Assessing the past, present, and future of pro-life and Christian cinematography
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WORLD interviewed Barbara Nicolosi Harrington, a Catholic screenwriter, in a 2008 article about Hollywood’s shift toward pro-life depictions in films. Today, Harrington at age 57 is an associate professor and coordinator of script and screenwriting programs at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. Here are edited excerpts of her comments on how the landscape of pro-life and Christian films has changed in the past decade.
Thirteen years ago you said filmmakers at the time had grown up seeing ultrasound images on their refrigerators. That made them more likely to have a pro-life angle in their films. Still the case? My students don’t have any patience for the “clump of cells” argument. Arguments that were compelling when I was their age don’t have any weight anymore because of the technological and scientific advancements. If they have any intelligence at all, they know the problem with the cultural narrative: “If you want it, it’s a baby. If you don’t, it’s a fetus.” But I also get the sense that the abortion culture has decided it’s won the battle and pro-life people should stop talking about it.
What gives you this sense? A journalist for Daily Variety interviewed me, liked me, and noted I wasn’t “a regular Christian.” Then he asked me if I was against abortion. I said, “Yeah, I think it’s really bad for women.” He made a face and asked, “Are you against dental floss too?” That shows you how the presumption is so strong that abortion is just part of life.
But you also said people today aren’t so easily fooled by the pro-abortion arguments. It’s hard to talk about abortion without getting into all the reasons why it’s wrong. Look at the movie Juno. Its writer was pro-choice and was horrified when the pro-life movement embraced the movie. She said, “I didn’t make a pro-life movie. I just told the truth.” But she had a character in that movie saying, “Your baby has fingernails.” In an industry that needs images to connect with the culture, the pro-choice side doesn’t have a lot of images to use without undermining its own case.
Is the movie industry actively avoiding those images? A student of mine was a writer’s assistant on a network comedy show. The writers had to pitch backstory ideas for why the star would be depressed. One writer said, “When my girlfriend had an abortion, she was depressed for like six months afterwards. It really almost ruined us.” The showrunner [the person with primary creative control of the show] looked at him and snapped, “We don’t want to put that out there, do we?” That’s to my point: They know that if they show the science, the psychology, the sociology, the reality of abortion, they lose. The better thing to do is just to say, “This is a part of American life. Get over it.” They shut it out. They’ve learned now they can shut out any discussion they don’t want.
What’s your take on some of today’s popular pro-life films? Three or four years after The Passion came out, the faith-based film movement really came into gear. All of a sudden, Christians started making pro-life movies directly targeting abortion, starting with films like October Baby and Bella. They were all bad in terms of story. More recently, Unplanned came out. That story could have been a cultural benchmark, but the filmmakers decided to go for the safe evangelical audience that they knew was waiting for the movie.
How do you know that? I was involved with the initial conversations for Unplanned and read the first draft. I kept telling the writers they were basing the film too much on the book: The book is written for Christians, and the film needed to be much more stylized and gritty. That would have given them a chance of actually getting some attention from people—not just other Christians—who need to see the film. Unfortunately, the movie became about making the money back, and that’s where a lot of these Christian projects have ended up now. Initially, I think they saw them as opportunities for evangelism, but now they’ve pretty much devolved into making the community feel good about itself.
Is there danger in that inward-focused kind of art? When literature by Christians has been great, it has never been inward-focused—written for other Christians. When you read people like Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Sigrid Undset, Chesterton, and Tolkien—any of the great novelists who are writing about Christians in some way—their protagonists don’t come out as being wistful, basically good people. No, their characters are so broken. That quality is something that would catch the attention of the nonbeliever, the unchurched person who will not watch a soft, easy, melodramatic faith-based movie. Unplanned was such a missed opportunity.
Any other reasons why filmmakers often avoid abortion movies? Because it’s so hard. It’s a very difficult topic to do in an entertaining way. Compare abortion scripts to sex-trafficking scripts. You can’t do the latter without either re-exploiting the victims or dumbing down the horror of the crime. I usually tell people, “Why don’t you make a documentary?” That’s how I feel about abortion movies. We’re not good enough in our community to really do them. We don’t have somebody who’s that brilliant. So when we do them, they come off as either soft and easy or as something that isn’t going to engage people who aren’t on our side.
What did you think of the 2018 film Gosnell? I’m glad they made it. Of the spate of pro-life films that have come out, that one’s probably the best because they didn’t ignore making good art in their focus on trying to get a message across.
Did you see the new Roe v. Wade movie? Yes. I didn’t make it through the full thing. I was privy to all these emails saying, “They’re blocking this film from getting into theaters.” No, they’re not. The film is bad as a story, bad in terms of character, bad in terms of theme, dialogue, structure. It’s bad in every way in which a movie can be bad. Roe v. Wade is a great example of a movie determined to tell the truth that was so badly orchestrated as a movie.
Why does the Christian film industry make lots of bad movies? Until we in the church stop making excuses for our bad art by saying people’s hearts are in the right place, we’re not going to get anywhere. On the secular side, the check for movies that are garbage is competition. If a secular movie is bad, sometimes it still gets traction because the people behind it have clout, which means they have the ability to say what they want how they want to say it, and that’s because they have money, they have success. They can leave out the science, uncomfortable statistics, and facts. But Christian filmmakers don’t have the clout to force something to get done, to get major people attached, and then to get distribution.
What’s the fix for this? Christians have to opt for the beautiful. There is a way to tell a horrifically ugly truth in a beautiful way that inspires, uplifts, and informs. But it takes talent, commitment, time, and resources. Beauty is a slow-growing fruit, and part of it is rooted in talent. Over and over when I meet with Christians who have a handful of cash and they want to make a movie, they don’t really want to make a beautiful movie because they’re not willing to put into it what is required to make something beautiful.
Do we have a problem with “entertainment”? If a movie doesn’t entertain people, it’s not going to get a chance to do anything else. But our side tends to act like they’re above the standards for entertainment: good writing, good acting. I’ve heard Christian filmmakers say they’re not doing it for the money. But that’s something you only hear in Christian circles. Without money, you won’t get a good writer or any actor with a name, which means you’re not going to make Entertainment Tonight. You’re not going to get on The Today Show. That means no word of mouth. Making movies is a rich man’s game: You get what you pay for.
You had a more positive tone in 2008 when you talked about what you expected from pro-life filmmakers. It sounds like you see more of a challenge now. I was much more optimistic back in 2008. Since then I’ve seen Christians settle into filthy mammon. That was what I was already afraid of: Is the Christian film industry going to become like the Christian music and book industries that pander to their own communities? To me, the success that God gave the Christian filmmakers was not meant to turn us into a ghetto but to encourage us to push to the next level: Can we actually talk to people who are not in our community? Can we make something beautiful? But Satan gave us the money pit. It’s called the golden handcuffs, and they’re stuck now.
Name the best pro-life films that come to your mind. Not necessarily films about abortion but ones with a positive pro-life subtext. I like August Rush (2007), In America (2002), WALL-E (2008), Children of Men (2006), Juno (2007), and The Island (2005).
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