Hollywood never met a true story it couldn’t fuck up. In Braveheart, the Battle of Stirling Bridge is fought without the bridge, a fuck-up akin to a D-Day movie without a beach. They can fuck up downward, casting the five-foot-seven Martin Sheen as the famously tall Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg. They can fuck up life and death: In Band of Brothers, a show so faithfully detail-oriented that it might well have been called Honest, We Read a Book: The Miniseries, they killed one character 19 years before reality did.
But those are wars. Big things. You know, 50 million dead, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous, the atomic bomb. Getting smaller stories right is easier, or so you'd think. Like Heaven Is for Real, the tale of a four-year-old Nebraska boy—deliciously named Colton Burpo—who went to heaven and then came back to tell his pastor father all about it. The bare bones of that story sounds like a Capra script already, but somehow, Hollywood fucked it up. Heaven Is for Real is phony. It isn’t even a fun bad movie.
You’ve probably heard about Heaven Is for Real, which, like everything, was a book before it was a movie. Published in 2010, it sold like only a relentlessly heartstrings-tugging tale of a young boy who saw heaven during emergency surgery could. It was co-written by Colton Burpo’s father, Todd, and Lynn Vincent, who also co-wrote Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and Never Surrender, with Lieutenant General William Boykin, who left the US Army after saying that America was at war with Satan and that he didn’t fear a Somali warlord because he was armed with God, while the Somali had only an “idol,” and who once proudly stated that he wanted to crawl into heaven on all fours covered in blood. Those are the kind of righteously tone-deaf people Lynn Vincent writes books with, people whose level of doubt vacillates between “Am I right?" and "Am I right, or am I really right?”
So no, there’s not much doubt in Heaven Is for Real, as the book’s name implies. Despite suffering financial setbacks and a painful broken leg, Todd Burpo—volunteer firefighter, wrestling coach, garage-door installer, and minister to a congregation in Imperial, Nebraska—is certain of the presence of God in his life. Then his son Colton develops appendicitis, is misdiagnosed, and becomes gravely ill. Colton spends costly days in the hospital before his life-threatening condition sends him to surgery. At that moment, he writes, Todd doubted God. But the prayers of friends in Imperial came through, and Todd’s brief moment of questioning disappeared when Colton emerged unscathed. Then Colton started talking about visiting heaven and sitting in Jesus’ lap, and Todd bought it after only a second of doubt.
“Colton, you said Jesus had markers. You mean like markers that you color with?”
Colton nodded. “Yeah, like colors. He had colors on him.”
“Like when you color a page?”
“Well, what color are Jesus’ markers?”
“Red, Daddy. Jesus has red markers on him.”
At that moment, my throat nearly closed with tears as I suddenly understood what Colton was trying to say. Quietly, carefully, I said, “Colton, where are Jesus’ markers?”
Without hesitation, he stood to his feet. He held out his right hand, palm up and pointed to the center of it with his left. Then he held out his left palm and pointed with his right hand. Finally, Colton bent over and pointed to the tops of both his feet.
“That’s where Jesus’ markers are, Daddy,” he said.
I drew in a sharp breath. He saw this. He had to have.
Believers who are reassured by visions of for-real heaven will be reassured by Colton’s vision. Those who roll their eyes at the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, on the other hand, will probably react sarcastically, as a Twitter follower of mine did: “How could he possibly have known the most famous thing about Jesus?”
Colton's faith isn’t funny, and scoffing at people’s harmless beliefs is dumb. What’s funny is how much Lynn Vincent and Todd Burpo try to put their thumbs on the scale. When Colton first describes seeing angels while unconscious on the operating table, Todd and Vincent write, “I marveled at the things I had just heard. Our little boy had said some pretty incredible stuff—and he had backed it up with credible information.” Later, even though Colton never died in surgery, Todd is certain that he went to heaven anyway: “Clearly, something had happened to Colton. He had authenticated that by telling us things he couldn’t have known.” Authenticated, credible information has never had to clear so low a bar.
Even if you’re trying to read Heaven Is for Real 100 percent on its own terms, it’s hard to suppress disbelief. What “authenticates” Colton’s presence in heaven is that he sees his father praying in one room while his mother frets in a waiting room, despite his parents not telling him this happened. But supposing that your minister father would be praying in private and that your mom would be waiting in the room built for waiting isn’t a stretch of the imagination at any age. Besides, maybe the nursing staff told him what his folks had been doing. Or maybe his parents did, mentioning it in passing and then forgetting about it; one of the surprises of being a parent is discovering how porous your older-person’s memory is, while your kid latches onto trifling details with tenacious, intense recall.
The other credible information isn’t much better. Colton sees Jesus in purple and white, which echoes scripture he has doubtless heard and images he has doubtless seen. He’s aware of family secrets his parents have never told him, but so are millions of kids—people talk, after all. And Todd’s testing of Colton’s experience is hardly rigorous. When Colton says that he saw his great-grandfather in heaven as a young man, Todd shows him a picture of young great-granddad, and Colton says, “That’s him.” Well, no shit. He might have said the same thing if Todd had shown him a picture of Estes Kefauver.
