Calling Out Hollywood
The recent release of the mainstream, yet violent porn film Fifty Shades of Grey (let’s refrain from using the term erotic romance, shall we, because while it has the former in excess, film and cultural critics agree it does not contain the latter) has prompted a firestorm of controversy. One such entrant in this conversation is a Vox.com article that protests the poor quality of Christian films attempting to provide a counter-narrative to this societal trend.
In some areas, the author makes valid points about the challenges inherent in Christian films. In Old Fashioned, for example, the storytelling is stilted at times, as is the acting of the lead actor, who probably should have remained behind the camera. We both appreciate the efforts of his on-screen romantic partner and I gave a bit more grace to the side characters, who I thought helped overcome the weaknesses of the storyline.
But let’s look a bit deeper at this movie that the author so easily dismisses. Here is where I offer the requisite spoiler alert. I agree that the rules Clay lives by are antiquated in our sleep-together, ask-questions-later culture, but his past as a producer of exploitative sex videos who has rejected the cheap “love” that society trumpets provides a powerful motivation for such extreme measures.
In particular, I was drawn to the scene where Amber is walking down a hallway to go sleep with a man who lies to her in order to get her into bed. I found it refreshing that the hollowness of the scene mirrors what many people say they feel after hooking up with someone to temporarily assuage their aching hearts.
I don’t know that Old Fashioned really is preaching to non-Christians in the way the article suggests. There is a clear message of conviction and redemption, but it is for Clay, the Christian, not Amber, the free spirit. His holier-than-thou attitude brings on the ridicule of his friends and family. He is the one who is flawed just as much as she is. It is clearly evocative of the maxim: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
I agree the marketing of the film clearly makes it look like Old Fashioned was made just to complete with Fifty Shades, which is unfortunate. To be fair, however, the nonreligious market often makes films that compete with each other, but take radically different approaches. Armageddon vs. Deep Impact is a key example of such. Fifty Shades is a big-budget Hollywood film, while Old Fashioned is a small-budget indie film, with the quirks and oddities that come with indie films. When we went to see Old Fashioned, it was showing right next door to Fifty Shades and, while the Vox article might call it a knock-off, I would say it is an alternative that presents a different view on the topic of love. Thankfully for both audiences, the theater walls were well insulated.
But all of this is prelude to the larger argument, which is this: if Christians were more willing to use the medium well, Hollywood would be more receptive to their movies.
The author of the Vox article is right that the storyline of the Bible is rife with tales waiting to be told well with modern special effects, but he is seriously delusional if he thinks such projects are going to be greenlit any time soon. Sure, you can look to Noah and Exodus, but those films were so concerned with visuals over story that they lost money, at least domestically. The Passion of the Christ was one of the boldest ventures into this arena and critics complained it was too violent.
Too violent. In Hollywood. Yeah, OK…
You can have children’s films like the Narnia series or Prince of Egypt that are allegorical or historically religious, respectively, and African Americans are allowed to celebrate their faith with genuine passion, but if these are the only two groups who are permitted to express a vibrant faith, then Hollywood is no better than Rudyard Kipling in his ode to ethnic paternalism: “White Man’s Burden”.
And while the author suggests Hollywood would accept films about chastity, the only examples that come to mind are ones that mock purity rather than embrace it (i.e. The 40-Year-Old Virgin).
Now there are exceptions to these rules, but they are few and far between. You had 7th Heaven in the ’90s and The Blind Side in 2009, but finding other shows or movies with positive Christian characters is rather hard. Stephen King seems to enjoy using religious leaders as villains and others employ them for comic relief. In contrast, Aaron Sorkin for the most part has been willing to write Christians as people trying to live out their lives in a complex world. And like in real life, some are good, while others are not.
Some would argue there are no good Christian movies because, apart from the Bible, there is no source material. This claim is just ludicrous. While novels with Christian themes do not enjoy the same level of success as ones without, these authors do sell millions of books and are not strangers to the New York Times Best Sellers List. Two storylines that were able to make it to the screen are the Left Behind novels and the 2014 reboot inspired by the LaHaye and Jenkins series and Janette Oke’s Love Comes Softly series that was made into a string of TV movies.
But the following seven faith-focused authors: Davis Bunn, Ted Dekker, Alton Gansky, Dee Henderson, Angela Hunt, Jan Karon and Lauraine Snelling, most of whom have multiple kudos and have sold in excess of a million copies of their books, have only four film credits to their name despite having written at least 100 novels collectively. If Hollywood depended on such a small handful of authors to make their mainstream films, theaters would be empty most weekends.
And when Hollywood does get a hold of a great story with strong Christian themes, such as The Vow, it performs literary liposuction, sucking out the faith that fueled the endurance of the real-life couple. The resulting product is a less-than-satisfying, date-night movie that does little to please the built-in audience from which it was borrowed.
While they are not perfect, indie films with Christian themes like Do You Believe, God’s Not Dead, Grace Unplugged, Old Fashioned and Turnaround Jake, are trying to express the ideas of faith and grace, redemption and forgiveness outside the Hollywood structure that claims to enjoy diversity, but its attempts at such inclusiveness are, to borrow a line from the Vox author, “so painfully bad”. And what motivation is there for actors, writers and directors to want to make big-budget, faith-friendly films when they know Hollywood’s track record for supporting such ventures is woefully lacking?
If Hollywood executives were smart, they would seriously court the faithful they way they market to groups like young adults, by buying well-told stories, paying for good actors, directors and film crews and promoting said films with at least a healthy portion of the energy they do these other releases.
There are good faith-driven stories out there waiting to be shared with a larger audience that would happily pay to see them, if only Hollywood would wise up and produce them.
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I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.