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Friday, March 7, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: Noah, The Graphic Novel




A review of the upcoming graphic novel, and what it may foretell about the film coming later this month




This year, we're getting another Darren Aronofsky film, as highlighted in my 25 Films to Look Forward to in 2014. The New York based auteur who brought viewers masterpieces as The Fountain, The Wrestler, and Black Swan (you can tell I think his more recent work is where he's been more furtive) now turns his eye to the story of Noah from the Book of Genesis. It's a challenging tale to adapt, not only because of the enormity of its scale but the sensitive nature of lensing material that has formed the backbone of Christian and Jewish faith for centuries. 

The Fountain was initially conceived as a film, and after reaching a production stumbling block, was turned into a graphic novel; after the graphic novel, it was finally made as a movie, though on a smaller scale. Noah has basically charted the same path. In 2011, before reaching a deal with a studio to produce the film, Aronofsky and his collaborator Ari Handel hired Canadian artist Niko Henrichon to turn their script into a full-fledged graphic novel. The first chapter was released in France, but never state-side. Now, with Noah on the verge of hitting screens at the end of this month, Image Comics is on the verge of releasing the graphic novel of Aronofsky and Handel's original take on the material.

Noah is divided into three chapters, or books may be the better descriptor. They have their own names, but they basically break down into the Prelude to Building the Ark, The Building of the Ark, and The Flood. The story begins with Noah, living a hard-scrabble, but peaceful existence in his family's valley with his wife (Naameh), and sons (Ham, Shem, and Japheth). Noah's family lives apart from the hunter/gatherer existence of the other tribes and families, living off vegetables and fruits, firmly believing that all lives are sacred. In the middle of the night, Noah begins to dream of the world coming to an end. Given that his Grandfather, Methusela, encountered these same visions throughout his life, Noah begins to suspect that this may be a sign from the Creator. Noah decides that he must warn his fellow man, and ventures to the village that he has set he and his family so far apart from. 

The leader of the village, Tubal-Cain, and the rest of those living there laugh off Noah's warnings: that God's wrath at man's violence towards his other creations will bring ruination upon them all. Instead Tubal-Cain and his people strike at Noah's family, sending them to Mt. Ararat, where they will be able to commune with Methusela about what they must do to either appease God, or save themselves. Along the path they encounter a young woman who will become their adopted daughter, Giants called Watchers (that are former six-armed Angels) and eventually Methusela, who will provide Noah and his kin with the "seed" that will germinate into the titular Ark, with two of every animal and insect coming on board. But Tubal-Cain and his people are also waiting in the wings. Their desire to save themselves leads to conflict with Noah and his Giant-comrades, setting a course of events that enact further turmoil for Noah, his wife and children, leading a son to turn on his father and that father to potentially commit an unspeakable act.

When reading Noah, two points of notice immediately stick out. From a visual stand-point, Henrichon's art paints a stunning, sci-fi like, vista. The world created in its pages could just as easily take place in a Mad Max-esque far future dystopia as it could in the ancient times that we typically associate with Genesis. This timelessness aids the central theme Aronofsky is aiming to establish regarding the potential for a circular nature in man's own inhumane actions toward the gifts given to them by their creator. Aronofsky takes this potential time-shift further by juxtaposing biblical verse with scientific theory, most significantly in a sequence when Noah is telling his family the origin of life on Earth: visuals that display evolution are overlayed with the earliest verses of Genesis. Is this Aronofsky and Handel's statement on how evolution became Biblical Verse? Is this a future society whose beliefs have melded science and faith into one fire-side tale? This question is never answered, but the ambiguity is incredibly welcome in a story that skirts such a fairly divisive topic. Regardless, Henrichon's work is exemplar throughout. 



A story is always at its strongest when there is a protagonist the audience can venture along with. In this regard, Noah is at its strongest. The character of Noah himself is a multi-faceted, dynamic lead that utterly jumps off the page. Throughout the duration of the graphic novel, we witness Noah struggling with the messages that God has imparted upon him. He wrestles with the idea of leaving his fellow man to his fate, and once the eventual flood comes, the survivor guilt that he becomes enraptured in by way of accomplishing the Creator's will overwhelms his very being. By the third book, Noah practically becomes a villain and exudes a level of menace that is altogether unexpected, but at the same time laid within the framework of everything that came before. This iteration of Noah is an altogether impressive creation, and provides a strong back bone that carries the weight of some of the shortcomings in Aronofsky and Handel's script. There may be some viewers taken aback by Noah's almost seemingly environmentalist personality, but keep in mind that this is taken as Aronofsky's own elaboration of the mythos, not purporting to be truth but simply inspired by the tale.



One of the difficulties of placing so much attention on the central character is that it can risk drawing much of the humanity out of the supporting cast. This is the key issue that Noah faces, as his family often feels far more two-dimensional than they should. It's not as if their actions throughout don't feel justified, but we as readers never get an opportunity to understand what makes them tick on the whole. Naameh and Illa, the females of the piece, are particularly thinly sketched out, serving as plot functionaries rather than characters in their own right. Noah's two oldest sons (Ham and Shem) fare somewhat better, particularly Ham, who is given an emotional arc that is second only to Noah's in its complexity and the questions it asks about the righteousness of Noah's task. Tubal-Cain and Og (a Watcher who comes into the service of Noah in building the Ark) get a few moments to shine, but never are able to escape from the "one task" that defines their being. 



Its difficult to judge what the comic may foretell for its cinematic counterpart. In The Fountain's case, the film was incredibly close to its preceding comic. From the few clips that we've seen from trailers, Noah the film seems to be aiming for a somewhat duller palette than the graphic novel, that is occasionally awash in reds and yellows across a dusky landscape that would make John Carter jealous. Perhaps more concerning is the casting of the film, which while I don't want to use the term "white-washing", certainly aims for some less than enticing options when the material itself is so ambitious. Russell Crowe as Noah is the biggest area of concern, as he hasn't been able to impress in many a year, becoming the definition of "phoned in performance". Emma Watson as Ila has me hoping that Aronofsky is able to work his "actor magic" on her ala Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but my expectations remain muted. Jennifer Connelly, Logan Lerman, and Ray Winstone provide some relief in this department though, being cast as Naameh, Ham and Tubal-Cain respectively. There is also one big moment in the final "act" that will require a very deft hand to make work visually, and not approach an over the top self-indulgence.

The bigger issue facing Noah may be its difficulty in finding its audience. The script as presented in the Graphic Novel is seeking an audience that's willing to accept its themes with an open mind, and it applies to those of faith and viewers who are less interested in such notions. This is likely why Aronofsky so publicly struggled with Paramount Pictures regarding the final edit of Noah. Now having a strong understanding of what will likely appear on screen in some form, I can see the challenges that this would present for a studio, but I admire Aronofsky's ambition all the more, particularly his ability to find so much depth and thematic resonance in a tale so oft-told that its central lessons frequently forgotten.



Noah is a quick-moving, action packed epic that takes one of culture's oldest tales and transforms it into a meditation on how man's actions affect his own environment and hand in hand nature of faith and science. It isn't a flawless work, as stated above, anyone who isn't Noah or Ham feel like glorified plot devices, but the time we spend with our central protagonist particularly, is rewarding on its own merits. Hopefully, the film is able to address the Graphic Novel's character imbalance during its running time. I look forward to finding out what one of Hollywood's most exciting Directors has up his sleeve.

Rating: B  
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