A Review of Pilgrim’s Progress: The Movie

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Published:
May 3, 2019

Over Easter weekend, Revelation Media’s new animated film adaptation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress opened in select theaters across the United States. The film begins with a brief welcome video featuring Northern Irish singer-songwriter Kristyn Getty (best known for the hymn “In Christ Alone”), who offers an introduction to Bunyan’s story and its context.[1] She also speaks of the importance of imagination in the life of a believer, the special connection between creative humans and the Creator God. Pilgrim’s Progress, she concludes, is an example of the transformative power of spiritual imagination.

This link between imagination and salvation remains prominent in the film’s early minutes, which offer backstory on Christian, his city, and the book that starts him on pilgrimage. In Bunyan’s original story, Christian’s hometown, the City of Destruction, is described only in vague terms — it is suggested to be a town in which the daily routine of work, family life, and neighborly gossip goes on much as in any other town. The film, in adapting the story, begins by presenting the city of “Noitcurtsed” (or “Not Cursed,” as the local leaders disingenuously call it) as a grim factory town replete with rickety tenements, sooty chimneys, clanking machines that are never seen to produce anything useful, and gloomy-faced workers perpetually driven by the clock. Christian Pilgrim and his fellow workers are treated more as machines than humans by the hook-nosed supervisor, his short, toadyish foreman, and Prince Apollyon, who rules over the city from a smoky, elevated castle. Noitcurtsed, in short, is depicted as a cursed industrial dystopia in which imagination has no place, and Apollyon’s tyranny and Christian’s misery are made clear before there is any mention of fleeing from “the wrath to come.”

This unhappy monotony is disrupted by the foreman’s panicky shout: “A man’s gone missing!”[2] The authorities pound down the door of the vanished worker, Faithful Pathfinder. They find his apartment to be completely covered in bright-colored drawings — walls, floor, furniture — depicting monsters, angels, warriors, gardens, and brilliant palaces. The foreman and supervisor are scandalized, perhaps by the heretical content, perhaps by the heresy of the creative act itself. They order Christian to clean out the room and destroy every trace of paper. Christian, on the sly, picks up a book. He reads, like Bunyan’s original, of “fire from heaven” that threatens his city, news that weights him with his invisible burden of guilt and dread.

From this point, the film more or less follows Bunyan’s story line: Christian falls into the Swamp of Despond, visits the Interpreter and the House Beautiful, loses his burden at the cross, fights Apollyon, escapes Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle, and finally crosses the river and arrives at the Celestial City. Several episodes are edited out, and a few extra dragons are added, but the most iconic episodes are all present and accounted for.

In presenting these scenes, the filmmakers create memorable and sometimes amusing fleshing-out for events Bunyan presents only in outline. For example, early in the story Christian is persuaded to go to Mr. Legality, in the town of Morality, for help in removing his burden. Bunyan never actually brings Legality onstage; readers only see him described second-hand in the opposing accounts of Evangelist and Worldly Wiseman. The film depicts Legality as an animate statue, something like Michelangelo’s Moses, rooted to the top of a precipitous Mt. Sinai (“I cannot come to you,” he tells Christian; “I am not a man — I am a mountain”). He spends his time chiseling contradictory commandments onto tablets of stone and flinging them down the slope, so that the mountain is littered with tombstone-like monuments inscribed with “REST,” “WORK HARDER,” “SILENCE,” “SPEAK UP,” “KEEP WALKING,” “STAND YOUR GROUND,” “DON’T MAKE A MISTAKE.” When Legality tells Christian that his only hope is in obeying the commandments, Christian understandably asks, “Which ones?” Bunyan’s warning against seeking righteousness by works is vividly driven home. Legalism is shown to be the antithesis not only of grace, but of imagination.

The link between these two qualities is reinforced soon after, when Christian arrives at the home of the Interpreter, who presents various visual parables (which turn out to be useful to Christian later in his journey), and who counsels Christian: “Do not only look, but see; do not only hear, but listen.” From an audio-visual standpoint, this cinematic Interpreter seems especially calculated to appeal to enthusiasts of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films; Bunyan’s nondescript male guide becomes a blond, white-robed, semi-luminous woman inhabiting a hollow tree (miraculously expanded inside into a comfortable, well-furnished house, though an unusually round one). Ethereally voiced by Kristyn Getty, she might be Galadriel’s twin sister (if her ears were only a little pointier). There is artistic symmetry in this likeness (in addition to its crowd-pleasing appeal). Tolkien’s trilogy, with its burdened hero, wise guides, and succession of monsters, is very much in the spiritual fantasy tradition that Bunyan helped to establish. The visual Rings allusions might serve to bring the chain of influence full circle. Getty, in an interview with Christianity Today, describes the Interpreter as a possible alter ego for Bunyan himself, and for all Christian artists (including herself) who seek to convey spiritual insight through words, pictures, or stories. She says, “People writing songs and telling stories is part of what holds the generations together; we can look back and learn from those who went before us. And we can find fresh ways to engage the culture we live in.”[3] By drawing occasionally from other well-known allegories (which themselves may have drawn from Bunyan), the film positions itself as an Interpreter within a long line of fellow-Interpreters, all using their creative powers to give light in dark places.

