Noah’s Co-Writer Explains the Film’s Controversial Theology

Ari Handel explains the deeper themes and symbolism in Darren Aronofksy’s epic.

Editor’s Note: The following interview with Noah screenwriter Ari Handel contains some minor spoilers and discussions of items that deal with major plot points in the film.

Even before it released into theaters last week, Darren Aronofsky’s take on the Bible’s story of Noah had been the subject of controversy in the Christian community. Along with accusations that the filmmakers were taking too many creative liberties with the original text, reviewers have debated the use of themes like Gnosticism, judgment, condemnation and even hidden symbolism in the big-screen version of the Old Testament story.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with screenwriter Ari Handel—who co-wrote the script with Aronofsky—to discuss audiences' reaction to the film, some deeper biblical themes of the movie and the thinking behind Noah’s controversial theology.

Q: How close is this film to your original vision?

A: Very close. We were lucky. By the time we arrived at our final script, we were lucky. We had great actors. Everything went right on set. We didn’t lose much of what we planned. Everything came together.

Q: What’s been the most surprising response you’ve seen to the film so far?

A: I think the most surprising thing is how all over the responses are from all sides. We’ve got religious people praising the film very strongly and also being very upset by it. And we have secular audiences doing the same. It’s really interesting how much debate and power has been stormed up by this film.

Q: A lot of people are saying you took a few too many liberties with the story. Some people are saying you pulled from extra-biblical sources like the Gnostic texts. What would you tell those people?

"We set out very purposefully to upset expectations and change expectations people had about this story."

A: I would say this: We set out very purposefully to upset expectations and change expectations people had about this story. We had expectations when we came to it—Darren [director, Darren Aronofsky] and I, we read Genesis as kids and young adults—but what we had in our minds was a Playmobil ark and as for animals, pet stores. And that’s the way the Noah story has gone into the pop consciousness. It’s a very, very, very different story than what we saw when we opened Genesis again as middle-aged men and thought seriously about what’s there. To get people to grapple with it and to see it fresh, we wanted to break expectations. Some of them we wanted to break that are just incorrect—like the idea of what the ark looked like. It was purposeful.

What I’d tell people is it’s very important to us that nothing we actually did directly contradicted the Genesis story. There are some places where people think we did, and I’d just say, “We didn’t.” It was all grounded somewhere. It wasn’t just the Genesis story the way you expected it. But it’s grounded. Anything we did that isn’t explicitly there isn’t arbitrary. There are themes in the Genesis story that we wanted to dramatize and make people empathize with. It’s there for a reason. I hope people go into it open-minded. When they see things they don’t expect, roll with it a little bit. And see how you feel about the film afterward.

What we want the film to make you think about is the core question of Genesis: The nature of goodness and wickedness in men’s heart, and whether that should be responded to with justice or mercy, the relationship between mankind and the world around him to the sacred. Those are the questions we grappled with.

Q: Can you explain the snakeskin that gets passed from generation to generation? That does seem a little Gnostic.

A: When Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, it says God gave them a garment of skin—sort of a parting gift from God to mankind as we leave Eden and go out into the world. So we wondered what that was—and as we looked at commentaries about it, one of the common ones was that it was the skin of the snake. We wondered why that would be, and it occurred to us that God made the snake. The snake was good, at first. But then, the Tempter arose through it. In our version, we have the snake shed that skin, and the shed skin is the shell of original goodness that the snake left behind when it became the Tempter. It’s a symbol of the Eden that we left behind. It’s a garment to clothe you spiritually.

Q: I’ve seen some people saying your portrayal of God leans too heavily on the side of justice and condemnation.

A: Look. If you go to Genesis, look how the story starts. God looks and sees that the hearts of man is filled with wickedness, and He grieves into His heart and regrets that He has made them and decides that He’s going to wipe them off the face of the earth. It’s at the end that God says, despite all that, “I will never again have to wipe mankind out.” In fact, if you look at the bookend of the story of Noah, God moves from a very strong place of justice to a place of mercy. Our addition is that we let Noah follow that same path—from a place of justice to a place of mercy. If you look at the Genesis story carefully, I don’t see how you can avoid seeing a very justice-oriented God.

