The initial wave of faith-based movies – those medium-to-low budget dramas boosted by Evangelical word of mouth – diminished quickly in the wake of 2014’s expert-defying God’s Not Dead (budget: £1.5m, take: £45m). The studios swiftly entered the temple, and while that same year’s Heaven is for Real boasted a modicum of cinematic nous, few claims could be made for last year’s Miracles from Heaven, or indeed the inevitable God’s Not Dead 2 (budget: £3.8m, take: £15m), which existed merely to underline how its predecessor was box-office lightning in a bottle. Religion and commerce remained uneasy bedfellows.
With The Shack (12A, 132 mins, ★★★), this week’s adaptation of Canadian author William Young’s bestseller, we find the faith sector seeking salvation. Young’s tale of a man confronting his demons in a lakeside retreat occupied by the Holy Trinity wasn’t originally intended as megaplex fare. Written as a Christmas gift for the author’s children, it only went into publication when preachers Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings figured that the story’s spiritual struggles might appeal to churchgoers. They did – and lo, the book became a minor sensation, logging years on the New York Times chart and garnering plaudits from no less a storyteller than Stephen King.
As copies passed between pews, The Shack sparked a doctrinal controversy that Young surely didn’t envisage when his offspring first unwrapped his book. Some raised eyebrows at the depiction of God as a cheery African-American woman (Young: “I was trying to get as far away from that ‘Gandalf-with-a-bad-attitude’ God as I could”); others decried the decision to mark her with Christ-like stigmata. Was this heresy, or just a novel way of suggesting God’s empathy, that this deity literally feels its children’s pain? Several fulminating YouTube broadsides insist it’s the former; one problem with writing this allusive is that it invites unintended interpretations.
The film, certainly, feels defensive early on. As our narrator Willie (country star Tim McGraw, a reassuring presence for US audiences) puts it, “What I’m about to tell you is a little … well, a lot on the fantastic side. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
It is, essentially, a question of belief. For Young, faith offers the possibility of an escape from hardship. When protagonist Mack (Avatar’s Sam Worthington) first receives his invitation to the shack – signed, somewhat cryptically, “Papa” – he’s living alone and stubbly in a frozen-over shell of the home he once shared with his picture-perfect family.
Director Stuart Hazeldine’s deployment of the snow machine in this cold, harsh reality makes the Narnia movies look restrained, but then this cycle of movies has traditionally tacked towards extremes, leaving credibility behind. A flashback shows the young Mack being beaten by his actual father – more hardship – in a deluge that might give Noah pause for thought. The film doubles down on this notion of faith as a shelter from any storm – with some narrative justification, for it transpires that Mack has endured his youngest child’s murder.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection