There have been a few films lately based on the stories of people who say they caught a glimpse of Heaven during a near-death experience. Miracles from Heaven — which comes out on DVD today — adds an interesting wrinkle to the genre: in this case, a girl who has been suffering from a rare digestive order for years falls into a hollow tree and has her vision there, and once she is rescued, it turns out she is healed.
The story is told partly from the point of view of the girl’s mother, Christy Beam, who wrote about her daughter’s experience in a book that came out last year. That book became the basis for the film, and now the film is on DVD and Blu-Ray with bonus features that look at the real-life family as well as the making of the film.
I had a chance to speak to Christy Beam over the phone last week. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What is it like seeing your life story on the big screen?
Beam: You know, when we saw it the very first time, it was so emotional. There was so much that we had lived, it was just like reliving it, and that was really, really hard. There were other times where there were those funny moments with Angela [a woman who befriends Christy and her daughter Annabel when they go to Boston for medical treatments], and just kind of going back to those emotions and laughing and getting to experience the joy again. And then some stuff was a little bit of ‘movie magic’, so it was like I was watching this movie about my life but those events didn’t actually happen in the way that they were portraying them, so I was actually able to just watch as a spectator. So it was just a roller coaster of emotions, just amazing.
It’s interesting how your book talks about the girls seeing themselves on TV and what that was like, and that was like an initial burst of fame if you like, but now their story is out there in the book and out there in the film. I guess there’s two related questions here: How are your daughters handling all that, and you as the author of the book — and as their mother — how did you navigate or process making their story more public, knowing the kind of effect it might have on them?
Beam: From the very beginning, we have always talked with the girls and prayed over everything with the girls, and they’ve been very aware of the situation and how we were going to share the story, and the possibility of reactions and how it would be received. But you know, from the very beginning we’ve always shared with them that it is really God’s story, and that he is allowing us to be the vessel, so it’s really not ever been about us, it’s been about glorifying him and bringing honour to him, and I think that that’s really helped them to put it all in perspective, because they’re all very humble — especially Annabel — and very grateful that we’ve been able to hopefully glorify him and benefit the kingdom in that way.
Just wondering about the film’s portrayal of your family and what you went through. The movie version of you seems to leave the church for a while because of all the suffering and the doubt. I didn’t quite get that sense from your book. Can you comment on that?
Beam: Yeah, absolutely. That was definitely, again, some “movie magic”. I think that they just wanted to show a little bit more, maybe, diversity [in the experiences] that my character went through. But I actually for sure did not leave my church. In fact, if it wasn’t for Alsbury Baptist, I don’t know how we would have gotten through what we went through. They were such an amazing community of prayer warriors and helpers and givers and doers in such a time of chaos and struggle for us, and along those same lines I don’t feel like I ever lost my faith, either. I felt like I struggled with a lot of things, but I didn’t ever just get down and out and leave.
I was also struck by the way that your book talks about Annabel saying that she just wanted to leave and go to Heaven. There’s been a number of these books and films lately, about people having visions of Heaven, and one of the risks is that it becomes a kind of escapism. And yet clearly Annabel’s glad to be back, and you’re glad to have her back, here, so how would you approach that, balancing the appeal of Heaven with our commitments here, if I can put it that way?
Beam: It terrified me, as you can imagine, to hear her say, “You know, Mommy, I just want to die and go to Heaven and live with Jesus where there is no more pain.” Because we have taught them that Heaven is a place of peace, and it’s a place to be with our Creator and to just honour him in joy and celebrate him all the time, and not be where there’s pain and trauma and so on and so forth. While all that, we have stressed — and Annabal has stressed, after what she’s gone through — that there is a plan and a purpose for why we are here, and that we are created for a reason, and that because of that reason, we have a purpose and a job to do, and we have to remain faithful to that task as well. And so I felt that that’s kind of how we have helped them balance that idea.
So Heaven isn’t a way of escaping this world, it’s a way of refocusing our attention to what we do in this world.
Beam: Very much, yeah.
In the book, Annabel describes various things she saw in Heaven — she talks about seeing Jesus and so forth — but that’s not in the film. Did you wish that that had gotten in there? Did you hear of any reasons for why that was changed?
Beam: I had wished that maybe a little bit more of what Annabel truly experienced in Heaven was portrayed, but then again, how do you take someone’s personal experience that has been as verbally articulated as they can, but it’s still really all in their brains, and get that out into a movie? In fact, in that light, I know that, instead of trying to resimulate what Annabel experienced, they wanted to go with a totally different angle of Annabel’s experiences and all of the things that made up who Annabel is. And so they want at it with that angle as opposed to really what actually happened. In fact, it was really funny, because after we saw the movie as a family, we were leaving the theatre, and I said, “Well what do you think?” And Annabel said, “Well, I don’t know whose Heaven experience that was, but it wasn’t mine!” We just kind of laughed, because it was very, very different. But that’s where I’m so glad to have the book, because I feel like the movie does such a great job of the Heaven experience, celebrating Anna and who she is and everything about her and how she came to her ideas and how she feels about things, but also the book comes along and then really solidifies, “Okay, this is what really happened, and these are the real things she saw and experienced.”
Beam: Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like maybe they were wanting just a totally different Heaven experience altogether.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the need for Hollywood to become more diverse, in terms of allowing more female directors and other directors, and Miracles from Heaven is actually directed by a woman, and I’m just curious as to, from your point of view, a female director telling your story, if you think that made a difference, and if so, what kind of difference.
Beam: Oh my goodness. I think it totally did. I think it was absolutely God’s hand and his choice for Patricia Riggen to tell our story. She was so amazing, from the very first moment I ever met her, they had her and Devon Franklin and a couple of other people from Columbia Pictures flown in, and we had lunch and spent the day going over and around and looking at everything, and she and I just had some really great time to talk, and for her to just hear my heart, and she got it. She got what the desire of my heart was for the movie, what I wanted the story to share, what I wanted people to walk away with, what I had hoped we would be able to do — we would be able to touch so many lives and give them that message of hope — and I felt like she was able to hear that as a mom, but also as a woman. I felt like that made a huge difference.
I also liked the rather earthy, if I can use that word, tone that the film starts on: the way that the kids are debating whether certain words are swearing or whether you go to hell for going to Disneyland or whatever it is —
Beam: Uh-huh. (chuckles)
— and the relationship between yourself and your husband as depicted in the film. But certainly, one of the things that strikes me is that there is a tendency, right now, to make a Christian pop culture, if you will, that is distinct from the mainstream pop culture, whereas in the film, your girls listen to Taylor Swift, and I think the film even ends with a Beatles song, so how do you feel about a film that crosses those boundaries that some people set up?
Beam: I really loved it, because that’s really who we are. We do listen to Christian music and enjoy listening to those things, but we also find things that are in this world that we enjoy as well, such as Taylor Swift , those types of things, and we have quite often– and the Bible talks about being in the world but not necessarily being of the world, and we are in this world and these are the things that go on around us. Everything is a balance and we teach the girls that as best we can, but it’s not wrong to enjoy those things that aren’t just only Christ-centred and Christ-focused, as long as they don’t take over and become the lead in your life, if that makes sense.
I think so. