Faith and Film in the Post-Passion Era
Religious Themes in Constantine and Because of Winn-Dixie — and looking ahead to The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe
By Steven D. Greydanus
If you’ve noticed that mainstream Hollywood films that explicitly assume a Christian worldview and deal with matters of redemption or reconciliation are as rare as magic wardrobes or lamp-posts in the middle of the woods, you might want to sit up and take note on February 18, as two of them open in theaters on the same day.
In most respects, the two films couldn’t be more different. Certainly they’re targeting completely different audiences, and few people will be looking to catch both films. But both are signposts of the very different roles that religious ideas and symbolism play in contemporary popular culture.
might sound like the latest entry in Hollywood’s string of
violent costume dramas (Alexander, Troy, King Arthur), but it’s
not actually about the Roman emperor who was the subject of such
religious films as Constantine and the Cross. In this
film, instead of a sign in the sky, the cross is a weapon in the
hero’s hands. Starring Keanu Reeves, Constantine is a sort
of a cross between Hellboy and The
Exorcist with some Matrix attitude thrown in, a
Because of Winn-Dixie is a heartwarming family film faithfully adapted from a best-selling Newbery Honor book about the 10-year-old daughter of a Baptist preacher (Jeff Daniels), and how their lives and those of others in their town are changed by a big, scruffy dog. Like 2003’s Holes, another excellent adaptation of a beloved children’s book, Because of Winn-Dixie is from Walden Media, the education-oriented film house that is bringing C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe to theaters this December.
Recently the director, writer, and stars of Constantine spoke to Decent Films and other religious and non-religious press about various aspects of the film, including its religious vocabulary and conventions, at a Los Angeles event publicizing the film. Walden Media co-founder Micheal Flaherty also spoke with Decent Films about Because of Winn-Dixie and The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe.
"The Constantinan twist"
Comments from the Constantine filmmakers about the film’s religious themes at times resembled a panel discussion of biblical commentators from various denominations, each with a somewhat different point of view on the nature of the film’s themes, John Constantine’s dilemma and redemption, and the nature of other characters such as the film’s archangel Gabriel.
Asked about the role of Catholic or broadly Christian themes in the film and its source material, screenwriter Kevin Brodbin, who produced the first draft, commented, "It was never firmly one religion or the other… Constantine knows there’s a God, knows there’s a devil… It was never that firmly entrenched — it does have maybe a Judeo-Christian basis, but it was never firmly one religion or the other."
But his fellow writer Frank Capello, who was responsible for the final version of the script, disagreed. "I think that religion, Christianity, heaven and hell is a big part of the comic book. It is there a lot." Director Francis Lawrence concurred: "It’s obviously rooted in a sort of Catholic theology… [though] you don’t have to be Catholic to relate, because there are these really broad ideas that I think work for a lot of people spiritually and philosophically." Lawrence also commented, "This stuff is very, very serious to a lot of people, so you have to be cautious, and be respectful… I never went into this to ruffle any feathers, or to have anybody embrace the film either."
How did star Keanu Reeves regard the film’s religious vocabulary and conventions? "I think of it as just a kind of secular religosity," he said. "The piece itself is using icons… a kind of Catholic heaven and hell, God and the devil [fighting for] human souls… I was hoping that these concepts could become a platform [for ideas] that are humanistic, that the journey of this particular hero… even though they’re such fantastical characters and situations — that it’s still a man trying to figure it out."
There were also different points of view about precisely why Constantine is consigned to hell, and the nature of his eventual redemption. On one point everyone agreed: Constantine’s battle against the forces of darkness isn’t motivated by selfless reasons. "He’s sending demons to hell, but he’s doing it to buy favors from God," says Broadbin. "He’s discovered he’s dying, and he knows where he’s going — he’s going to hell… And he’s going to try to negotiate with God."
For Capello, though, there’s an additional difficulty: Constantine’s direct experiences of the supernatural preclude true faith; since he knows, he can’t believe. "There’s no faith going on here… He really does already know what we all wish — what faith is, what we wish we knew in our heart. Some people accept it totally, some people go, you gotta prove it to me. I have to see it. John’s seen it."
