A best-selling book finds its way to the screen
If a four-year-old boy awoke from a coma and told you that he had just visited heaven, seen Jesus, met his long-departed great grandfather and had experiences that banished all his fears, would you have the heart to suggest that the boy wait until he's old enough to investigate what neurobiologists might have to say about his story?
Neither would I. I'd smile, and wish the boy well.
Of course, there was just a such a boy, and his Nebraska-based family made his experiences the subject of Heaven Is for Real, a blockbuster best-seller that helped establish a publishing mini-trend: cheerleading for the afterlife.
Those seeking adult affirmation about heaven may wish to try Proof of Heaven: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife by Eben Alexander. A movie based on Alexander's book reportedly is being developed.
As Variety reported on April 14, Hollywood is displaying a growing faith in Christian movies. Put another way, Hollyood's always eager to find another lucrative niche market.
Stripped of some of the boy's more apocalyptic declarations -- the coming war between Satan and Jesus that will destroy the world, but vanquish evil forever -- the movie version of Heaven Is for Real has been carefully crafted to keep its tone down-to-earth.
Greg Kinnear's Todd Burpo -- a pastor in a small rural church -- provides the movie's entry point. Todd struggles to come to grips with what his son Colton (a cute Connor Corum) tells him, information about heaven disclosed casually and sporadically by Colton -- almost in time-release fashion.
Colton's visit to heaven takes place while he's in a coma after emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.
When Todd thinks that his son may be dying, he fumes at God. Later, he's taken aback by the boy's account of things he only could have seen if he had an out-of-body experience.
The movie includes some transparently obvious skepticism -- not so much to question the authenticity of young Colton's story but to give the proceedings an aura of objectivity.
And an end-of-picture speech by Kinnear - the movie's Frank Capra moment -- suggests that the boy's vision of heaven may have been tailored by God to match the expectations of a four-year-old; i.e., Colton sits on Jesus's lap, sees other kids and meets a second sister he would have had had his mother (Kelly Reilly) not miscarried.
Colton has one older sister (Lane Styles), but the story doesn't pay much attention to her.
Director Randall Wallace probably knew that he couldn't make the movie without showing Colton's heaven.
We see Colton's grassy version of heaven, his vision of angels and even a full-faced picture of the Jesus Colton encounters, which arrives like an exclamation point at the end of the movie.
For the most part, though, Wallace's approach is less ethereal than earthly, which I suppose is in keeping with the matter-of-fact attitude Colton displays toward heaven.
Such a tone suggests -- at least to me -- that significant commercial calculation went into how this material would be presented by Wallace, who had a hand in writing the screenplay and who is best known for having written the screenplay for Braveheart. Wallace tries not to overplay the movie's heavenly hand.
At times, Heaven Is for Real plays like an after-school special. At other times, it grapples (albeit gently) with the community's attempts to decide what to make of Colton's story.
Not all of Todd's congregants are willing to accept the boy's story, and one woman (Margo Martindale) sees it as a potentially destructive to the church over which Todd presides.
We're not exactly entering spoiler territory if I tell you that Todd does not loose his job over any such dissension or that the movie's most touching scene is one in which Kinnear and Martindale share their grief.
Kinnear, of course, operates at his likable best. He and Reilly create a convincing portrait of a couple struggling with financial issues in a rural community that seems to lack for rich benefactors.
Heaven Is for Real isn't likely to gain much audience beyond those looking for family entertainment with a Christian spin, presumably a sizable enough group to keep turnstiles spinning through the Easter holiday. Other religions are left out of this particular heaven.
Colton's story also includes a couple of pivotal trips to Denver, where the family visits the Denver Butterfly Pavilion. Colton eventually overcomes his arachnophobia and holds a tarantula named Rosie in the palm of his tiny hand.
I'm not sure why I feel compelled to share this detail, perhaps only as a way of saying that it's one more localized element in a movie that presents what appears to be a decidedly middle-American vision of life on Earth and of the world to come.