Ten years after it first hit shelves and sent tidal waves across Christendom, William P. Young's novel The Shack is finally getting a film adaptation this spring. The movies stars Sam Worthington and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, names that instantly lend credibility to the production.
The first question when it comes to movie adaptations tends to be about how closely the movie follows the book. The mediums of written word and film are distinctly different communication formats, and as a result, viewers shouldn't expect a direct one-to-one interpretation for the screen; the story gets tweaked in places to better facilitate the format. However, the core elements of the book remain intact, both in terms of plot and in terms of thematic content and general feeling.
The Shack follows the journey of Mack Phillips, a father who carries some deep baggage from his own childhood. When the youngest of his three children is abducted and murdered while on a camping trip, he is plunged into paralyzing grief, guilt and anger. Responding to a mysterious invitation, Mack finds a remote house occupied by God, as portrayed by a middle aged woman named Papa (God the Father), a young man (Jesus) and a creative young woman named Sarayu (the Holy Spirit). These three characters take Mack on a journey through his own pain, eventually leading him to healing and reconciliation with God.
The quality of The Shack from a movie-making standpoint is superb. The performance by Octavia Spencer as Papa is nuanced and warm without seeming reductionist. Sam Worthington's take on the broken-hearted lead Mack Phillips manages to maintain a consistent level of raw emotion crucial to bringing the viewer on his transformative journey. Strong supporting performances by Aviv Alush, Radha Mitchell and Sumire Matsubara buoy up the main narrative. Although Tim McGraw's acting feels like it suffers slightly in comparison to the rest of the cast, his performance certainly comes across as earnest.
Visually, landscapes, color and light are often used to mirror moments in main character Mack's internal process. From the lush campground Mack's family occupies before his world falls apart, to the dark shack that was the scene of his daughter's death, to the winter wasteland of his grief, to the quiet, sun-drenched garden where he experiences catharsis and healing, each setting is vibrantly brought to life. The settings lend a visual context for the emotions of the story, an element that might communicate to viewers in a way the book couldn't.
The core conversation about The Shack is, of course, how it communicates spiritually and emotionally. As is true of the book also, it's important to navigate this story with an understanding of what it is: not a theological treatise or a purely didactic, point-by-point answer to the age old problem of pain. This is a representative story, an allegory, with Papa representing the parental element of the heart of God.
On the flip side of this, although it does need to be approached as a story rather than a theological exposition, the story also needs to be taken with the understanding that its purpose is emotional exploration. Divorced from its underlying purpose, the story itself is not fast-paced or complex or full of intrigue. It's simply a look at what it looks like to be a human being in pain, wrestling with the nature of God.
With that understanding, it's unsurprising that the underlying theology of The Shack is fairly simple and approachable. It was never intended to be comprehensive. Indeed, that is part of the story's success: The Shack answers the question of pain not with grandiose theological exposition, but with an encounter. Mack does not meet a set of carefully listed, lifeless theories in the depths of his pain. He meets a Person. And that is a story that anyone who has experienced rock bottom will instantly recognize as their own.
A question I asked myself as I watched the film was who is this for? Although it may serve some minimal evangelism purpose to those with no religious background, I don't believe that is the group The Shack will primarily resonate with. There is just enough subtlety in how the character of God is treated that those without at least some church history might get lost at moments. I believe the demographic most hungry for this story will be those who have encountered religion and Christianity but never really been shown the heart of Christ, those who have been taught an incomplete, shame-laden gospel their whole lives, those who have been abused by the Church and those who tried to follow Jesus and fell into frustration or grief that turned them away.
For that audience--the ones who need to know that God is not what they were told--The Shack promises to be compelling, cathartic and possibly even soul-changing. If you fall into that category or have ever asked questions about the goodness of God, The Shack is a movie very much worth your time.
The Shack is in theaters starting March 3, 2017. You can find tickets here.
Associate Editor Mary Nikkel’s love for writing, photography, videography and rock and roll have all been bound together by her love for Jesus, leading to her role with NRT. Her favorite things include theology and Greek language studies, her math grad student husband, obscure Nashville coffee shops, all things related to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and pushing the boundaries enacted by societal norms. She blogs at Threads of Stars.
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