Oscars Past

I do love movies. I just don’t like watching the Oscars program because of its rather consistent descent into the denigration of Biblical morality and its overall liberal-progressive political stance. So I didn’t watch the self-congratulatory extravaganza Sunday evening.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. This year’s Oscars show got its smallest audience in history. Apparently, a lot of people feel the way I do.

I saw only three of the films that were up for any type of award: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and The Greatest Showman. I saw other movies, some quite good, that didn’t make the cut. It seems that most of the ones I see now don’t make that cut.

Yet I do love movies, at least those that tell a good story and tell it well visually in tandem with an intelligent script.

My undergraduate degree wasn’t in history; rather, I was a radio, tv, and film production major. My first job after college was at the Christian Broadcasting Network. Only later did I take a different path, end up with a doctorate in history, and become a professor (which I’ve been now for 28 years).

Last fall, I compiled a list of my favorite movies for some of my students. That list added up to more than 150. Many were Best Picture winners from past years. Here are some of my favorites and the reasons for that evaluation.

The King’s Speech, in 2010, was a sympathetic portrait of George VI of Britain, as he struggled with his inability to speak fluently and coherently as the burden of inspiring his people during WWII fell on his shoulders.

One feels for the king, marvelously acted by Colin Firth as George and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist.

Naturally, I’m drawn to historical films. This one satisfied.

I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy twice. The second time was in concert with the appearance of the three movies made from it. I wanted to be as re-familiarized with the plot and the characters before watching director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s classic.

Jackson did a superb job conveying Tolkien’s world to the screen, so I was pleased when the last of the three, The Return of the King, received the Best Picture nod in 2003.

Some movies combine fiction with historical reality. One that accomplished this in a unique way was 1994’s winner, Forrest Gump. It remains one of my favorites; I’ve seen it so many times I practically have it memorized. So many lines from the dialogue have entered into our everyday speech: “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get”; “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”; “stupid is as stupid does.”

We even now have the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.

The interspersing of actual historical footage with Tom Hanks participating is masterful movie-making, in my opinion.

And its bittersweet ending makes us all think about what really matters in life.

Another standout for me was Chariots of Fire, the winner in 1981. The most significant aspect of this film, I think, was the respect it showed for Christian faith in the person of Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday; a second highlight was its focus on acceptance of a Jewish man at Oxford.

Another outstanding feature of the film was the mood set by the theme music along with the runners moving in slow motion on the beach. In all of my years of watching movies, I can say that this one is at the top in quality points, in my estimation.

The print in this picture is too small to read, I know, so I’ll tell you what it says:

This is the story of two men who run . . . not to run . . . but to prove something to the world.

They will sacrifice anything to achieve their goals . . . except their honor.

For those in the younger generation who have never seen Chariots of Fire, I hope you will take this recommendation and fill in the gap in your cultural life.

Other favorites over the years include Oliver (1968) with some truly great music; Ben Hur (1959), which has achieved a classic status few films can hope to copy; The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as Alec Guinness comes to grips with how he has inadvertently helped the enemy and redeems himself through self-sacrifice; All the King’s Men (1949), a dramatic representation of a fictional, yet not so fictional, politician based on the career of demagogue Huey Long; The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), as three men returning from WWII must deal with the trauma they faced during the war and find a way to return to normal lives; Casablanca (1943)–Bogart, Bergman, and the rest is history; and Mrs. Miniver (1942) with the wonderful actress Greer Garson showing us how a strong woman faced the privations and challenges of WWII on the home front.

There are others I liked very much, but these will do. I hope this travelogue was entertaining, informative, and maybe even a little inspirational.

Movies have the potential to move us toward God and His ways just as much as they can push people away from Him. I like to celebrate those that have a solid basis in the Christian worldview.

C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 5)

This week, I’m sharing some of the comments respondents to my Wade Center survey gave regarding the movie versions of Narnia. For the sake of brevity here, I’m excluding comments on earlier productions, such as a 1979 animated Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe and BBC productions of four of the Narnia books back in 1988-1990. So here is the amended question I asked:

Have You Viewed Any of the Narnia Hollywood Productions? If So, What Is Your Opinion of Them?

