Reviews for Walden Media’s William Wilberforce Biopic

Peter T. Chattaway has posted some sizeable excerpts from the first reviews of Amazing Grace, the new film by Michael Apted about William Wilberforce’s passion for the abolishment of slavery.

The responses? Mixed.

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  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    though I read your review and saw no reference to anything that wasn’t in James/the premise

    Here’s a rather sizeable passage from my review that addresses its differences from James’ novel:

    Fans of the novel may argue about Cuarón’s many and varied departures. Some heighten the story’s connections to present-day crises; others cloud James’ moral vision.

    In the book, Julian is the pregnant woman; Kee was invented to connect the film version to the present-day crises in Africa. In the book, euthanasia is depicted as a horrible crime against human dignity, but Cuarón recasts it as an act of heroic mercy. Thus, anyone who exploits the film as a “pro-life” movie isn’t watching very closely, although it is encouraging to see that several new films—The Nativity Story, Apocalypto, Children of Men, and the upcoming fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth—tell stories concerned with the protection of an endangered, unborn child.

    Some will criticize Cuarón for emphasizing spectacle at the expense of substance, and they’ll have a point—the constant sound and fury makes it difficult to think through all of the questions that Children of Men raises. But the sensory experience will be rewarding to many all on its own.

    Now, as to the “scrubbing” of Christianity from the movie, well, I suppose one or more of the screenwriters might have deliberately set out to do this. But, since we don’t know which of the fine screenwriters did the “scrubbing,” I can’t target Cuaron. Directors make films from adapted screenplays all the time without becoming experts on the books (Peter Jackson, ladies and gentlemen).

    It may be that Cuaron took the screenplay and, having not read the book, didn’t bother to investigate how much alteration had been done. (Or, it may be that you’re right, and he’s a vandal. I don’t, and probably won’t ever, know.)

    When I interviewed Cuaron, he didn’t seen averse to God-talk. He made it clear that he sees God as “part of the equation” in our hopes for the future, but stressed that we must not abdicate responsibility for saving the world ourselves.

    While I was saddened by his reluctance to turn to God for help, I think there’s something admirable about his view that we shouldn’t view God as “the Super… the one who will come along and clean up any mess we make.” As Cuaron put it, “the earth is the apartment building he gave us. We broke it. We’re ruining it. We can’t just go crying to him all the time. We’ve got to strive to fix what we’ve broken.” There’s something admirable in that.

    Anyway… I don’t expect profundity from big-budget moviemakers. So, I’m surprised when I am deeply moved by a big-budget movie… especially an action movie. I hadn’t read the book when I saw Children of Men, and I was really excited about what I saw (with a few reservations). The more I read about the novel, the more I’m disappointed to hear about missed opportunities. But, if I take it as its own thing, I appreciate much of what it conveys.

    And that’s to say nothing of the pleasure I take in observing the technical mastery of the film’s execution.

  • Victor


    Fair enough on Alfonso Cuaron himself not reading the book. But the film has five credited writers and enough in common with the book that SOMEBODY had to have read it and drafted something that then got fiddled with. Off the top of my head … the death of the youngest person in the world occurs in an pub brawl in Argentina; the existence of millennialist sects that are sufficiently dismissable and silly for the film-makers to keep as representative Christians; required fertility tests (that’s “anti-choice,” ya know); the name “Quietus” (though, since suicide is good, that of course has been rewritten to make it compatible with the god Choice).

    So obviously I shouldn’t say, strictly speaking, “Cuaron deliberately de-Christianized the book.” But we often enough uses the director’s name just as shorthand for “the director and whoever else had a hand in shaping the finished film.” And in that sense, it’s obvious the book was deliberately de-Christianized by “the creative team.” Whether it was Alfonso Cuaron or Timothy Sexton or whoever else is not an uninteresting question, but it is an academic one.

    Obviously Jeffrey, your interest in what of “the law written in our hearts” can come through unawares of the film-makers is a valuable and good one. I just don’t see its application to THIS movie since it **began** as an explicitly Christian text. I think that changes the rules and the critical glasses we must wear. An original script or a non-Christian text, fine. But there is no way this film of this novel wasn’t made to be scrubbed clean of that nasty Xtian stuff.

