn’t wonder at a young age what was so awful about people that made God want to wash us out? As an innocent child, I always imagined drunken gambling and killing and cheesy brothels. Here, we have genocide, petty thievery, cannibalism, sex slavery, and the sort of eco-devastation that causes giant pools of toxic sludge to subsume and corrode innocent deer. In Chapter 4, Noah and his family come across a series of impaled skeletons, countless of them, on their way to meet with Noah’s grandfather. They also come across a dying, eviscerated girl and her dead family. Noah’s wife, Naameh stitches up and cares for the girl, and she is raised for the next ten years alongside Noah’s two sons. In fact, time goes by rather slowly from the time Noah is told by God through several dream sequences that he must build the Ark, or specifically that “He is going to destroy the world”, and the time the actual flood happens. Luckily for everyone on earth, God gives Noah ample time to build his Ark and summon all the critters, even providing a lush forest from which he can hew wood. The chapter when the animals finally show up is a high point.
There are many wholly original sequences to Noah. Biblical giants are represented by giant stone post-Angels called the Watchers, who help Noah build the Ark and also protect him from danger. The sequences in which Morris describes these heavenly beings descending onto earth and being turned into ugly stone behemoths is nothing short of fantastical.
By the time the flood actually happens, we are quite familiar with the decimated and hopeless ancient world the book has created. The antagonists become so inhuman in their actions and descriptions—teeth bared, eyes crazed—that the audience is meant to sympathize with Noah’s plight. This justification of killing all of humanity seems forced, and the book (and perhaps movie by extension) wants us to understand and sympathize with Noah’s determination in following the instructions of an omniscient being. This is problematic, to say the least. It reminded me of Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, or other characters who might come off psychotically deranged in their self-righteousness in any other circumstance.
But the novel Noah is worth picking up because it makes you consider all these things, and it’s fun to be thrust into a different time period, one that is not commonly represented. Reading the book forces you think how important spiritual and moral quandaries shape our society and who we are, especially quandaries that are, by nature, dogmatic and divisive. The unique and creative take on the Biblical tale is precisely what makes the movie and novel an intriguing joyride through time and myth.