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"The Noah story is about a second chance. It’s a second chance for the world and a second chance for mankind."

Q: What question would you like audiences to leave your film thinking about?

A: There are two. The story says that we all have goodness and wickedness in us, and it’s up to us to pursue goodness and resist temptation. That’s a personal choice that we all have. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking “those ones” are wicked and “we’re good.” That’s an easy way out.

The second question is, the Noah story is about a second chance. It’s a second chance for the world and a second chance for mankind. One of the questions we hope people come out of the film with is, to remember that we’re living in a second chance. And to ask ourselves, "What are we doing with that second chance? Are we doing well with it?"

Top Comments

David A

3

David A commented…

I think some forget that the text reads that Noah was "blameless among his time." The word blameless is pretty clear -- it's the same word the Hebrews used to describe their lambs brought to sacrifice. It's the qualifier that leaves the text in question... he walked faithfully and blamelessly with God compared to everyone else. What does that mean exactly? How would Noah's walk be compared to the people of another time? Certainly it wasn't quite the same as Enoch's "walk" with God.

Noah's flaws are clearly revealed when it gets off the Ark. It is almost as if he is suffering from survivor's guilt and I think the film takes an interesting, if highly imaginative, twist on what that means in the face of a global catastrophe.

If anything, I think it's a great film for simply raising questions about the text -- particularly about what isn't said throughout. I didn't take it as gospel, nor should anyone else. The whole "disclaimer" business that proceeded it was basically an insult to the collective Christian intelligence.

I saw a film with a Noah who was certain about the evil around him and God's response, but uncertain as how to handle the evil in himself. The whole conflict pointed me straight to Jesus, personally.

Chuck Raymond

1

Chuck Raymond commented…

An Atheist Jewish film director was tripping balls while he was thumbing through Genesis in the Old Testament and said "I can do something with this" when he got to the Great Flood story. I want to personally shake Darren Aronofsky's hand for my enjoyment today finally seeing NOAH and watching Florida Bible Belters' faces contort and heads shake over the most unBiblical Bible movie they have ever seen.

The word GOD is not even mentioned once, an evolution sequence is shown in the Creation story, and I got to cheer over watching animal abusers and rapers of the environment get deep-sixed. Noah turns into a psycho, biblical Abraham-meets-Jack Nicholson from The Shining, Emma Watson couldn't be any more cuter-as-a-button, and there's ROCK MONSTER GIANTS (Nephilim) that help build the ark and kick the snot out of an invading horde attempting to invade the big ass boat.

It was 85 today in Jacksonville FL, and I wore my Darwin fish T shirt all bleached white and smelling like Downy, cause evangelical babes love Darwin T shirts that smell like Downy, and reminded some tight-assed cloud heads next to me who said the movie was not based on Religion, that the movie was indeed religion based - JUST NOT THEIR RELIGION. All the gaps in the Old Testament story were filled in with the Jewish mysticism of the Book of Enoch, that didn't quite pass muster with the Captain Jebus cadets. Now shaddup and wait for Russell Crowe's drunken nude scene. And YES, he was drunk and naked in the Old Testament too. Atheists be schoolin' these haters alla time.

50 Comments

Chuck Raymond

1

Chuck Raymond commented…

An Atheist Jewish film director was tripping balls while he was thumbing through Genesis in the Old Testament and said "I can do something with this" when he got to the Great Flood story. I want to personally shake Darren Aronofsky's hand for my enjoyment today finally seeing NOAH and watching Florida Bible Belters' faces contort and heads shake over the most unBiblical Bible movie they have ever seen.

The word GOD is not even mentioned once, an evolution sequence is shown in the Creation story, and I got to cheer over watching animal abusers and rapers of the environment get deep-sixed. Noah turns into a psycho, biblical Abraham-meets-Jack Nicholson from The Shining, Emma Watson couldn't be any more cuter-as-a-button, and there's ROCK MONSTER GIANTS (Nephilim) that help build the ark and kick the snot out of an invading horde attempting to invade the big ass boat.

