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I’ve been reading a lot of author interviews lately to prepare for Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. So when I went to see the movie Noah, which opened last weekend, I thought I would arrange for The Twelve to interview the author of the book on which the movie was based.
The Twelve: So you’ve heard about the controversy over the film version of your book?
The Author: Oh sure. I’m pretty well tuned in. I hear about things. The movie is actually about one section of one of my books, by the way.
12: Right, I knew that. Anyway, the movie has been banned in several Muslim countries and of course there are objections to it from the usual quarters here in the U.S. The complaints in Muslim countries have to do with depictions of holy figures, but here in the U.S. the complaints are about whether the movie is faithful to the book. Do you care about that?
Author: Well, there are more and less important ways to be faithful, you know? Look, my work has been around for a long time and a lot of people have made adaptations. I’m used to it. That’s what happens when you write stories. In fact, that’s the power of stories. They’re generative. They’re designed to be stretchy and flexible so that they last. People in different times and places find their way into them—they find the dimensions of the story that speak. When people retell stories, they throw the emphasis on one or another of the big themes, and great stories are large enough to sustain that.
12: So you don’t mind fan fiction?
Author: Well, there is some terrible fan fiction out there based on my work [laughs]. But I don’t mind fan fiction generally, no. In fact, there was this Jewish fan club—they were around a long time—and they were really good at it. The fan fiction that irks me is the stuff that turns my main concerns upside down. That’s really annoying. On the other hand, fans have a tendency to answer each other, and that throws everyone back to my stuff.
12: What about accuracy in retellings? Do you appreciate the fans who defend every little detail of the canonical materials and point out tiny flaws in movie versions and such?
Author: Well, you know, it’s flattering when people obsess about your writing. But authors know that a story is a living thing and if you’re really insistent on controlling interpretations, you shouldn’t use narrative forms. Actually, even a pretty straightforward list of do’s and don’ts turns out to be open to interpretation! Personally, though, I think a narrative form is worth the risk. Stories are stretchy, but they’re also sticky. They stay with you and keep speaking to you. They get into your heart. I’ve always loved that about stories. That’s why stories are my main medium, though I work in other genres, too.
I guess the accuracy fanatics bother me when they act as if some movie or whatever is going to displace my original versions. I just don’t see that happening and I’m not worried about it. The canonical versions will always be there for people to study and talk about. So I find the creative retellings interesting, and I like the way they make people see new things in the originals. Besides, as every author knows, movies sell books!
12: So you’re looking forward to increased book sales?
Author: [laughs] No, I don’t worry much about sales and royalties (though my agents do!). But I do want people to keep reading my books.
12: So let’s talk about the movie. First of all, weird story to work with.
Author: Yeah. One of my favorites, though.
12: Really? What do you like about it?
Author: I like the animals. [laughs] I guess that puts me with the little kids. But I really love the moment when the animals stream into the ark. Great moment.
12: What do you like about the movie?
Author: Well, lots of things, actually. The strong emphasis on human moral responsibility. The reflection on what this experience does to Noah, the burden it places on him, and his own terrible sense of guilt on behalf of all human beings. Related to that, I appreciate the way the movie confronts the viewer with the gravity of human violence and its consequences. That’s really useful. The portrayal of the devastation people can cause when they are arrogant and cruel makes the whole dark side of this story—the terror, the destruction—more comprehensible. And of course, I appreciate the reflection on balancing justice with mercy. I’ve thought about that a great deal, and I’m glad to see this film give such a compelling picture of mercy’s miraculous power—the miracle of new beginnings.
12: Some people have been complaining that the film puts such a strong emphasis on environmentalism that it amounts to propaganda. What do you say about that?
Author: Well, just about all my work has that theme, though readers have tended to ignore it. I’m actually glad to see a lot more attention to it. It’s always been important to me, even essential.
12: What about some of the other ways the writers fill in the gaps? Like putting the animals to sleep on the ark?
Author: Right! I’ve heard that idea before, and I love it. I also love how Noah’s family is great with herbs. Makes total sense.
You know, I leave a lot of open space in my stories, partly because it’s fun for me to see how readers fill them in. I like to watch them rush into the silent spots.
12: Like the Nephilim?
Author: Exactly! [laughs] That was one of my crazier ideas. Not even sure anymore why I put them in the book. But it’s been a hoot to see what readers do with them. In this movie, the writers came up with these rock-encrusted glowy beings, the Watchers. That’s one of the nuttier explanations I’ve seen for the Nephilim, but it solves certain dramatic problems in the movie and it gave the special effects people a challenge.
12: So is the Noah story fiction or nonfiction?
Author: Well, neither, exactly. It’s a way of telling the truth about a strange time that is foreign and incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. I think of the Noah narrative as the best way to convey what we need to understand from that time. It’s mythical, and thus inexhaustible. I created a story that people can trust, a story that speaks in a way readers can understand.
12: So what’s next for you?
Author: Oh, I’m always working on projects. I’ve got some big things in mind. You’ll see.
To 12 readers: There are a lot of helpful reviews out there. Try this article by Cathleen Falsani in Sojourners, along with her two interviews with writer/director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel. Also check out this review in Variety. Here’s a skeptical but intriguing take from The Guardian. And for Emma Watson fans, here you go.
Special thanks to and fond memories of Prof. Ralph Williams at the University of Michigan.