The Fallacy of Good v. Evil: A Q&A with 'Noah' Writer Ari Handel

Paramount Pictures & Regency Entertainment / Getty Images

by Niko Tavernise, Russell Crowe in NOAH, from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises; Ari Handel, by Jim Spellman/Getty

Last Sunday in Los Angeles, Cathleen Falsani sat down with Ari Handel, a screenwriter and frequent collaborator with Noah director Darren Aronofsky, with whom he co-wrote the film and the graphic novel, Noah, upon which it was based, to discuss some of the extra-biblical elements of the $150 million movie.

Longtime friends Handel and Aronofsky were suitemates at Harvard University. Before becoming a screenwriter and film producer, Handel was a neuroscientist. He holds a PhD in neurobiology from New York University. He was a producer on Aronofsky’s films Black Swan, The Wrestler, and The Fountain (which he co-wrote with Aronofsky), and had a small role as a Kabbalah scholar in the director’s debut film, 1998’s Pi.

Editor’s Note: The following Q&A contains some spoilers about the film. It has been edited for length.

Q&A: 'Noah' Director Darren Aronofsky on Justice vs. Mercy

Darren Aronofsky on the set of “Noah.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises.

The Noah epic releasing in theaters this Friday promises to be controversial, with director Darren Aronofsky calling it “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” As the story of Noah remains near and dear to people of many faith traditions, the film has already unleashed a flood of criticism.

But Aronofsky says every part of the story fits the biblical narrative. He said the story of Noah illustrates a long tension between wickedness and forgiveness. ”All of it’s a test,” he said. “We were trying to dramatize the decision God must have made when he decided to destroy all of humanity.”

In an interview, Aronofsky described where he got the idea for the film, how he plans to respond to critics, and why he focuses the film on themes of justice vs. mercy. 

'Noah' Spurs Debate Pitting Art vs. Bible

Noah Movie. Photo: © 2014 Paramount Pictures Corporation

With the release of the movie Noah a couple of weeks away, the waters of controversy are already rising fast. I’ve seen the movie’s final cut, and director Darren Aronofsky’s re-envisioning of the biblical hero Noah will not disappoint — inciting some and enthralling others. Some will undoubtedly chastise him for the ways in which the movie riffs on the biblical account of Noah. Others will praise Aronofsky for his creative vision.

But the big question generated by a film like Noah is: When the Bible is the source of inspiration for art, how close does the artist have to stay to the original narrative? The Bible has been the inspiration for profound works of art for centuries. It isn’t surprising. The Bible is full of passion, romance, intrigue, struggle, and the triumph of good over evil.

Even so, it is hard to ignore the reality that not all art inspired by the Bible is respectful of its subject matter. Where, then, should the line be drawn between artistic interpretation and blatant disrespect?

The United Cinematic States Of America

Gareth Higgins is a Belfast-born writer, film critic, and co-author of several works on peacebuilding, religion, violence and conflict. He is a contributing editor at Sojourners Magazine, has written for publications including The Independent, The Irish Times, and Third Way, and presented on BBC Radio. He also holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast and co-hosts the award-winning podcast The Film Talk. Gareth is founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and blogs here. His books include How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films (Relevant Books, 2003), co-authorship of Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2012), and the recently published Cinematic States (Burnside Books, 2013).

Anderson Creates Sacred Cinematic Space in 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

Director Wes Anderson (left) chats with Jude Law (Young Author) on the set of "Grand Budapest Hotel."

To my mind, all of Wes Anderson’s films are masterpieces in the truest sense of that word. But his most recent creation, Grand Budapest Hotel, is, perhaps, his chef d’oeuvre.

Anderson’s eighth feature-length film, which opened in limited release last week, Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical, hilarious, and surprisingly touching tale laden with nostalgia for a world and way of life most of us (including the 44-year-old director himself) never have experienced.

Set in the fictional Eastern European mountain region known as the “Republic of Zubrowka,” the plot centers around the character and adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel, one of Europe’s palatial “grand hotels. Gustave is something of a dandy, a throwback to a bygone era even in his heyday of the 1930s on the cusp of World War II.


