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August 27, 2008

’Fireproof’ Storytelling

Fireproofposter "Stop it. Stop trying to make me cry!"

That was Travis' response to Fireproof, a Christian film coming to theaters September 26. The movie, produced by the same church that made Facing the Giants, introduces fireman Caleb (Kirk Cameron), who is a hero to everyone but his wife. As an explicitly evangelistic film, Fireproof sets up Caleb's floundering marriage as the perfect contrast to God's unwavering love.

So, getting back to Travis and crying, my thoughts exactly.

I went to the film with a popcorn bag full of prejudices, fully expecting to witness the cheesiest, low-budget Christian flick, and come away patting myself on the back for my high taste in quality film. I left with my fair share of tears, and more questions than I had answers.

Like, what makes a good story?

Let's see. For one, empathetic characters. Fireproof had plenty of those, hence the sniffles. Two, irony. The film got that down too, with a guy who can rescue everything except his marriage. Three, ambiguity. That's where, I think, the film stumbled.

In an interesting conversation over at the United Methodist Church's Reporter, writer Mary Jacobs said, "The urge to propagandize and the inability to handle ambiguity is a hallmark of bad filmmaking, regardless of the director's religious or political leaning."

Hmm. A journalist's best piece of advice has always been, "Show, don't tell." Most writers learn this lesson the hard way. I know I did. But once you learn it, you never forget. You learn it's better to say, "The little girl skipped all the way home" than "The little girl looked happy." It's more convincing, it's more interesting, and it lets your reader connect the dots. The same is true in film.

One turning point in Fireproof--the part that lays out the Gospel--doesn't leave many dots to connect.  Instead, it walks the viewer through every stop along the character's thinking. I don't think the producers did this because they didn't know how to tell a story; I think they didn't want to risk the possibility that someone--particularly a non-Christian--might miss the spiritual significance of the moment. They sacrificed ambiguity for clarity, and, in doing so, weakened the film.

But were they wrong? I don't know.

Another writer over at the Reporter made this comment: "I can certainly think of movies that are good for the soul, that offer hope and redemption, with characters who do the honorable thing, yet don't even mention Jesus Christ."

Something about that sounds dangerous. In trying so desperately to be ambiguous, is it possible that we've somehow come to equate good filmmaking with watering down the truth, the Gospel? Sure, it's a high calling to present films that are "good for the soul," that "offer hope and redemption," and create characters who "do the honorable thing." But does that mean there's no place for films that run the risk of becoming a little more explicit?

Offering hope and redemption are good, but only when they are based on the right foundation. Pointing to some vague notion of hope and redemption, like Shawshank does, accomplishes a good purpose. But I've never walked away from that movie thinking, "Wow, now I understand the Gospel." We can criticize a film for poor storytelling, but we must never bash it for mentioning Christ.

Let's envision the best-case scenario--that Fireproof wasn't a low-budget film, but a Christian Braveheart that wasn't ashamed of Christ and still winsomely ambiguous, the kind of film that critics could walk away from without shaking their heads, and non-Christians could walk away from understanding the full story of redemption.

Still, I'd have questions.

Is it right of us to ask a film to do all of these things? Is it right of us to ask a film to explain the entire story of redemption? I'm not convinced that good film--like good literature and music--should ever strive to tell the whole story; rather, it should point to where we can find the Full Story.

In keeping with ambiguity, I'll let you connect the dots.

(Gina's recent article in BreakPoint WorldView Magazine offers some deeper considerations of Christians and filmmaking.)   

(Image © Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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Mike Perry

Yeah, some of these things are a difficult call and past exaggerations make it easy to overreact. I'm thinking in particular of all the Billy Graham films that seem to magically have BG making a once-in-a-quarter-century visit to a city just as the spiritual crisis develops. Improbable to an extreme. It's also why I'm still wrestling with whether to do fiction. Can I let my characters be themselves and not become tools for a point I want to make?

The film's theme is a much needed one. A generation ago, women realized men had their quirks and lived with them. Today, all too many women, including Christian women, seem to pick up our society's hostility toward men that are good providers but a bit boring. And some seem to forget that men typically tire of romance, regarding it as an emotional drain, and focus on their often useful careers, here fighting fires. You see that come up time and again in the Die Hard films. Women need to learn to admire their man for what he is not what some women's magazine says he ought to be.

And given that the problem also pervades our churches, we shouldn't regard conversion as the complete answer. At my church, a husband, who seems to have been tiring of his marriage, has simply disappeared. The police see no evidence of foul play and aren't investigating further.



I don't know that you can ever just let your character's "be themselves" without being tools for the message you are trying to convey. As the writer, every character, whether good or bad, explicitly or implicitly, is serving the message you want communicated. And, whether you are trying to or not, your work of fiction will be advancing a message.

Now, whether or not they will pound you in the face with the message is another question.

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