I recently had a chance to watch a preview screening of the new movie, Heaven is For Real, which will be released on April 16th. I read the book earlier this year, and was very pleased when I’d heard it would be made into a movie.
Here is the trailer:
The basic premise of both the book (which is a straightforward, non-fiction, documentary) and the movie (which is a fictionalized, dramatic re-telling) is this: Todd Burpo is a minister in a small town in Nebraska. His young son, Colton, nearly dies during emergency surgery; Colton visits Heaven during this near-death experience, and some time after his return begins explaining what he saw in matter-of-fact terms. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that Colton’s reports cannot be a function of his imagination — there are simply too many details (especially about people he met there who died before he was born) that Colton couldn’t have possibly known any other way.
The movie is extremely well-produced, with excellent acting and breathtaking visuals of prairie farmlands. It’s a compelling story of one family’s experiences coping with some really difficult times, and it’s told without profanity, innuendo, or sex. There are some hospital scenes that may be a bit intense for some younger viewers, but it’s otherwise safe to take your kids to. Our four-year-old, who is about the same age as Colton was, enjoyed it as much as the rest of us did and told me nothing in it scared him. Speaking of Colton: he’s portrayed by six-year-old Connor Corum, and the boy did an outstanding job. This appears to be his first acting gig, and I hope it’s not his last. Likewise, Greg Kinnear is excellent as Todd.
For me, the most unrealistic part of the story is the existential crisis of faith that Todd descends into after Colton begins describing what he saw in Heaven. It seemed almost like the kind of reaction a father would’ve had if his son had instead described Jesus rejecting him, or slamming the gates of Heaven in his face, or anything else that flies in the face of his own long-held beliefs about God and the afterlife. Todd’s frustrations with God before this point made total sense, and seemed very natural; he was dealing with his own physical injuries, serious financial setbacks, and a son who’d been sick to the verge of death. But for the stories about Heaven to trigger a new “dark night of the soul”? That seemed contrived to me, as did the reactions of certain of the church’s Board members. At a minimum, the reasons for his questioning and doubts didn’t seem clear.
The book does describe Todd “yelling at God” during Colton’s surgery. But the internal struggles and doubts he goes through after hearing about Colton’s trip to Heaven? And the external conflicts with other members of the church? If any of those things did happen in real life (and they sure didn’t “feel” real to me, given everything else the film shows us about the Burpo family and their faith), they didn’t make it into the book.
But my biggest disappointment stems from the expectations I’d had going in: I’d thought the story would be told more from Colton’s perspective, and we’d get to see more of what he experienced in Heaven. Certainly, there are some scenes portraying what he saw and did — but they are relatively brief, and not terribly detailed. Screenwriting 101 says to “show, not tell,” and it seemed that there was a lot more “telling” here than “showing.” Also, several of the things Colton did see and experience, which were detailed in the book and shown to be consistent with scripture passages Colton had never before heard, are simply left out of the movie.
Furthermore, certain things that are described extensively in the book are treated so briefly in the movie, the average viewer might be left scratching his head. A good example: in the book, Colton told his father that Jesus has “markers” on his wrists and ankles. When pressed for details, Colton explained that it looked like someone had marked up those parts of Jesus’ body with a red felt-tip pen. Todd then realized that Colton was describing the Wounds of the crucifixion — which, importantly, Colton had never before seen depictions of or been aware of. Being Protestants, the Burpos didn’t have a crucifix in their house or church. In the movie, Colton makes only the quickest mention of these “markers,” almost as an afterthought, in remarks to a newspaper reporter. There is no further explanation as to what he’s describing, or why this is an additional indication that his visions of Jesus weren’t the product of an overactive imagination.
That’s not to say this is a bad movie. It’s just not the movie I thought it was going to be. You may be familiar with other big-screen feature films about extraordinary supernatural visions that certain children have had; The Song of Bernadette immediately comes to mind, as does The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Both of these films were told from the children’s perspective. The parents’ reactions, and the difficulties the parents went through as a result of the publicity, were part of the story — but these films were ultimately about the kids and what the kids experienced. Now, imagine The Song of Bernadette re-told from the perspective of Francois Soubirous, Bernadette’s father. The Song of Francois might still be a good movie — but if you’d been thinking you were going to see a lot of what Bernadette herself saw, you might be disappointed.
My bottom-line recommendation: Whether you’ve read Heaven is For Real or not, do go see this movie — and enjoy it on its own terms. And if you haven’t yet read the book, make sure you do read it after you watch the movie.