It was 85 today in Jacksonville FL, and I wore my Darwin fish T shirt all bleached white and smelling like Downy, cause evangelical babes love Darwin T shirts that smell like Downy, and reminded some tight-assed cloud heads next to me who said the movie was not based on Religion, that the movie was indeed religion based - JUST NOT THEIR RELIGION. All the gaps in the Old Testament story were filled in with the Jewish mysticism of the Book of Enoch, that didn't quite pass muster with the Captain Jebus cadets. Now shaddup and wait for Russell Crowe's drunken nude scene. And YES, he was drunk and naked in the Old Testament too. Atheists be schoolin' these haters alla time.

David A

3

David A commented…

I think some forget that the text reads that Noah was "blameless among his time." The word blameless is pretty clear -- it's the same word the Hebrews used to describe their lambs brought to sacrifice. It's the qualifier that leaves the text in question... he walked faithfully and blamelessly with God compared to everyone else. What does that mean exactly? How would Noah's walk be compared to the people of another time? Certainly it wasn't quite the same as Enoch's "walk" with God.

Noah's flaws are clearly revealed when it gets off the Ark. It is almost as if he is suffering from survivor's guilt and I think the film takes an interesting, if highly imaginative, twist on what that means in the face of a global catastrophe.

If anything, I think it's a great film for simply raising questions about the text -- particularly about what isn't said throughout. I didn't take it as gospel, nor should anyone else. The whole "disclaimer" business that proceeded it was basically an insult to the collective Christian intelligence.

I saw a film with a Noah who was certain about the evil around him and God's response, but uncertain as how to handle the evil in himself. The whole conflict pointed me straight to Jesus, personally.

sandra plate

10

sandra plate replied to David A's comment

Noah was declared blameless only after he "found favor in God's eyes." The Hebrew word translated favor is chen, or GRACE. Only after grace from God can we be declared blameless and walk with God, Old Testament or New Testament. God is the same.

Jonathan Boegl

4

Jonathan Boegl replied to sandra plate's comment

Bless your sound defense of our God's ways sister… The fact that Relevant is highlighting this ideology with nary a caution is deeply distressing.

sandra plate

10

sandra plate commented…

I'm praying that biblically minded individuals see there are glaring errors -- not only in the movie -- but in this explanation.
#1. The garment of skin is never by any credible scholar anything other than a HIDE ("owr"). In order for Adam and Eve to be clothed, a sacrifice had to be made. An animal had to die. Without shedding of blood there is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22) By the writer's changing it to a shed serpent's skin, the message of the Gospel is removed entirely.
#2. That "we all have goodness and wickedness in us" is called semi-pelagianism and was labeled a heresy and condemned at the Council of Orange in 529.
#3. God never said "He would never again wipe man out" but rather that he would never cause a FLOOD to destroy the earth.
These are only the glaring errors made by Mr. Handel in this article. His subtle errors continue to do further damage to the biblical text and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ which the story of Noah represents.

Josh Rueff

7

Josh Rueff replied to sandra plate's comment

Not sure I'd label that a heresy myself, just to be fair. We were created in the image of God. Doesn't that make us at least partially good? God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good, right?

The fact that we have free will — the ability to choose good or evil — makes both a part of our nature, because everyone chooses one over the other at a certain point in their lives.

Jonathan Boegl

4

Jonathan Boegl commented…

Mercy.
The co-author only further underscores the cabalistic root-structure of this movie's theological thrust:
"The story says that we all have goodness and wickedness in us, and it’s up to us to pursue goodness and resist temptation. That’s a personal choice that we all have."

How distressing to discover Relevant swallowing the very fruit of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" in the name of being culturally vogue.

Kevin Drendel

1

Kevin Drendel commented…

I don't see Relevant as swallowing anything. They are just "putting it out there". I have read comments from many Christian sources on the movie. I have not seen it myself. Probably won't. It is not written by Christians. We should not be surprised that it is inaccurate and skewed toward a gnostic bent. It has sparked much discussion, which I think, frankly, is a good thing. It allows people to explain the real Gospel!

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