    Obviously the scrubbing process will be imperfect and so some of that “eternity” will remain and be manifest in the finished product (though I read your review and saw no reference to anything that wasn’t in James/the premise). So it seems more reasonable to conclude that these remains of “eternity” should be accordingly counted against CHILDREN OF MEN’s makers, as mistakes on their part.

  • Tim Frankovich

    uh… I read your reviews because most of the time I really respect them, and tell you so. My most recent comments were about how your review (and raving) convinced me to give The New World a try (and I’m still sorry that I didn’t enjoy it as much as you did; I wanted to). You’ve convinced me to see a number of movies I never would have considered otherwise. I currently have a list of movies I want to see on DVD (haven’t been able to make it to the theater much lately), mostly due to your reviews & CT.

    Your blog is a regular bookmark for me because I find interesting things to read here, things that make me think. While I disagree with you on some occasions, I’m still intrigued by your thought processes and seek to improve my own via comparison with other thinkers.

    I also enjoy your reviews for their craft. As you know, I review books myself, so it’s educational to me to observe other reviewers.

    I’m sorry I’ve given the wrong impression to you. I’ll endeavor to post some more positive comments when appropriate.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Check out the New York Times article on the differences between the film and the novel.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Just to clarify (and this is for Victor),

    As you say, Cuaron did not bring a Christian worldview to the project. Few filmmakers do.

    And, by refusing to read and adapt James’ novel, he obscured the Christian worldview of her novel.

    BUT, he’s dabbling in the stuff of myth. And it is one of my chief interests and curiosities to see how the “eternity written in our hearts” manifests itself, even in the work of those who do not profess the Gospel. I am always encouraged when I find it. And it’s all over Children of Men (and Pan’s Labyrinth too, for what it’s worth.)

    Tim, please forgive my snarky reply earlier. It’s frustrating when my statements are misinterpreted, or when I communicate poorly. It’s even more frustrating when I’m misunderstood and then my words are written off as “ridiculous.” But it may be that I could have written that line about glimpses of the Holocaust and Guantanamo Bay to make my point more effectively.


  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    Those who speculate about Cuaron’s adaptation as a sort of sabotage, or deliberate de-Christianizing of P.D. James book, need to note one consistent claim in the interviews and articles about the film…

    So… while they’re calling it an adaptation, it’s nothing of the sort. And it’s fascinating to me that, borrowing a premise and coming up with a story of his own, Cuaron was unable to squelch echoes of the gospel.

    Now, we can argue about the ethics of calling your work an “adaptation” when all you’ve got to go on is a premise. But I’m inclined to treat the movie as a separate project… a film inspired by a few details of James’ story, but giving shape to the director’s interests and perspective rather than revising or commenting on the novelist’s perspective.

    Here’s a clip from Canada’s National Post :

    It’s no coincidence that Cuaron began the script in a post-9/11 world, having refused to read the pre-9/11 P.D. James novel that the movie is based on. “Because of those 9/11 events, it was important to set the film more in the 21st century, since the world has changed since then,” he says.

    “The movie is really an observation about the state of things today,” explains Cuaron. “I wanted to make it futuristic but feel like today, so it can comment on the state of things. ?The premise of the infertility is a metaphor for the fading sense of hope humanity has today.”

  • Victor

    I posted a few thoughts about what “Richard” said on my own site, which I reproduce here, minus the obligatory setup needed there but not here.


    I find this interesting because I split the ticket on this one. My general critical approach is what “Richard” describes as “thin” — i.e., I tend to give great liberty for works of art to depict bad conduct in a neutral way, as long as the work doesn’t exclude a moral stance. Or even if the “thick” stance is merely implicit or can be inferred extratextually, rather than as an explicit textual matter. But I think even the “thin” critical approach can’t defang the (near-identical) criticisms of CHILDREN OF MEN made by “Luther” and myself. Cuaron’s film is an adaptation, not an original script, and that very fact precludes “the viewer [from bringing] his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen.” In the case of CHILDREN OF MEN for a Christian, P.D. James’s worldview has always already been scrubbed off the screen in the adaptation process. We know that whatever else may be on the screen, a Christian worldview is not. So to pretend that one can bring that worldview to bear on the film of CHILDREN OF MEN is, in this case, a delusion that does violence a text that we can know from the adaptation process was specifically produced to preclude such an understanding.