The filmmakers draw not only from more recent fantasy, but from everyday life. In particular, late in the film, when Christian and Hopeful have been warned to “Beware the Flatterer,” they are promptly led astray by the Flatterer. Bunyan gives little dialogue for this encounter. He does not even mention that the man praised or complimented the two pilgrims (perhaps thinking that this goes without saying); he leaves a conversational blank for imaginative readers to fill in. Screenwriter-director Robert Fernandez makes the Flatterer’s flatteries subtle at first (“Are you also going to the Celestial City? It is not many who make it this far”). Christian and Hopeful first try to stay humble (“We are unworthy — we are very imperfect pilgrims”). Flatterer asks them to tell something of their adventures. Hopeful attempts to deflect the attention by shifting it to Christian (“Christian is far more experienced than I — I admire and look up to him.” “As do I, now that you have told me!” Flatterer exclaims). Christian is gradually led on to forget his modesty (“Well, I suppose I have met with my share of dangers — and I fought Apollyon too!”). Fernandez has not only closely studied Bunyan’s book; he has also listened to conversations between actual humans. Flatterer’s gradual drawing-out, culminating in the net, is, perhaps, one of the most troubling scenes in the play because it is the most mundane. Many viewers have not been imprisoned by a giant or done hand-to-hand combat with a dragon. But this gradual massaging of the ego, the quiet conversational leading-along into one trap or another — this is not allegory, but experience.

Another addition, or at least a shift in emphasis, is the film’s frequent behind-the-scenes glimpses of Apollyon and his demons as they plot the pilgrims’ downfall. In Bunyan’s text, evil seems somewhat episodic. Christian and his companions meet with wicked characters (spirits or humans) who try to harm them; sometimes they repel these enemies; sometimes they are overthrown and must be rescued. Readers are vaguely aware that there is probably some coordination — once or twice the narrator reports that a chief Enemy “sent” a demon to make one kind of attack or another — but in general, this coordination is left to inference. In the film, this demonic hierarchy (what C. S. Lewis would call a “lowerarchy”) is foregrounded: the Foreman in the cursed city drives and bullies the workers and reports to the Supervisor; the Supervisor reports to Apollyon and deploys strategy after strategy to bring back the runaways — force, persuasions, and traps. Worldly Wiseman and Flatterer are both shown to be disguises for the Supervisor, who, after each failure, is battered and singed by the wrathful Apollyon. There are villainous conspiracy sessions of the sort familiar to Frank Peretti readers and Disney fans, punctuated with awkwardly-timed cackling. These devilish councils do lessen the focus Bunyan places on Christian and on the human point of view (from which hardships and temptations generally do seem episodic); but they also reinforce the story’s through-line and make the enemies appear more personal.

The film also adapts the story to modern tastes in giving more prominence to Christian’s wife, Christiana, and his children. Bunyan’s Christian, having once left his family, scarcely mentions them, except in one brief conversation at the House Beautiful. Prudence and her sisters, if they do not exactly say “good riddance,” are quick to assure him that since his family have not heeded his warning, “they thereby show themselves to be implacable to good.”[4] Christiana and the boys are thus dismissed from the story for the remainder of Christian’s journey. At no point, once he has left home, does a thought of his family make Christian consider going back. Christian’s seeming indifference may have made some sense, perhaps, in the seventeenth century, when marriages were frequently based more on business than on affection, and when repeated religious and political upheavals split families and communities throughout England, as Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans were privileged and persecuted by turns. It might likewise have been a necessary coping strategy for Bunyan himself, whose refusal to stop preaching, and his consequent twelve-year imprisonment, left his wife, Elizabeth, struggling to provide for herself and his four children.[5] Twenty-first century Evangelical audiences, by contrast, who regard “Christian values” and “family values” as almost synonymous, might have difficulty forgiving a man who would simply walk out on his wife and children over religious differences. To maintain viewers’ sympathy, Christian’s decision must be both more visibly anguished and more clearly motivated by his family’s interests. When, in the film, Apollyon seeks to lure Christian from his pilgrimage, he shows him visions of his pleading wife and children and taunts him with saving himself while leaving them to danger (Bunyan’s Apollyon offers Christian better work and wages, but makes no mention of family). When, in the film, Christian reaches the River of Death at the end of his pilgrimage, and realizes there can be no return once he has crossed, he vehemently refuses to go: “I have come thus far only to find a path of escape for my family — I must go back and bring them.” He is persuaded only when Hopeful counters: “They can only follow as far as you lead. Would you have them come this far only to stop, as you are doing?”

