This fall a film based on Donald Miller’s bestselling spiritual memoir, Blue Like Jazz, is expected to hit theaters nationwide. In many ways, Miller’s book is an unlikely subject for a feature film.
Blue Like Jazz is a collection of semi-autobiographical short essays based in part on Miller’s experience auditing classes at Reed College in Oregon that explore the author’s wrestling with questions of faith.
But the film project is part of a growing trend of adapting well-known “Christian” or Christian-themed books (both fiction and nonfiction) as feature films. Recent movies based on C.S. Lewis‘ Chronicles of Narnia series have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Two more film adaptations of Lewis’ works — The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce — are in development.
Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media, the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”
Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Dickerson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose“) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”
While the film is on a “fast track” and a 2012 release is likely, Winter is in no hurry to get it into theaters. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who ruined it,” he said. “So I’m gonna go slow … We’ll get there in God’s timing and when it’s right.”
“Screwtape” has sparked speculation about who should play the demon protagonists. Winter talked about “archetypal” actors, such as a “John Goodman-type” for the role of Screwtape, and perhaps someone wholly unexpected for Wormwood — maybe even an actress, such as Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon. The film likely would not be a period piece set in 1940s Britain, Winter said, but instead feature a more contemporary setting in North America or elsewhere.
How about a Screwtape Letters set in modern-day Dublin? Bono of U2 (who played with Screwtape-style spiritual parodies as Macphisto during the band’s Zoo TV tour in the ’90s) could be Screwtape, with the wide-eyed Irish actor Cillian Murphy (“Breakfast on Pluto”) as Wormwood, and world-weary countryman Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game”) as The Patient. If Dickerson doesn’t come through as director, Irish director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In America”) would round out a Dublin Screwtape production perfectly with his signature mix of melancholy and dark humor. And Roddy Doyle (“The Commitments”) could lend a hand with the screenplay.
What is it about Lewis that makes his work — both fiction and nonfiction — such appealing fodder for films?
“First and foremost, Lewis was a serious scholar, steeped in the classics,” said Craig Detweiler of Pepperdine University’s Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture. “He understood the mythic power of story and the indelible impact of memorable characters. Lewis engaged in flights of fancy. His cinematic imagination exceeded Hollywood’s ability to render it onscreen. So special effects are just no catching up to the visions of authors like Lewis and Tolkien.
“He also found metaphors that embodied enduring truths. Lewis’s stories are laden with issues of faith and doubt, frailty and redemption that inspire us across generations. And surely, the entertainment industry longs for stories that appeal to all ages and cultures, “Detweiler said.
While the prolific Lewis has enough material in his oeuvre to keep filmmakers busy for decades to come, his are not the only enduringly popular Christian books that could translate into powerful cinema. Here are a few humble suggestions, with a little help from my Facebook friends:
Godric by Frederick Buechner
Godric is a fictional retelling of the life and travels of the medieval English saint, Godric of Finchale. Phillip Seymour Hoffman would be stunning as Godric, with Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”) as his secretary/biographer and the inimitable Wallace Shawn (“Princess Bride”) as Elric the wizened old hermit. (Imagine Shawn’s quirky lisp delivering lines like, “My skull’s a chapel. So is yours. The thoughts go in and out like godly folk to Mass. But what of hands that itch for gold?”) Peter Jackson directs.
(Actor Ned Beatty holds the film rights to Buechner’s epic Book of Bebb, a quartet of novels about the Rev. Leo Bebb, the archetypal smarmy, corrupt preacher. Get this project to Joel and Ethan Coen, pronto, with Beatty or Charles Durning as Bebb.)
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Lamott’s hilarious and deeply spiritual memoir about her unexpected single motherhood and the first year of her son’s life would take “Christian” fodder to a new place: romantic comedy. Sandra Bullock, Catherine Keener (“The 40-year-old Virgin”) or Laura Linney (“The Big C”) have the strength, humor and neurotic energy to portray Lamott. Fill out the cast with the quirky soulfulness of folks like Frances McDormand, Holly Hunter, Dianne Wiest, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Broadbent and Zooey Deschanel. Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers directs, and Sam Phillips does the musical score.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — the fictional autobiography of the Rev. John Ames, a dying, elderly congregational minister in rural Gilead, Iowa — is ripe for a cinematic retelling. Robert Duvall/Brad Pitt as Ames. Ryan Gosling as Jack Boughton. Cate Blanchett as Lila. T-Bone Burnett does the soundtrack with ample input from Alison Krauss and Union Station. Clint Eastwood directs.
The Shack by William Paul Young
In the novel, God appears to the protagonist, Mack, as three persons — “Papa,” an African-American woman (who also goes by “Elouisa”); a Middle Eastern carpenter; and an Asian woman named “Sarayu.” Young has said he is working on a screenplay for “the Shack,” and at least one fan site is lobbying for Queen Latifah to play “Papa/Elouisa.” (If not the Queen, how about Wanda Sykes or — do we dare — The Oprah?) Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) would bring a great ironic soulfulness to the carpenter and Margaret Cho an unexpected fierceness and humor to “Sarayu.” Steve Carrell, Greg Kinnear or Luke Wilson as Mack. Director Tom Shadyac (“Evan Almighty”) would hit it out of the park.
Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
This 1971 science fiction novel follows its protagonist, Dr. Thomas More (a descendent of Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia), an alcoholic lapsed Catholic psychiatrist and enthusiastic lothario in a small Louisiana town called Paradise. Set in a time when society is coming apart at the seams (a fact only More seems to notice), the novel deals with themes of social ills, psychological malaise and a machine called the Ontological Lapsometer that might be the solution to (or the downfall of) society’s impending destruction. Cast Bill Murray as More and let Terry Gilliam direct with his Pythonian sense of humor and eccentric twists on reality.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton’s 17th-century, 10,000-line poem about the temptation of Adam and Eve by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (and the subsequent fall of man) is laden with eternal themes of good and evil, sin and free will, God’s goodness and justice, and laced with mythological and theological touchstones. Let Francis Ford Coppola have his way with this one and cast Jack Nicholson (or Robert De Niro) as the Devil with Jason Schwartzman as Adam and Natalie Portman as Eve.
Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell
Bell’s first book, a nonfiction bestseller that, as the author puts it, “re-imagines” the Christian faith, could be the jumping off point for a biopic about Bell himself — the 40-year-old evangelical pastor Time magazine dubbed a “rock star” of the faith. At the same time, a movie version of Velvet Elvis could be a cultural snapshot of so many other young Christians pushing the boundaries of traditionalism and embracing culture in innovative ways. Owen Wilson is a shoe-in for Bell. And the mind reels at what Wes Anderson’s singular storytelling, idiosyncratic sensibilities and hyper attention to cultural details could do with this story.
A version of this post originally appeared via Religion News Service.