    (Footnote) As an example of what is still possible under the “thin” approach, here (HT: G-Money) is Steve Greydanus giving a really strong ‘dis to THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Though one would generally describe Mr. Greydanus as of the “thick” school, notice how he uses the “thin” approach here, giving every liberty to incomplete or imperfect truth about subject matter, in the admittedly extreme case of the depiction of Jesus, fully divine and fully human (which is to say, something impossible in our experience). And still he can find the film wanting and indefensible.

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I haven’t read Sacramone’s review yet, but… for what it’s worth… I can’t do a thorough comparison of the film and the book because I haven’t read the book. So my encounter with the film was my first encounter with the story. And I was impressed. I’m sure if I’d read the book, I would have had very different thoughts about it.

    And Tim, as for the mentions of the Holocaust and Guantanamo Bay, I wasn’t equating the two. I was saying that among the distressing imagery, we see people treat each other in ways that recall the Holocaust. We *also* see things happening that look a lot like Abu Ghraib. And we *also* see imagery that makes us think about Guantanamo Bay (and I must say, much of what I’ve read about GB is dismaying, but no, I don’t equate it with the Holocaust.)

    And it’s interesting to me that you continually read and comment on my reviews while they so often lead you to comment on how ridiculous they are and how you can’t take them seriously. Nothing better to do?

  • Tim Frankovich

    Wow. Excellent comments, Richard. I agree with much of that. I need to check out First Things.

    I especially agree on the political front. Jeffrey, I was really intrigued by your comments on the movie, and was really into the review… until you used the Holocaust & Guantanamo in the same sentence. To put those two anywhere remotely near each other is patently ridiculous and derails the review so badly that it was almost impossible to finish reading it.

  • Richard

    I read the First Things review first before heading over here to get Jeffrey’s take on it. The reviews are so different, that I’m not sure what to think. I don’t want to come off sounding like one of those CT letter writers Jeffrey refers to occasionally, but my longstanding relationship as a subscriber to First Things leads me to think that Sacramone got it more right. Apart from the movie’s apparent deviation from the explicitly and implicitly Christian worldview of the novel–and its selection of sensation and sloganeering over theological sophistication–I find nothing so tiresome as faddishly political art. Terry Teachout wrote compellingly about this several months back in his WSJ column, in an attempt to explain why so much contemporary political art is just so god-awfully bad. And it appears from his comments to Jeffrey–that the film is about “right now”–that Cuarón fell into precisely that trap. If so, that strikes me as a fatal flaw that, beyond any deviation from James’s moral message, would render the movie a waste of my time.

    I’d love to hear Jeffrey’s take on Sacramone’s review. Sacramone seems to have a “thick” conception of what constitutes a morally serious work of art; Jeffrey’s, on the other hand, seems to be rather “thin.” What I mean by this is that Sacramone would likely insist that a work be–in the tradition of Dostoevsky–be suffused with Christian assumptions; provided that these assumptions are present, full exploration of the psychology of evil is possible without becoming prurient. Jeffrey’s take seems to be simply that any work that doesn’t actively endorse evil–and that treats moral issues with sufficient ambiguity–is (or is capable of being) morally serious. I’m open to the possibility that Jeffrey’s right, but color me skeptical: perhaps I’m insufficiently post-modern in my approach to artistic works, but it seems as though all Jeffrey’s approach requires is that the work be sufficiently ambiguous to allow the viewer to bring his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen. And that strikes me as a bit naive–not to mention failing to give the work the respect it’s due.

    Thus, in the case of Children of Men, if Sacramone’s correct and Cuarón at each step intentionally deviates from the Christian view that undergirds James’s novel, can it be taken seriously by Christians (in the sense I believe Jeffrey wants us to, as opposed to taking it seriously as an expression of another (post-modern, pagan, Buddhist, nihilistic?) moral worldview)? Is it sufficient that the work employ enough ambiguity to enable viewers to project their own worldview onto the screen?

    I agree that Christians should not ghettoize themselves and that morally serious movies require artistically serious direction, but I’m not willing to grant the opposite: that artistically serious direction necessarily leads to–or enhances–the moral seriousness of the resulting work.

  • Nick Smith

    For what it’s worth, First Things has a very different take.

    My wife and I really appreciate your work.

  • Kris Rasmussen

    Jeffrey, You may already be aware of this, but there is a great essay on the original novel and it’s spiritual intent. Mars Hill Audio is re-running it and it is also on the web elsewhere. It’s called “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide.”

    Since it is an intense movie, i think it will help Christians to read this before they watch the movie.