Then there’s the question of repentance. In one scene, Constantine mentions the necessity of repenting in order to be forgiven. Why doesn’t Constantine simply repent his sins, especially the suicide attempt that sent him briefly to hell?
"Does he ask for redemption? He wouldn’t," says Capello. "His pride gets in the way of his asking to be let off the hook. So he basically says, ‘I’m going to do it myself.’ And when you believe in yourself, you don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to lower yourself to beg. And that’s kind of what he almost does [in one critical scene]… he almost gets there. He is a character who has a defined set of rules for himself. He pretty much says, ‘I won’t beg. I won’t ask for forgiveness. I won’t do all these things.’ "
"Repentance," says Keanu reflectively, pausing a moment. (Whoa.) "I think the aspect of repentance is expressed in his act — I don’t want to give it away — but his final act… that’s his repentance, and I think — and his sacrifice, and what goes on there — I think that’s what, you know, gives him a shot at going Upstairs."
But is Constantine’s redemptive final act truly selfless? Capello doesn’t think so. "When you realize that it’s going to be over soon, you’re going to align yourself to the side where you’re going to feel the least pain. I mean, truly it’s a selfish thing even in the end, I believe. It’s still selfish because I’ll feel less pain if I go [to Heaven] than if my soul is ripped apart for all [eternity]."
But the director and star disagree. "There’s also the Constantinian twist of, did he make the sacrifice so that he could go to heaven, or does he really mean it?" Keanu acknowledges. "But he does [mean it], he does. I mean, ultimately he does, otherwise, the Man Upstairs knows, just like Santa Claus, if you’re telling a lie or if you’re really nice. He knows." Lawrence concurs: "Because he is a con man you can say, wow, is it a trick? But it can’t be a trick."
One aspect of Constantine that everyone seems to agree on is the notion of good and evil in a kind of dualistic "balance," neither stronger or more fundamental than the other. Lawrence expressly calls them "two equal forces," adding, "I believe that the world exists in a sort of polarized way. For there to be good, there has to be evil… that’s the idea of the balance… you need one for the other."
Despite this notion of a "balance," though, Constantine is full of demons wreaking havoc, yet never shows us angels fighting for good. Infernal imagery abounds, but there’s barely a glimpse of heaven. Why is that?
Capello offers two different explanations. On the one hand, he says, "That’s the point of this story — that it has changed, the balance is shifting, something is going wrong. They’re supposed to be equal, they’re supposed to be balanced. Then why are we seeing demons? That is the point of this movie. So, the balance is upset, is unbalanced."
But he also points to a larger creative difficulty. "The reason why heaven isn’t shown as much in these kinds of movies, honestly, is that no one knows how to depict it in a cool way. It seems like an audience loves hell — they want to see demonic images — but if you show them angelic, if you show them light, if you show them white, they go, oh gosh… Francis [Lawrence] even said one time, you know, how do you depict heaven in an artistically cool way? [One] that that we haven’t seen before — that’s the other trouble. I mean, we’ve seen it in so many movies where heaven is right here, it’s in the subway, it’s this, it’s that, it’s just how you look at life. But when you’re doing a visual film and you want it up there on the screen, it is hard to get away from that classic image of light, angels, that sort of thing. So it is a practicality, it’s that you’re trying to do something cool, and what does the audience want to see?"
Was the difficulty of portraying heaven the real reason for leaving it out of the film? "No," says Lawrence. "[Heaven] wasn’t written into the story at all, it wasn’t there in the story. So we didn’t have to worry about it." But Lawrence adds that he would "definitely" be open to dealing more with the forces of light in a sequel. "[Heaven] is definitely part of Constantine’s world. It just wasn’t as much a part of this story."
Asked about the character of Gabriel (an androgynous Tilda Swinton), whose nature in the film is decidedly unclear, the filmmakers tacitly acknowledge that this is one of the points at which Constantine doesn’t quite hold together. Capello initially identifies Gabriel as the archangel of scripture, but Broadbin explains him (or her) as a "half-breed" human spirit elevated to angelic status. In the end, Capello admits the inconsistency, explaining the character as an established part of the comic-book story. Questioned on the same point, Lawrence acknowledges simply, "If you really dig in, there are some little flaws in the rules."
