‘Christian Filmmaking’ Captures Hollywood’s Attention as Never Before, but are Christian Filmmakers Up for the Challenge?
As Soul Surfer roars past Fireproof‘s $33M payday, (eventually reaching $45M at the box office) Hollywood’s rush to cash in on adapting Christian stories–such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ($279), and stories about Christians–such as The Blind Side ($256M) continues to gain momentum.
Whether or not this trend proves to be good or bad for the future of Christians in the entertainment industry remains to be seen.
Suddenly, Christians who have spent their lives establishing themselves as world-class filmmakers–such as producer Ralph Winter (XMen), and director Scott Derrickson (The Day the Earth Stood Still)–find themselves in the same conversation as unproven “Christian filmmakers” who have clawed their way to the market only by virtue of uniquely Christian product. .
Two current projects may make or break Hollywood’s interest in ‘Christian’ projects. Ralph Winter’s The Screwtape Letters, and newcomer Steve Taylor’s adaptation of Donald Miller’s best-selling Blue Like Jazz are being closely watched by industry insiders.
It could be an uphill battle. The trend toward “Christian filmmaking” is already drawing mixed reviews in Hollywood, largely due to the less-than-stellar quality of many so-called “Christian Movies.”
I’ve chosen two takes on the movement in recent publications for your consideration (below). Cathleen Falsani’s post in the Huffington Post offers some positive press on the movement, and even suggests some possible future adaptation projects. Andrew O’Herir’s post in Salon offers a more sobering critique based on Hollywood’s memories of truly atrocious “Christian Films.” It’s painful to read and often overstated, but O’Hehir’s commentary is worth considering and striving for a higher standard.
The world really is watching!
What Should Be Coming to a Theater Near You
by Cathleen Falsani in the Huffington Post
This fall a film based on Donald Miller’s bestselling spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is expected to hit theaters nationwide. In many ways, Miller’s book is an unlikely subject for a feature film.
Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-autobiographical short essays based in part on Miller’s experience auditing classes at Reed College in Oregon that explore the author’s wrestling with questions of faith.
But the film project is part of a growing trend of adapting well-known “Christian” or Christian-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) as feature films. Recent movies based on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Two more film adaptations of Lewis’ works — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce — are in development.
Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media (Note: Ralph Winter contacted me this AM (4/30) to tell me that Cathleen’s report is mistaken –Walden Media is NOT connected to the project at this time), the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.
Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”
Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”
Why are Christian movies so awful?
As “Soul Surfer” demonstrates, “faith-based” movies are a boom industry. Do they have to be so lame?
by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon
When a star teenage surfer named Bethany Hamilton lost her left arm in a 2003 shark attack, and then got back on her surfboard just three weeks later, you could hear another species of shark – the ones from Hollywood, who turn dramatic real-life events into movies — swimming to the scene.
Not only did Hamilton’s story have an attractive and charismatic central character, it also came with a moral message attached and (to think more cynically) a much-desired target demographic. Hamilton’s family were evangelical Christians who understood what had happened to Bethany as a personal and providential test of faith, and also saw it as an opportunity to testify to the wider world.
The resulting film, “Soul Surfer,” which stars AnnaSophia Robb as Hamilton and Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as her parents, took some interesting twists and turns on its way to the big screen. There was evidently disagreement between the Hamiltons and the film’s producers along the way, over the question of how explicit to make the references to faith and the quotations from Scripture. (They’re plenty explicit, if you ask me.) But success has a way of resolving all such disputes, and “Soul Surfer” opened last weekend on 2,214 screens with a $10.6 million gross, and the third-highest per-screen average of any film in wide release (after “Hop” and “Hanna”).
You could call “Soul Surfer” a Christian film that got picked up by a mainstream distributor (Sony) or an inspirational mainstream film that was concocted with the “faith-based” audience partly or largely in view, after the fashion of“The Blind Side,” “Secretariat,” the “Chronicles of Narnia” series and so on. (For whatever it’s worth, the universe of Christian movie sites and bloggers seem to view it as the former.) While the Hamilton family’s religion runs through the story as an undercurrent, the movie’s only mouthpiece for official Christian theology is a youth counselor played (very clumsily) by country star Carrie Underwood. As Carolyn Arends, the film critic for the evangelical site Christianity Today, has noted, director Sean McNamara and his team of writers aren’t trying to preach the gospel to outsiders but to create a recognizable self-portrait for their target audience, “a reasonable approximation of daily American Christianity.”
However you want to categorize “Soul Surfer,” it’s going to make plenty of money, and should serve to remind those of us in the secular moviegoing public that the evangelical audience that emerged with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” and the out-of-nowhere 2008 hit “Fireproof” hasn’t gone anywhere.
Christian-identified viewers remain voraciously hungry for content, and even though the major studios all have marketing arms devoted to courting them, they still feel poorly served by the mainstream film industry and its addiction to violent, sexual and otherwise profane subject matter. (Dozens of Christian-oriented movies are made every year, but only a small fraction of them will reach general release.)
But do Christian-themed movies really have to be so bad?