Happy Giraffes or Rampaging Rhinos? (Adapting Genesis 5-10)
When Darren Arnofsky's Noah came out, it lacked a clearly defined audience and, as a result, suffered criticism from all sides. On the one hand, traditional evangelicals were offended by the less than pleasant treatment of God & Noah, not to mention the environmental themes and the inclusion of the Watchers. On the other hand, it was too slow and plodding for those who just wanted spectacle & action. And on the third hand, it wasn't weird enough to appeal to Arnofsky's usual followers.
Although Noah may seem like an obvious story to adapt, there are several quite challenging questions that it raises for Bible Artists. For today, we'll look at the question that Arnofsky's team should have spent a little more time thinking through, namely, who is the audience?
Even though Arnofsky's Noah failed to garner universal acclaim or a large following, it still generated enough attention in the popular consciousness to make most people question whether another movie on Noah is really necessary.
In the past, it was easier for a Bible movie to function as a blockbuster, generating mass appeal. With the decline of biblical literacy and the rise of the Nones, however, Bible movies now almost inevitably create a polarizing effect in popular culture. There's no longer a shared consensus about what Bible movies should do - or if they're even worthwhile. Moreover, Netflix and other streaming services have created an expectation for specialized niche works that cater to the specific taste of particular audiences rather than blandly appealing to everyone.
On top of the general challenge faced by all modern Bible movies, a movie based on Genesis 5-10 has to take the existence of Arnofsky's Noah into account as well. Whenever there's already Bible Art based on the story that you're adapting, it's crucial to think through how your adaptation will differentiate itself from the prior work. Even though Arnofsky's Noah failed to garner universal acclaim or a large following, it still generated enough attention in the popular consciousness to make most people question whether another movie on Noah is really necessary. By answering the question: "Who is this Bible Art for?" in a way that is clear and distinct, Bible Artists can avoid charges of redundancy and rehashing.
So, who is this movie for?
There are a few audiences that come to mind when I think about the Noah story. Let's consider how they might shape its adaptation.
Although it may be hard to say who the audience of Arnofsky's Noah was, it's quite easy to say who the audience wasn't: children. The gritty tone and graphic images seem almost intentionally to resist the more lighthearted images that one finds in a typical rendering of the Noah story in Children's Storybook Bibles. In that respect, it was probably more faithful to the biblical story than many of the images floating around in the popular consciousness, but faithfulness isn't the only factor that shapes Bible Art. The strong artistic tradition that associates the Noah story with children hasn't reached its climax in a well-made modern adaptation, but there's every reason to believe that such a film would be quite popular.
A Noah movie aimed toward children would most likely:
include plenty of songs
focus on the theme of faith, both when God calls Noah to make the Arc before the Flood and when Noah & the animals are scarred during the flood
prominently feature giraffes, elephants, and other animals either as the protagonists or as Noah's faithful sidekicks
make the bad guys really bad and make Noah's family seem really good
obscure or eliminate the Sons of God, Nephilim, and the episode of Noah's drunk nakedness after the Flood
deemphasize the destruction & death
The criticism that Arnofsky's Noah received for the way it deviated from the biblical narrative suggests that there is an audience of Christians and Jews who would prefer a much more straightforward and wooden adaptation of the Noah story, following the biblical account as closely as possible. I actually think this would be much more difficult to do than most people imagine, because the biblical account doesn't spend a whole lot of time on the personal drama involved in the events - it's engaged in more of a "high altitude" overview of the events, focusing on their historical and literary significance. So even a Traditionalist adaptation would need to engage in a fair degree of invention in order to connect to audiences personally.
An adaptation aimed toward traditional religious audiences would likely:
be live action
follow the details of Genesis to a T (e.g. number of animals, God directly instructs Noah, etc.)
focus on faith in a similar but more mature way than the children's approach
center the conflict around either the rejection of Noah by the world before the Flood or the struggles of Noah's family to keep the ship afloat and maintain faith during the Flood (I think you would need to choose one or the other, otherwise it would feel like two competing movies)
There's a fair degree of interest in the Sons of God/Nephilim among believers, so their inclusion is a must. Where Arnofsky arguably went wrong was in using the very idiosyncratic rock-monster look.
Although I think there's some justification for Arnofsky's environmental take on the cause of the Flood, many Traditionalists are skeptical of environmental themes and would probably prefer a much clearer emphasis on typical images of sin as the cause of the destruction.
Noah could still be a morally compromised person (after all, that is in the story), but he needs to be in his right mind and acting in good faith.
Arnofsky's Noah engaged in a fair degree of spectacle, but its pace was a bit too plodding and its tone a bit too bleak to appeal to audiences who just want epic storytelling. A film that more intentionally aims at those seeking spectacle would:
be live action
involve plenty of open warfare between human kingdoms ruled by the Nephilim (rather than making them feel like cave people, I would go for something more Atlantis-like - advanced and somewhat fantastical)
have rampaging animals that help protect Noah and his family from their oppressive neighbors
have scenes during the Flood where the Arc is going on a wild ride, past mountain tops, etc., barely surviving
be more diverse in its casting (especially Noah's family)
not get too philosophical about the loss of life (after all, they'd all be depicted as clearly bad guys)
focus more on Noah's fear/doubt as a point of contact rather than making him morally compromised
Have any other audiences that you'd like to suggest? Don't agree with my prescriptions for how to address the audiences above? Let me know on Twitter @TheBibleArtist.