Film review: Pilgrim’s Progress

Our family went to see the new film release of Pilgrim’s Progress yesterday. It only has a limited showing at select cinemas. We had to travel into that Manchester to watch it at a cinema that is not your standard fare multiplex. What is more, we nearly had an entire screening to ourselves. Two other people came in shortly after us but, in effect, it was our own personal screening. Make of that what you will.

So what of the film itself? I think we felt the essence of the story was broadly captured. I am no purist and am happy enough for bits of artistic license to suit the medium. Whilst I wonder whether it lends itself better to a TV series rather than a one-off film, I think there was enough in it to credibly capture the heart of the book.

It is fair to say that the film was exciting enough to capture the interest of our children too. Neither (and both are quite young) were bored. Both seemed to follow the film and it kept their interest throughout. My wife and I thought it was definitely interesting and it held our interest throughout.

I would say the two scenes that were handled the best were the Hill of Legality and Vanity Fair. In my view, the former was particularly well done and conveyed the full weight of seeking to handle the burden of sin through law-keeping. Vanity Fair, whilst hard to depict helpfully in a children’s film, I thought was done well. The key points Bunyan was seeking to convey here were well presented and handled helpfully here.

On the downside, like much Christian art these days, the production values didn’t quite cut it. The animation was OK but hard to say much more than that. Some of the dialogue was a bit stilted at points. Whilst there was some effort to update the old-fashioned vocabulary in places (eg swamp of despondency) other places still kept somewhat antiquated language.

Although the essence of the story was maintained, there were various parts of the story removed altogether (understandably for the sake of length perhaps) but also new insertions put in. One could argue that the medium required some artistic license to convey the story, which might be valid, but I was surprised that certain parts of the story were removed and, in their place, a recurring plot thread regarding Apollyon and his minions were added in. This didn’t, in my view, add to the storyline but rather detracted from it.

Aside from Mr Worldly Wiseman, very few of the people Christian encounters on his journey appear in the film. Given Bunyan’s emphasis on all the people seeking to reach the celestial city by means other than the wicket gate, or via the cross, all of this seemed notably absent. The ending, rather than a river with a boatman offering other ways across (and Ignorance seeking to enter without a roll and by a different means) was exchanged for a wall of water which Christian had to go through.

Beyond that, I’m not convinced showing the Celestial City at the end did any favours either – attempts to depict Heaven on any level rarely help us wonder at the glory awaiting us and, more often than not, just look utterly underwhelming. Likewise, I think depicting the Lord at the end would be beyond the pale for many and probably isn’t all that helpful for any of us.

Perhaps most disappointing of all was the scene at which Christian arrives at the cross. Now, full disclosure, I became a Christian through my parents reading this story to me as a child and that scene was pivotal for me. So, I appreciate I have a specific view on it. But I was disappointed that the cross was barely recognisable, seen merely as a broad shape of a cross of light. Nor, at any point in that scene, was the reality of the cross explained or discussed (unlike the book in which it is made utterly clear). Christian received no roll from the shining ones and the whole scene – an utterly pivotal part of the story – seemed like a real missed opportunity to me.

I appreciate, given the personal nature of the book for me, it is always going to be hard to do justice to it for such as me. I think there was much to like about the film, and it is probably worth going and having a look, but for me there was always the nagging sense that this could just be so much better.