The Chronicles of NarniaSome respondents were fulsome in their praise of the recent movies, such as the one who commented simply, “I love them. Excellent films and all seem to follow the book fairly closely.” Added to that was another’s perspective: “I thought these films portrayed Lewis’s books very well. They made Lewis’s characters come to life.” And a third contributed, “I believe they are a creative representation of the Biblical narrative that can penetrate hearts and souls.”

All of these responses concentrated on the substance of the films and a sense of satisfaction that they conveyed the essence of what Lewis sought to communicate. Another thought the quality of the production highlighted Lewis’s themes: “Amazing! I love the graphics, the film quality supported the story line and made it so real to me.”

Others, while supportive of the movies, noted some concerns about alterations of the message and about parts that were omitted and/or the addition of extra material that Lewis himself had not introduced. For instance, one respondent commented, “I have seen all three Narnia theatrical films. I enjoyed all three and thought they were generally well done. I was a little disappointed that they ‘watered down’ the Christian elements a bit, but I still thought they were good films and largely faithful to Lewis’s ideas and vision.”

Prince CaspianAnother seemed to suggest that there are natural limitations whenever one tries to convert a book into a film: “I appreciated how they brought the Narnia books to the big screen and made them understandable and attractive for a wider audience. I don’t believe that the movies could ever have quite the depth of the books but I did appreciate the translation of some elements to visual art.”

Similar in tone was this remark: “I have viewed the first two Narnia films. I enjoyed them, but felt that the content of the Narnia stories is better communicated in book form. Film diminishes the charm of Lewis’s authorial voice.”

Despite those positive and semi-positive reviews, comments decrying the loss of Lewis’s vision and disappointment with some of the decisions on how to communicate the message of the books on screen were more numerous. Here are the most representative samples in this grouping:

Voyage of Dawn Treader 2I have seen all three films based on The Chronicles of Narnia. I think they are well done cinematically, although some scenes hint at a low budget and inexperienced actors.

They maintain the integrity of Lewis’s characters and stories in name and outline, but the deviations therefrom are numerous and sometimes so great as to ruin almost entirely the theological, personal, and practical insights and applications made available in the books.

I watched the Chronicles of Narnia films. I think they were good, but commercialized. I think that C.S. Lewis has saturated the market, which is good, but I believe people begin to miss the depth that he provided. Also, the struggle that C.S. Lewis had with the Christian faith. I believe that the popularity of these movies has brought popularity to C.S.Lewis, but I hope that people explore more of his works and begin to wrestle with the different thoughts and ideas that he presented.

I have been SO upset about the ways in which the movies, especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, diverged from the book. The book is my favorite of the series, as it is many others. The movie just took liberties that were “unforgivable.” Wardrobe was good, and Caspian was a “B” also because of things like having the White Witch show up.

I felt very disconnected from the Disney/Walden Media death scene (and movie as a whole) and felt the newer live action films lacked the understanding of the spiritual undertones of the works and Aslan’s character. . . . Disney/Walden’s LWW was the strongest of the recent films. Most people I’ve talked to felt that Prince Caspian was a huge letdown and Voyage could not make up the difference.

How to summarize? Of the three Hollywood films, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes across as the best. There is a strong sense of disappointment in Hollywood’s renditions of Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Finally, there is strong criticism of deviations in the Hollywood scripts and depictions.

Next Saturday, I turn to my final question, which allowed the respondents to say anything they wished about the influence of Lewis on their lives. The survey turned up some fascinating comments.

C. S. Lewis: Impact on Americans (Part 4)

In my 2014 survey, conducted with the help of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, I asked respondents to comment on the Shadowlands films, one produced by the BBC, and the other, more prominent one, by Hollywood.  Here’s the question I asked, along with the responses.

Have You Viewed Any of the Shadowlands Productions? If So, What Is Your Opinion of Them?

In asking this question, I knew most people would be familiar with the big-budget Hollywood version starring Anthony Hopkins (Lewis) and Debra Winger (Joy) that came out in 1993. Not as many, I was sure, would be cognizant of the earlier BBC production from 1985 that aired on both CBS and PBS, with Joss Ackland as Lewis and Claire Bloom as Joy.

Yet that BBC offering won more than a dozen prestigious awards, including the International Emmy for Best Drama and two British Academy Awards. My hope was to get comments that might compare the two, and I did get some, although the majority of respondents were, as I expected, more aware of the 1993 version.

ShadowlandsSome respondents were very pleased with the Hollywood production. As one enthused, “Beautiful story. I saw the Winger/Hopkins movie. . . . I laughed, I cried, I wept when they couldn’t. From the leads to the housekeeper, beautiful casting and wonderful execution.” Another explained, “I have only seen part of the Anthony Hopkins film version, but I enjoyed it. I appreciated being able to visualize Lewis as a person rather than a picture.”

Others, though, thought the Hopkins-Winger version was deficient, particularly in its portrayal of Lewis’s faith and the kind of man he was. As one noted, “It is a good movie, but it is absolutely false in its pale and timid portrayal of Lewis’s robust personality.” Another cast aspersions on the director’s decision on how to portray Lewis: “Richard Attenborough’s film. Serious falsification of Lewis. Simplification and belittling, as if he was a pompous idiot until Joy showed up.”

More than one thought Winger did an exceptional job depicting Joy, but their enthusiasm was tempered by the Lewis persona as shown in the film: “While a good movie on its own (I thought Debra Winger nailed what I think Joy was like), there was much left out, especially in relation to Lewis’s faith. This was a disappointment.”

Others did their best to try to appreciate the good while recognizing the shortcomings. Here are two examples: “It missed much of what makes Lewis so impacting but was entertaining and enlightening into his everyday life”; “It was OK. He didn’t seem like C.S. Lewis . . . not jovial enough.”

Shadowlands BBCThose who saw both adaptations seemed clearly to come out in favor of the 1985 BBC TV movie. One respondent definitely preferred Ackland’s Lewis to Hopkins’s version, while simultaneously praising the production values of the latter: “Joss Ackland has made the best Lewis so far. The Anthony Hopkins Shadowlands was the best film overall, best cinematography.”

Another who preferred Ackland to Hopkins still had kind words for Winger’s portrayal: “I think the actor portraying Lewis in the BBC version was great. I think the actress in the Hollywood version who portrayed Joy was great. I did not care for Anthony Hopkins, felt like he didn’t even try to portray Lewis—just a stereotype of an English professor.”

This comment from another respondent was similar: “The first, BBC, version is infinitely superior in almost every regard. Closer to the facts, and more true to the spiritual journey. The only superiority of the later theatrical film is Debra Winger’s performance as Joy.”

One summarized what seems to be the main complaint for those who were less than thrilled with Hollywood’s offering: “The one with Anthony Hopkins had good acting, good production values, but the script was horrible. The one with Joss Ackland was much better.”

In order to represent fairly the consensus of the survey respondents to the two films, one would have to say that, in general, for those who saw both, they acknowledged the excellent production values of Hollywood’s 1993 version, but were far more enamored with the depiction of Lewis in the BBC version, which they felt was closer to the reality of who the man was.

So much for those films, but what about the Narnia movies that have been produced thus far? How did my respondents react to them? That will be the topic next Saturday.

Evaluating Faith-Themed Films

Biblical themes are emanating from Hollywood in near-record proportions lately. It’s almost reminiscent of all those Biblical epics of the 1950s. This can be a good trend, or it can be simply trendy, depending on the motivation. It also can be damaging to a true depiction of the Scriptures if the image presented is off-base.

Noah MovieThat concern has raged to the surface with the opening of Noah, with Russell Crowe in the title role. I haven’t seen the film. I was planning to see it, and I read a pretty large number of reviews, both positive and negative. Lately, though, those reviews have turned rather sour, and the departures from Scripture appear to be so drastic that I’ve decided not to waste my time or money.

I realize the critique: how can you be honest with your assessment if you don’t see it? Well, I’ll be glad to watch it when it comes on television later, but I’m really not into giving director Darren Aronofsky any more profit. Snake skin transmitting evil? Fallen angels in the form of rock creatures who were punished by God for helping Adam and Eve? These rock creatures building the ark? Methuselah giving Noah an hallucinogenic drink to get the message to build the ark in the first place? The ongoing theme of plants and animals as more important than humans? Noah wanting to murder a newborn child because he believes all humankind should be destroyed? An evil man sneaking onto the ark without Noah’s knowledge? God portrayed more as a vindictive Gaia/Earth Mother than the actual God of the Old Testament?

