I just heard that the latest anti-war movie, Lions for Lambs, bombed at the box office this past weekend, only pulling in about $7 million. That’s an opening weekend. With three mega-stars at the helm (Redford, Cruise, and Streep). (See, they’re so “mega” I didn’t have to include first names for you to know who I mean.)So, why is the movie struggling?
One critic’s assessment: “Lions for Lambs simply isn’t fresh or courageous enough to make an impact let alone a difference.”
Really? Is that the problem? More importantly, is that the goal: to make an “impact,” or a “difference?” I thought the goal was to make great movies. Granted, there are lots of different types of movies, and different reasons for making them. There are movies for kids; movies for pure entertainment; movies that move us and make us think. And then there are movies like Lions for Lambs, otherwise known as “message movies.” (Note: a message movie is not the same as a movie that makes us think. A message movie tells us what the makers think and expects us to quietly agree.)
Here is where my title comes in. Message movies and most Christian fiction have the same problem: they place more importance on the message than they do on either providing entertainment or artistic merit. As one speaker at a writers’ conference I attended put it: “They present life as it should be, not as it is.”
When we present life as it should be rather than as it is, our work does not ring true. Work that does not ring true has little chance of reaching the heart, or even the funnybone, of the consumer. Message movies and message-centered Christian fiction are little more than fictionalized lectures, which have no hope of reaching the heart.
People are rejecting transparent message movies because they are smart enough to know that they only tell part of the story. People know that soldiers are suffering and dying and innocent lives are being lost, all of which are the harsh realities of war. But people also know that soldiers are volunteering to go back and fight in what they believe is a noble cause. People know that soldiers are not blind fools who are only going because they’ve been duped and used by Republicans. People know that soldiers are not that stupid.
In the same way, people know that Christians are not as benign and (dare I say) bland as they are often presented in Christian fiction. Christian fiction often only tells half the story, with any indiscretions being presented as innocent mistakes or anomalies in the character of the pure, well-intentioned characters. What impact would King David’s story have if we were not exposed to the evil that he was capable of in his adultery with Bathsheba and heartless murder of her honorable husband?
If Hollywood or the CBA has any hope of reaching people with their messages (clearly, I’m rooting for the CBA, and not for Hollywood), their best shot is to let the message grow naturally out of the truth of their story. Not to let the message control the story until it is an unrecognizable mess with no truth in it at all.