Cine-Monastic Disciplines

ONE OF THE paradoxes of writing about film is the application of one form of language to interpret another. The medium we’re discussing here is visual, and despite the relevance of the word “poetic” to the great works of cinema, to interact with the movies means, as writer-director John Sayles says, to “think in pictures.” In an age with multiple ways to consume films, and the pressure to respond with the immediacy of social media, to think deeply about movies is a countercultural act.

I noticed this again after being given a record player a few weeks ago. I’ve listened to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks more than pretty much any other album over the past 20 years and now on the vinyl recording I can actually hear instruments I’d never noticed before. I can’t deny the superiority of the medium, at least in terms of what we might call “musical richness.” But digital transmission makes the sound crisper and more available.

There’s a parallel paradox with cinema, in that the experience of watching films has both diminished and expanded over most of our lifetimes. There are more portals than ever (you can watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on your phone, for goodness’ sake). Yet the opportunity to see films in optimal settings (decent projection, focused audience, without 25 minutes of commercials for soda mingling with threats of prosecution directed at the people who have paid to see the film by the industrial complex that depends on them) doesn’t come often for most of us. Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.

So, as a modest proposal, I’m considering some contemporary cine-monastic disciplines for the renewal of the cinematic mind:

Hospitality: I’m trying to watch one non-English language film (or one from the U.K., Canada, or Australia/New Zealand) for every U.S. one.

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'Son of God' Falls into Trap of Most Jesus Depictions

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Diogo Morgado plays Jesus in 'Son of God.' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Son of God is Hollywood’s take on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. While the producers clearly tried hard to use modern filmmaking techniques to bring scripture to the big screen, the attempt fell flat somewhere between the use of action-sequences, swelling music reminiscent of old Westerns, and unconvincing acting — Jesus is played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who managed to look irritatingly self-satisfied for most of the movie.

Since faith is such a personal, spiritual experience, it begs the question: Is it possible to make the life and ministry of Jesus into a film that accurately reflects Christianity, or does such an effort cheapen beliefs?

Russell Crowe Really Wants Pope Francis to See 'Noah'

Russell Crowe arriving for the premiere of “Les Miserables.” Photo via Featureflash/

Actor Russell Crowe is using social media to try to cajole Pope Francis into seeing his latest film, the controversial “Noah,” which stars Crowe as the waterlogged biblical patriarch.

The $125 million film, which will go into wide release next month, already has some religious groups upset over a story line they say takes too many liberties in director Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation to the silver screen. Crowe says he’d like Francis to see the film to make up his own mind.

Crowe — who won an Oscar 14 years ago for “Gladiator,” which was set in ancient Rome — tweeted an invitation to the pope, reading in part, “The message of the film is powerful, fascinating, resonant.”

Tim Chey's 'Final: The Rapture' Adapts 'Horror Movie' Label

A scene from “Final: The Rapture,” a Christian horror movie. Photo courtesy of Final: The Rapture. Via RNS

The words “Christian” and “horror movie” rarely appear in the same sentence, much less in the same film’s promotional material.

Yet that’s exactly what Tim Chey, writer and director of “Final: The Rapture,” does to promote his picture in its city-by-city rollout.

As the movie’s poster promises: “When the Rapture strikes … all of hell will break loose.”

In an interview outside the Orlando, Fla., multiplex where his film is playing on a Sunday afternoon, Chey said he’s comfortable with the Christian horror movie label, or even “Christian disaster movie.”

NBC’s 'Parenthood:' When the Winning Strategy is Losing

Members of the cast of NBC's Parenthood, DFree /

Members of the cast of NBC's Parenthood, DFree /

The writers of Parenthood, the popular NBC family drama, use an interesting device to dramatize conflict. When two characters have a difference of opinion their exchange begins in measured, even tones. One person talks, while the other listens. Then the second person talks, while the first one listens. But as their disagreement heats up, the exchange gets faster and faster until no one is listening and both characters are talking over each other so loud and fast that it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are saying. This clip is typical. It’s an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend, Mark, over whether or not she will be able to keep her promise to attend a weekend getaway with him.