CNS PHOTO | PARAMOUNT
Connor Corum and Greg Kinnear star in a scene from the movie Heaven is for Real.
Christians of every stripe have heard or read of four-year-old Colton Burpo's trip to heaven. The easy-to read book – crafted by Colton's father Todd and New York Times Writer Lynn Vincent – held court on The New York Times bestseller list for three years. So it is natural a movie would follow.
Much of the initial storyline is the same in the film. Colton lives with his mother and pastor/volunteer firefighter/ garage door salesman father and sister Cassie in rural Nebraska.
Anyone who has ever lived in a small prairie town will recognize the dynamics. Comfortable. Everyone knows their role. Gossip. Golden fields that stretch forever.
Trouble starts when Colton's bellyache turns into a burst appendix. Hospital emergency room doctors hold little hope.
While mother Sonja (Kelly Reilly) takes to the waiting room and phones back home to ask for prayers, Todd (Greg Kinnear) heads, understandably, for the chapel. Scared, his frustration runs to rage and he rails at God.
Colton (Connor Corum) makes a miraculous recovery and life returns to normal. But the $37,000 hospital bills, plus other $20,000 bills from when Todd was laid up with kidney stones and a compound leg fracture when he was playing baseball, worries Sonja. But not Todd. In fact the main character, the catalyst for the film drama, is Todd, not (as in the book) Colton.
When sweet-faced Colton tells his dad while they are on the teeter-totter that he was not afraid during the operation because the angels sang to him, Todd listens but doesn't make a big deal of it.
But it's the casual mentioning of sitting on Jesus' lap, describing how he saw Todd in the chapel and Sonja in the waiting room that started Dad to believe his son when he said heaven is real. He could tell by the medical charts Colton did not die, and a psychologist brushes it off as a near-death experience.
The crux comes when Colton tells of meeting Todd's grandfather and his other sister in heaven – Sonja had a miscarriage at two months but never told Colton – that sends Todd up to the pulpit and tells his congregation the story of Colton's trip to heaven.
Major players on the church board are appalled and tell Todd they are looking for another preacher.
Not wishing to put spoilers for those who may want to see the film, there are however comments that can be made.
The actor playing Colton is sweet, and underplays his part with the determination of a child telling the truth. Todd and Sonja have a passionate relationship that does not preclude smashing plates, suggestions of a healthy sex life and Sonja's having to balance Todd's Peter Pan tendencies. (Medical bills totalling $70,000 plus, no money coming in, your pastor job is in jeopardy and you are not worried.)
The glimpses of Jesus and heaven are too downplayed, especially the wishy-washy angels.
Many enriching facts that were in the book did not make it onto the screen. And that would have added to the drama – for example, the appendix was misdiagnosed by the first doctor and that is why it burst, the congregation and townsfolk raised the money for the medical bills and so on.
But this is a visual society and the film allows Colton's story to reach mainstream North America hungering to know about the afterlife.
Interestingly, the film does include the story or another four-year-old in Idaho. Akiane Kramarik came from a family that practised no faith, had no television and virtually no books. But at age four she began to have religious visions. When she told her mother, she decided to prove it to her by drawing what she saw.
Now a teenager, Akiane's drawings of heaven and Jesus attract worldwide attention. Inserts of Akiane at work are woven into the film with Colton being shown a picture she painted of Jesus and his saying, "That's him. That's what he looks like."
Certainly, go to the film for entertainment. But for the whole story, reach for the book.
(TriStar Pictures, 100 minutes, director Randall Wallace)