Have I forgotten anything?

One reviewer commented that the movie is presenting the illusion that this is the actual story of Noah. It may use the Biblical Noah as a prop, but it bears little resemblance to what is found in the Book. Theatrical license and filling in the gaps in a story is one thing; changing the story completely is something else. Apparently, that is what Aronofsky has done.

So I’ll give this one a pass for now.

Son of GodThere are others, though, that are more faithful to Biblical themes. I did see Son of God, the spinoff from the television miniseries that garnered hefty ratings. The movie did well also, at least for a time, although it seems to have faded now. If I recall, it came in second the first week it screened. The actors were very fine; the story was true to the original script (the Bible itself), and any additions or alterations to what can be found in the text were not the kind that damaged the essential message.

The actor who portrayed Jesus did so with just the right spirit, in my view. Both righteousness and mercy could be seen in action and countenance. The crucifixion scene, while not as gritty as The Passion of the Christ, was nevertheless realistic—agonizingly so. Anyone seeing this film would have to think seriously about man’s sinful condition and God’s offer of forgiveness.

God's Not DeadAnother Christian-focused movie currently in theaters is God’s Not Dead. I’ve not yet seen it, but have viewed the trailer a couple of times. I freely admit I had some skepticism upon seeing the trailer the first time. I wondered if it was just preaching to the choir, so to speak. I also wondered if it might be a little too simplistic, especially with a title like that.

Yet the reviews I’ve read have been more positive than I expected. One even talked about how the film deftly handles complex philosophical reasoning about God’s existence. Friends who have seen it came away enthusiastic. Based on all this input, I hope to fit it into my schedule soon and be able to judge for myself.

Heaven Is For RealAnother one, due out this Easter, entitled Heaven Is for Real, is based on the real-life testimony of a small boy who, when he underwent surgery, says he experienced heaven. He came back from this experience with information about a miscarriage his mother had of which he had no knowledge previously. He also identified a picture of a grandfather he had never met in this life, but whom he says he spoke with in heaven.

I don’t know if the message will be close to the Biblical perspective or merely “spiritual” in some vague way, but I’m willing to give it a chance to prove itself. Casting Emmy-award winning actor Greg Kinnear as the father shows it’s not some low-budget feature, but a quality production.

My approach to these films is expressed well by one reviewer, John Hayward, at the Red State site:

Despite the constant media caricature of Christians as prune-faced scolds who can’t wait to protest any movie that gets a single word of Scripture wrong, they’re actually very good sports about creative interpretations of their faith, especially compared with certain religions that… aren’t.  Christian groups respond to movies they mildly disapprove of by expressing mild disapproval.  If they’re really bent out of shape, they might even tell other people not to go see the movie.  And they’ll embrace all sorts of creative embellishments if the serious themes and tenets of their faith are given a respectful hearing.

I give respectful hearings where respectful hearings are earned. I express disapproval when deviations from basic facts warrant such disapproval. Above all, I want to be as fair as possible in my analyses. Check out any of these movies that have sparked an interest and come to your own conclusions as to their relative value.

What Movies Ought to Be

My first degree was in radio, tv, and film production, and I’ve remained fascinated with these forms of communication even as I’ve moved on to the field of history. Historical settings within movies are of particular interest to me; period pieces are a natural draw. I’ve seen two exceptional movies recently that effectively recreate historical periods while simultaneously communicating a worthwhile message.

Christmas CandleThe Christmas Candle is one of the new genre of Christian-based films that has superior production values along with fine acting. Combine a turn-of-the-century English village with a frank discussion of faith in the midst of personal trial, then mix in a touch of the supernatural to show God’s love, and you have a thoughtful presentation of the love of God in any circumstance.

Echolight Studios, which produced the film, is a fairly new endeavor, and if it continues to put out a quality product like this one, it can be a model for others wanting to infuse the market with Christian truth in a form that will speak to any audience.

Book ThiefThe second movie, The Book Thief, is a hauntingly beautiful tale centered on a young German girl during Hitler’s tyranny. Taken in by a foster family, schooled as a Hitler youth, she nevertheless gradually comes to realize the evil inherent within the system. While the film is not explicitly Christian, the fundamental Biblical messages of personal sacrifice, love of family, and compassion for those suffering persecution are weaved throughout.