"Faith is one of the most transformational things"
There are no angels or demons in Because of Winn-Dixie, but for Micheal Flaherty (whose Irish last name is a clue to the spelling of his first name, an authentic Irish variant) there’s no question that the story will appeal to religious audiences.
Asked about the film’s religious resonances, he says, "What I love about it is that the little girl has a wonderful personal relationship with God. When she has a problem, she addresses God directly with it, and asks him for help. The other message that I think about it that’s so powerful is that too many times we think we have it all figured out, but the truth is we’re all broken. I think John Eldridge said, ‘I don’t ever want to be friends with someone who’s not broken.’ I think the film has a lot to say about when you are broken, the best thing to do is to lay those burdens down. Which is the hymn at the end of the film."
Like other Walden films such as Holes and I Am David, Because of Winn-Dixie tackles some tough themes, but in a way that makes them accessible to children. Nothing in the film is really inappropriate for children of any age (my wife and I screened the film with our kids, ages 10, 6, 4, and under 2), though the film touches on broken families and alcoholism.
The story "can be pretty complex," Flaherty says, "and there’s a lot of interesting themes in there that adults can really relate to as well… The four-year-olds just want to adopt a Winn-Dixie now. There are enough dog moments and slapstick in there that the [really young] kids don’t get completely restless."
Flaherty says that Walden Media is committed to producing family-friendly entertainment. Asked about stories with rough or mature content, Flaherty says that he doesn’t have a problem with them but won’t be bringing any of them to Walden. "It’s just not what we do. It’s so hard when you’re a parent and you’re so busy. We really want that Walden brand to represent something for parents, so they know there won’t be anything in there that will embarrass them in front of their children. Some of my favorite movies are rated-R movies," he adds, citing Saving Private Ryan and Glory as examples. "I wouldn’t take my kids to [them], but thank goodness they made [them]. So it’s just not what we do. We’re really trying to create a brand here that parents can trust."
Flaherty’s enthusiasm for Narnia author C. S. Lewis comes out as he talks about the theme of joy in Because of Winn-Dixie. "One of the things that I really like about this book, and it’s one of the reasons why I really like C. S. Lewis, is I’ve always found that the choice of the word joy is a very deliberate one, and I think there’s a big difference between joy and happiness. And I like the fact that one of the better lines that I can remember in any film is, ‘People keep talking about their sadness, and I think they forgot how to share their joy.’ I think that’s a great line. One of my favorite bits of scripture is Philippians 4:4, ‘Be anxious about nothing,’ and we all know how many times the word joy is mentioned in Philippians. So that was something that I really appreciated about it."
Mention of Lewis, naturally, raises the subject of The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe — which, coincidentally, has at least one thing in common with Constantine: actress Tilda Swinton, Constantine’s Gabriel, plays the White Witch.
"We’re big C. S. Lewis fans, and we’re really looking forward to bringing a faithful adaptation of The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe just as we did with Holes and Winn-Dixie… We’re in the business of faithful adaptations. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. That’s what we’re doing with The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. We’re just taking that book and bringing to the screen…
"If we’re not going to make these faithful adaptations, then we should just fold up shop, because that’s our whole purpose and that’s our whole mission. Even if we were to succeed commercially, if we didn’t have that support [from the fans of the books], there’d be no reason for us to exist."
Regarding the allegorical religious dimension of the Narnia books, Flaherty points to Walden’s PBS special "The Question of God," which contrasts Lewis’s theistic worldview with Freud’s materialistic one, as evidence of Walden’s sensitivity to matters of religious belief in general and Lewis’s outlook in particular.
"I don’t know why people now feel the need to divorce the mind from the soul. They can coexist — you can have something that really makes you think, that’s based on great literature, that also has a strong message about a hope in the unseen, about the transcendent…
"Faith is one of the most transformational things in human history, and if you want to tell great stories, many times it’s going to involve that. You shouldn’t ignore it."