Exclusive: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel on the meaning of “righteousness”, whether villains can believe in God, and the hurdles they faced when pitching Noah

My interviews with Darren Aronofsky: 1998 | 2014 pt 2 | 2014 pt 3 | 2014 pt 4

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and speaking to both Aronofsky and his co-writer/co-producer Ari Handel immediately after the screening. The following is part one of our conversation. The film comes out Thursday night.

I don’t know if I should admit this, but a copy of an early draft of your script drifted my way, so when I read it, I was struck by the justice and mercy theme, and it was really interesting to see that here in the finished film.

Darren Aronofsky: Well, that was a big part of the movie for us. I think when Ari and I started working on the project and we started reading the Bible over and over again, there’s this term where they call Noah “righteous,” and so what does that word mean? People sort of have a sense of what the word means, but there’s a lot of ways to define it when you really try to figure it out, and so we started talking to a lot of people and looking it up and tried to understand it, and a lot of the different theologians and scholars that talk about it, we came upon this idea that it was a perfect balance of justice and mercy.

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How do we define “wickedness” in biblical films?

If there was one theme linking the trailer and the TV spot for Noah that came out two days ago, it was “wickedness”.

Previous ads showed Methuselah telling Noah that mankind has earned the wrath of God because mankind has “corrupted this world and filled it with violence” — but yesterday’s ads pushed the language in an even more explicitly biblical direction.

The title card that opens the new trailer states: “At a time when wickedness was great in the world… so too was the response.” And the narrator in the new TV spot declares that the film takes place at a time when “wickedness ruled the hearts of men”.

This echoes the beginning of the biblical Noah story, which states: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”

But what exactly did that wickedness consist of?

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Bible movie of the week: The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966)

The title speaks of beginnings, but the film itself marked the end of an era. The post-war Bible-movie craze — which began with Samson and Delilah (1949) and arguably peaked with Ben-Hur (1959) and its record 11 Academy Awards — petered out over the next several years, and The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) was pretty much the last major Bible film to be produced by a Hollywood studio for the next couple of decades.

The problem was not that the film was a flop, per se, but that it cost so much to make. Reliable box-office figures are harder to find, the further back you go in time, but according to Wikipedia, at least, The Bible was the top-grossing film of 1966, with a domestic gross of $34 million. Then again, roughly half of that money would have stayed with the theatres, and the film is said to have cost as much as $18 million — and that probably doesn’t count the cost of prints and advertising. So whether the film made its money back would seem to depend on how well it performed overseas.

In any case, I recently revisited this film and noticed a few things that I thought were worth noting here. (See also my recent post on Abraham and the Three Visitors, which discusses one scene from this film that I don’t get into here.)

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Peter O’Toole repeating himself in his 1960s films

Further to yesterday’s post about movie depictions of the three “angels” who visited Abraham, I figured I’d also revisit a post I wrote last year on Peter O’Toole, who played all three of these “angels” in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966).

In that post, I noted that I’ve always been inclined to see O’Toole’s role in that film — where he visits the city of Sodom and brings destruction to it after the men of that town demand the opportunity to rape both of the angels he is playing — as “sort of a meta-sequel in which O’Toole gets revenge for the rape his character endured in a similar Middle Eastern town in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).”

But it wasn’t until watching The Bible again this week that I realized the later film might hark back to the previous film not only in its casting and narrative, but visually as well. Consider how both films make use of close-ups of Peter O’Toole’s eyes.

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Abraham and the Three Visitors: five filmed interpretations

Fred Clark posted an item last night in which he expressed surprise that the story of Abraham and the three visitors in Genesis 18 is a lot stranger than he had thought. For one thing, Abraham and the visitors eat a meal that mixes meat and dairy, and would therefore be regarded as non-kosher by many of Abraham’s descendants. But, more crucially, Clark notes that one of the three visitors — who are often called “angels” — seems to be God himself. A walking, talking, eating God.

Personally, I’m surprised that Clark is surprised by that last bit, partly because it has always seemed clear to me that one of the three visitors is God himself. It’s certainly implicit in the text itself — not least because, after God finishes “standing” with Abraham and discussing the fate of Sodom with him, only two of the three visitors arrive in Sodom itself. Presumably God himself was the third visitor.

But beyond the text itself, nearly every single dramatized version of this story that I have seen has suggested that there was something different about one of the three visitors. So I had always assumed that that was a standard interpretation of the text, if not the standard interpretation of the text.

Here is how five different films and TV shows have dealt with this story.

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The Bible / What works and what doesn’t in the ambitious mini-series

It’s common these days for each new episode of a TV series to begin with a montage that sums up all the relevant plot points from previous episodes. So it was only natural that, when the History Channel aired its five-part mini-series The Bible over the month of March, all but one of the episodes began with narrator Keith David intoning, in his deep baritone voice, “Previously, on The Bible…”

All of the show’s strengths and weaknesses are captured in that one phrase. Produced by Mark Burnett (a TV mogul best known for unscripted “reality” shows like Survivor and The Apprentice) and his wife Roma Downey (who once starred in Touched by an Angel), the mini-series rushes through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in ten hours — though it’s more like seven, once you bracket off the commercial breaks — and it zips through the stories so quickly that you barely notice when they are compressed even further in those opening sequences. But the mini-series also makes a point of emphasizing the continuity between Bible stories in a way that is quite rare among Bible films, and in a way that sometimes allows individual stories to shed light profitably on others.

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