Faith-based books and movies have been a factor in the market for a number of years now. The bible has always been ripe material for storytelling and have scored huge box office and Oscars in decades past. At one point, it was part of an overall market but now it has become a targeted niche.
In 2007, Canadian writer William P. Young wrote a story mainly aimed for his six children. He self-published it. As a result of word of mouth in churches all over North America, the book would eventually reach the bestseller lists and 10 million books would be printed. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling and Summit Entertainment eventually settled on Stuart Hazeldine to bring the movie to the screen. It was likely Hazeldine familiarity in adapting literary material for film such as Riverworld that sold the studio on hiring the British director. John Fusco (Marco Polo) was chosen as writer.
The plot start off as family tragedy when the young daughter of Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) is kidnapped and presumed killed during a camping trip in Oregon. Following this, Mack falls into a deep depression until receiving a mysterious letter from a stranger called Papa. The letter asks him to travel to a shack near the camping site where the crime is thought to have occurred. Whatever doubts he has in regards to the letter, he is compelled to go and when he does, he finds a trio of people that shed light on himself and the tragedy of his daughter.
It is this journey that the Christian element drives the story. The trio turn out to be the Trinity of the Father (God), the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. Papa is played by both a woman (Octavia Spencer) and a man (Graham Greene) although it is the female persona that dominates the movie.
Understandably, Mack is skeptical in the extreme and quite angry at God. And so begins a conversation that asks pointed questions about why God lets bad things happen to good people. Worthington and Spencer are very accomplished in making you believe and it is why they do most of the heavy lifting in the story. The actors playing Jesus and the Holy Spirit have meaningful interactions. One particular scene of water walking illustrates this incredible world that Mack experiences.
Jesus (Aviv Alush) and the Holy Spirit (Sumire Matsubara) are largely unknown in North America. In fact, the young Canadian cast that plays Mack’s kids have large resumes. It is the scenes with the children and Mack wife Nan (Radha Mitchell) that will likely make audiences reach for a hanky.
Still Mack’s anger and the blame he carries for not being there for his daughter when she was kidnapped wracks him at every turn. His determination to judge and punish the man responsible brings him to Sophia (Alice Braga) who represents Wisdom. She offers him the position of judge and presents him with scenarios where he can not judge and will not.
The healing for Mack only begins when Papa shows him that his daughter is happy and safe in Heaven. It is Male Papa (Graham Greene) who leads him to the hidden place where her body is. They bring her back to be buried in a spot in the garden that was prepared as a resting place.
The ending differs from the book in that the man responsible for the death of Mack’s child is never found. Forgiveness is given but justice is not talked about. The likely reason for this is that Mack himself has a death on his hands. It is revealed early on that Mack killed his father who was abusive to him and his mother. The central issue of selective justice is just too much for the film to hold up under. So it was not included. What was included was Mack meeting his father in Heaven and both men forgiving each other.
So how does The Shack stack up? It will probably play well to the niche audience it is aimed at. Truly, there will not be a dry eye in the house. The story is tragic and might be too much for young audiences. And yet it will probably bring many families to the theatre. The movie is a slow conversation about love and forgiveness, healing oneself and healing others. Some people will question the accuracy to scripture or attempting to portray God on film. However, the message of God as being all loving is ably played by the actors in the role.
One criticism is the voice-over narration at the beginning of the film by Tim McGraw who plays Willie, Mack’s friend. It is an attempt to explain what is about to happen but is a poor tool in this regard. McGraw does fine in his other acting on the film. It was writer and director’s choice to also use him to act as narrator.
The Christian message is very targeted and for this reason, it is probably not going to be understood by an audience not rooted in those teachings. It is difficult for even theologians to explain the Trinity. It is even harder for Hollywood. This weekend might reveal the power of the niche market.
This has been a guest editorial by John Dobbin.
To read more from John, visit his blog Observations, Reservations, Conversations