This familial emphasis extends to the film’s final scene. The film ends where the book’s sequel begins, as Christiana receives her husband’s letter, which invites her to follow him on pilgrimage. The scene concludes with a zooming-out bird’s-eye view of the Christian family cottage, with Christiana’s jubilant shout: “Boys! Boys! Your father is alive! Your father is alive!” Apollyon zips ominously across the screen, and the words “TO BE CONTINUED” appear as the lights come up, suggesting the possibility of a Christiana film to come.

Creating dialogue presents a challenge for any adapter of Bunyan’s work. As with Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the seventeenth-century texture of the language is a beautiful and distinctive part of the story, beloved of generations of readers. Yet as with these other texts, it is difficult for present-day readers, unless trained, to speak the text in a way that sounds coherent or convincing — and even then listeners, especially young ones, may have a hard time enjoying the performance. Previous adapters have attempted to keep Bunyan’s text but update the most obscure words, or to add extra dialogue in a Bunyan style — this tends to result in mish-mashes of early modern declamation and contemporary colloquialism, alternately funny and cringe-inducing.[6] Fernandez wisely avoids this mingling: seldom borrowing Bunyan’s exact words, his characters speak modern standard English, for the most part. Some characters speak more formally than others, some with distinctive regional accents, but there are few attempts at present-day slang or archaic language (and therefore no excruciating misfires). It is probably also a wise choice from a translation perspective, given that the filmmakers hope to translate it into over 200 languages for worldwide distribution.[7]

Much has been said, in discussions surrounding the film, about the quality of the animation. Even the film’s executive producer, Revelation Media founder Steve Cleary, has publicly lamented the budgeting constraints that make it difficult to produce “animation worthy of the story.”[8] Speaking as a filmgoer not particularly well-versed in animation technology, I was occasionally vaguely aware that characters’ movements were more jerky and mechanical-looking than in the Disney and Pixar films I’ve seen, but the problem was seldom pronounced enough to distract me from the story. The film offsets its visual imperfections with inventive storytelling and generally effective dialogue, by turns fanciful, realistic, and didactic, conveying a clear message without overwhelming (usually). And if it is a shame that the filmmakers lacked sufficient funds to create visuals on par with Moäna or Toy Story 4, it would have been a far greater shame if they had allowed that lack of funds to stop them from making the film — even God could not say “It is good” until He had gotten started creating.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Getty is one of several Irish artists (Northern or otherwise) on whom Pilgrim’s Progress seems to have had a formative influence. C. S. Lewis’s first published novel was an early-twentieth-century update on Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933). Liam Neeson made his film debut playing Evangelist in a 1978 film adaptation. Even George Bernard Shaw, a lifelong critic of Christian doctrine and religious institutions more generally, praised Bunyan as one of the great English “artist-philosophers.”

[2] Quotations from the film are approximate and based on memory.

[3] Abby Perry, “The Legacy of Pilgrim’s Progress is up for Grabs,” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/partners/revelation-media/way-to-glory/legacy-of-pilgrims-progress-up-for-grabs-john-bunyan.html.

[4] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In The Commemorative Edition of the Works of John Bunyan, vol. 1. The London Printing and Publishing Company, 1859, p. 45.

[5] Bunyan wrote of his own experience: “O I saw in this condition I was a man who was pulling down his house upon the heads of his Wife and Children; yet thought I, I must do it, I must do it” (qtd. in Monica Furlong [1975], Puritan’s Progress: A Study of John Bunyan, Hodder & Stoughton, p. 79).

[6] I recall, in particular, Jim Pappas’s 1989 audio dramatization, which contained such phrases as “I got my shoe stuck in the yucky gucky mire,” and “I got mine and thee got none; thou must cry while I have fun.”

[7] Abby Perry, “Repent of your Movie Snobbery,” Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/partners/revelation-media/way-to-glory/what-makes-excellent-movie.html.

[8] Perry, “Repent.”

 

Mary Christian is an Assistant Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University, where she teaches composition, drama, professional writing, and world literature. She also serves as musician and kindergarten Sabbath School teacher at her local church in Warner Robins, GA.

Image courtesy of Revelation Media / video still.

 

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