The acting is about as sublime as I’ve seen in any movie. Frankly, I was practically blown away by the emotional impact conveyed through this story. The actress in the lead role is truly remarkable, as are all the supporting cast.

So if you are looking for more than mere entertainment during this season, I urge you to check out The Christmas Candle and The Book Thief. You should come away from both deeply impressed and more thoughtful. In my opinion, these two films are models of what movies ought to be.

The Nature of Our Culture

Controversy over the role of the media, both the news and entertainment varieties, on the nature of our culture rages on. For a Christian who knows even basic Biblical truths, this should be no controversy. There are numerous passages of Scripture that point to the fact that we become what we think, and that if our minds are inundated with false ideas and/or repeated scenes of degradation and depravity, we certainly will be affected.

On the false ideas front, we have the news media. It is so out of balance that a majority of our population rarely hears another side. The only major news outlet that provides a fair shake to anything Christian or conservative is Fox. It is noteworthy that it does lead the ratings, yet since it is only one of a number of news organizations, if you tally up the numbers for all the others together, most people are still getting their perspective from a very biased source. And the Obama administration does its best to marginalize Fox. A recent study reveals that even though Fox is #1 in the ratings, at presidential news conferences that channel’s representatives rank ninth in the number of times they are called upon to ask a question. As a result, Obama and his minions are hardly ever pressed on controversial decisions they make.

I’m told we have a flu epidemic in the country right now. Well, there’s a different strain of that epidemic also making the rounds:

As for the entertainment media, we are quickly becoming what we watch. I’ve noted before that it’s difficult anymore to find a television program that doesn’t showcase, from time to time or even regularly, a sympathetic homosexual character. There’s an agenda to make homosexuality normative . . . and it seems to be working.

Our latest episode of navel-gazing over gun violence—attacking the guns and not the sinful actions of men as the cause of the violence—has us wondering again about the influence of all the violence in the entertainment field. Movies, in particular, are a major factor in shaping our collective character. Have you noticed which movies are currently most prominent?

Here’s an Oscar they should give out at the awards ceremony:

Not all depictions of violence and depravity are uncalled for. Sometimes, as in the case of Les Miserables, the contrast between the degraded lifestyle and the redeemed makes for powerful visuals for the better. Les Miserables doesn’t glorify depravity; it shows instead the grace of God in leading people out of their sinfulness. Yet, for most films, the opposite seems to be more common—violence and degradation for the sheer fascination of it. That’s when a line is crossed, and we cross that line incessantly.

That’s why we are what we are.

Whittaker Chambers: The Movie

For years, I have commented to as many people as I could that a movie needed to be made of the life of Whittaker Chambers. His story is one so dramatic, so significant historically, and so grounded in spiritual reality that it begs to be told.

Of course, he already has told it in his magisterial autobiography Witness. Clearly one of the seminal books of the twentieth century, it reveals the inner struggle of a man who grew up in a terrible family situation, gave himself over to the revolutionary communist faith, worked in the communist underground to undermine America’s government … then break from that faith to turn to God, where he found ultimate meaning for his life.

He then, in a real sense, gave his life to try to save America from the hidden enemy that wanted to destroy it. His “witness” to the Congress about what he knew of that underground, and the controversy over the role of Alger Hiss as one of his communist compatriots, became front-page news from 1948-1950.

Witness emerged in 1952 and raced to the top of the bestseller list. Yet so few know anything about Whittaker Chambers today.

I, however, have been so fascinated by his tale that I have a full semester course I teach on him and his wonderful book. I’ve also completed a book manuscript that will be published later this year that showcases the similarities and differences between Chambers and Ronald Reagan. The title will be The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom. I’ll let you know when that’s available.

But the reason for this post today is that I discovered there are now seasoned professional filmmakers who are serious about chronicling Chambers’s life and his contribution to the soul of the nation. They need the financial wherewithal to make the film a reality and are seeking to find other interested individuals who can contribute to ensuring this production sees the light of day.

I urge you to visit the website that describes the vision for the film and to prayerfully consider helping with the costs of production. To view the site, just click here.

We are a largely superficial people who don’t think deeply about life and the consequences of our actions. This movie can be one important corrective to our societal malady. Please give it your support.