At no point in Heaven Is for Real does it seem to occur to anyone that four-year-olds sometimes have trouble distinguishing between dreams and reality and might double down and tell lies out of embarrassment or out of just being kids. But when Colton says that Jesus sits on a throne to the right of His Father—imagery Todd doubtless employs all the time—Todd’s response, always italicized, is, “He had to have seen this.”
Which, fine. But as I mentioned, the movie fucks this up.
The film version of Heaven Is for Real seems to have been written in anticipation of the audience’s doubt. Screenwriter and director Randall Wallace—the guy behind Braveheart and the bridge-less Battle of Stirling Bridge—makes up a lot of dissonantly secular elements that don’t appear in the book and that spoil the tone of the movie.
A fictional church elder played by the reliably excellent Margo Martindale dislikes Colton’s story because she has seen pastors manipulate people with stories of heaven and threats of hell. The only reason for her character to exist is to inform the audience, “See? This story isn’t being manipulative.” Then, when Todd becomes too fixated on Colton’s story despite mounting medical bills and no income, his wife (played with a kind of impishly spirited good humor by Kelly Reilly) throws dishes in the sink and castigates him for thinking so much about the next life instead of this one. In addition to never appearing in the book, this scene thuds in the middle of the movie. This is Wallace screaming, “I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING, GODLESS AMERICAN MOVIEGOER.”
Meanwhile, movie Todd—Greg Kinnear exuding a patient, sweetly fretful vibe that progresses into anxiety—experiences far more doubt than the real one. At one point he consults a philosophy professor (as if his faith and ministry didn't already give him all the answers), having arrived with no prepared questions or answers. The conversation, unsurprisingly, gets contentious with almost no provocation, as if Wallace wanted to throw two straw men at each other. Movie Todd barely quotes from scripture and at no point consults it, which is awfully strange in a film that presumably was made to appeal to Christians. Apart from Jesus actually being in the movie, he makes almost no appearance in it. Todd’s final uplifting sermon doesn’t seem to reflect any recognizable religion. Instead, it looks like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life for Mr. Smith’s Kid to Go to Heaven. Then a ghost Marine appears. Then they win the big game!
It’s obvious what’s behind this tonal dissonance: Wallace wanted the movie to appeal to true believers and at the same time win over non-Evangelical America by addressing its concerns and putting the main characters through the same process of skepticism that many viewers will experience. But in trying to please everyone, it winds up speaking to nobody at all. For doubters, the story of Colton Burpo remains absurdly riddled with holes. (And how many nonbelievers were going to go see a movie called Heaven Is for Real in the first place?) For Evangelicals, this is a Christian story almost devoid of Christianity, instead filling the mouths of the faithful with secular disbelief and, at times, cynicism, while robbing their voices of what should be familiar references to the Gospels and an Evangelical way of life.
So if the movie doesn’t succeed on its own terms, the least it could do is be entertainingly hateable. Sadly, all the latent camp elements in the book remain unexplored. At one point in the text, Colton describes celestial transport. “We flew,” he says. “Well, all except for Jesus. He was the only one in heaven who didn’t have wings. Jesus just went up and down like an elevator.” Elevator Jesus would have been incredible. Just bopping up and down. Letting people on and off. “Floor Three. Housewares of My Father. White robes, yellow hoops, Birkenstock repair, small white crosses for planting by the side of the road...” Maybe some bewildered heaven newbie could ask Jesus what floor the churro cart is on. Nope, none of that. You don’t get Elevator Jesus; you just get some dude who looks like David Copperfield appearing in a Norelco beardtrimmer ad.
You also get some real wasted opportunities. Kinnear, Reilly, Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, and newcomer Connor Corum (as Colton) deliver impressive, thoughtful performances in a movie that’s hard of thinking. Instead of being addressed, the holes in the plot are absurdly papered over, but never so absurdly that it becomes fun in spite of itself. If you want to see that sort of thing, you can just watch Sean Hannity taking real-life Colton Burpo totally seriously.
Aside from the acting, the most satisfying part of Heaven Is for Real is the cinematography of Dean Semler. Like his work in Dances with Wolves, almost every frame is rich with natural vividness—erdant foregrounded farmland, a line of virtually virgin horizon, a fat swath of blue, a final stratum of flat cloud. It’s enough to make you accept the divine origins of such abundant beauty, perhaps even suspect that American exceptionalism might be true. Then Todd Burpo gazes on nature and delivers a closing sermon that’s sort of Saint Paul’s epistles by way of Belinda Carlisle, i.e., Heaven Is a Place on Earth. Then, if you wait to the end credits, you find out that place is Canada.
Manitoba is for real; everything else is just Burpos.
Jeb Lund wrote the America’s Screaming Conscience column for Gawker and covered the 2012 election primaries for VICE under the pseudonym Mobutu Sese Seko. He is a contributor to the badbooks podcast, I Don’t Even Own A Television. You can follow him on Twitter.