Last night I saw “Heaven is for Real” available to rent at Redbox. Having read the book, and presented seminars critiquing it, and having written a sixty page book proposal titled What on Earth Happened to Colton Burpo? which was rejected by the publishers because they were worried that I (and they) would appear to be picking on a little four year old, I said, “What the heck, let’s see what Hollywood did with the story.”
(Okay, I didn’t actually say that. It was added for dramatic embellishment.)
The movie follows the same basic storyline as the book. Todd Burpo is a struggling pastor in the heartland of Imperial, Nebraska when his three year old son, Colton, falls deathly ill. After he recovers, Colton begins recounting his experiences of visiting heaven and the rest is history. (In fact, I think the rest is false memory, but let’s hold off on that for a bit.)
It seems to me that the film is aiming to recapture the magic and wholesomeness of “Field of Dreams”. But I must say that I find the concept of the ghosts of baseball past playing ball on a cornfield in Iowa far more exciting than a three year old Nebraskan’s hokey tidbits on the afterlife.
“Heaven is for Real” wisely leaves Colton’s sillier recollections to one side: God the Father sitting on a literal throne, the Holy Spirit being colored “blue”, the saints strapping on swords in preparation for an apocalyptic battle straight out of Hal Lindsey’s imagination while Jesus prances around on a white horse, the dearly departed moving around with angels wings and halos, and so on.
Greg Kinnear does a serviceable job as Todd Burpo. Though he can’t touch the performance of Kevin Costner’s “Ray Kinsella” in “Field of Dreams”. And he’s also twenty years too old to be Colton’s dad.
I mentioned that the screenplay avoids depicting Colton’s sillier recollections. This may be wise for the film, but it should lead the fan of the book to ask: if I couldn’t take something seriously when depicted on the silver screen, why do I take it seriously when on the printed page?
The film is also wise to focus in on the theme of Todd Burpo struggling to make sense of his son’s experiences. Unfortunately, the result is still ponderously slow. Heaven won’t be boring. But Heaven is for Real is.
Even worse, the film struggles to overcome the common sense skepticism of the average viewer who will find far simpler explanations for a young boy who suddenly says that angels sang to him in the hospital weeks after he recovered from an illness.
That said, those who already believe Colton’s story will likely find themselves inspired by the spectacle. After all, the film scored a stellar A rating from Cinemascore (Cinemascore polls movie goers as they leave the theater).
But my household consists not of true believers in Colton’s fanciful tale. As we were watching, a psychologist explains to Todd Burpo how his son’s purported memories can be explained simply in natural terms. As she talked my daughter quipped, “That’s the first person to make sense so far.”
And that’s precisely the problem. “Heaven is for Real” is palatable for the true believers in Colton’s story.
The rest of us should stick with “Field of Dreams”.