The movie version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which included some creative liberties, was faithful to the themes of the classic allegory and fueled a delightful family discussion about the differences between the book and the movie.
Can a movie measure up?
It can be difficult for me to watch a film version of a well-loved book, because usually the discrepancies are unbearable. My 7yo son expressed his reservations when I bought tickets, but we watched a trailer and I was fairly certain that these producers would handle the story carefully.
After an introduction by Kristyn Getty, in which she briefly describes the historical context and the importance of sanctified imagination, the story opens before Christian finds The Book which sets him out on his journey.
The story begins
Someone has escaped the City of Destruction, and the dignified demon Overseer and his assistant have put Christian, Obstinate, and others in charge of cleaning out the abandoned living quarters. There Christian is intrigued by a book and becomes obsessed with reading it, much to the dismay of his wife.
Fearful of the prophesied destruction of the city and burdened by his guilt, he follows the advice of Evangelist and escapes. Obstinate and Pliable follow to bring him back, and Christian convinces Pliable to go with him, until they end up in the “Swamp of Despond” (instead of the Slough) and go their separate ways. Christian meets Help, who rescues and repeatedly assures him that help will always be provided if he asks for it.
Meanwhile, the demon Overseer reports to Apollyon that another citizen has fled. (I thought these scenes were reminiscent of Screwtape and Wormwood’s collaboration, though my husband disagreed.) This news is not received well, and after a legion of demons fails to hinder the pilgrim’s flight through the gate, Apollyon promises to deal with Christian himself.
There are moments of humor and creative license: the sturdy watchman uses a staff to beat off the flying demons; Worldly Wiseman’s counsel sends Christian to a mountain of contradictory laws that cannot be simultaneously obeyed; the House of the Interpreter (a female character voiced by Kristyn Getty) seemed magical. Most of these provide subtle explanations of the allegory while keeping Bunyan’s story intact (except for the magical Interpreter’s House). Of course it is difficult to include a full cast of characters and instructive events in a two-hour movie, but we did miss some of our favorites. (THIS is why we read the book first, right?)
When Apollyon appears to Christian, it is first as a somber man in black who tempts him with concern for his family and urges him to return to the city. Christian refuses, Apollyon transforms into the hideous beast we know him to be, and the heated battle modeled on action movie sequences ensues.
This is one place that particularly differs from the original. In Bunyan’s version, Christian sees Apollyon no more after the battle. In the movie, Apollyon promises to return, which he does at Christian’s death so that the story can drive home a theological point.
Fellowship of the Pilgrims
Remember the character who escaped at the beginning of the story, leaving The Book behind? Christian catches up with him, his friend Faithful, and Evangelist meets them again before they reach Vanity Fair. In Vanity Fair the two defend their testimony, which is of great interest to one of the guards, who is of African descent. Sure enough, when Christian loses one brother, he gains another. Although the only Africans in England would have been slaves during Bunyan’s time, I appreciate this recognition that the church of Jesus Christ is not monochromatic.
My favorite humor was found in the portrayal of Giantess Diffidence, Giant Despair’s wife, while Christian and Hopeful are languishing in Doubting Castle. Without compromising the malice of her character towards the pilgrims, her self-pity and manipulation of her husband are a delight.
Nearing the end of their journey, the pilgrims meet first the Shepherd (a stereotype portrayal of Jesus) and then the Flatterer, before reaching the river they must cross to reach the Celestial City. I don’t know why they made the river look like a wall, or why they didn’t have Christian and Hopeful cross together as in the book, but a threat is fulfilled before Christian safely arrives and meets the King before he is reunited with his friends. Before the end credits roll a sequel is promised, so we will have to wait for it.
My family missed certain minor characters who provided occasion for the pilgrims to have theological conversations, or warning against turning aside from the straight and narrow path. We missed the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the Enchanted Ground.
We thought that the quality of the graphics was inconsistent. In general, the animation of the scenery and villains was better than the main character, which was frustrating when we saw the skill that could have been applied. We agreed that there was something “Gollum-ish” about Apollyon, a second nod to the work of the Inklings (C.S. Lewis and Tolkien). Although the pre-escape scene dragged on in the beginning, Vanity Fair was just right.
As a whole, the Pilgrim’s Progress movie was a satisfying finale to our experience with Dangerous Journey and Bunyan’s original allegory. This film version is compatible with the printed page–after you read the book first.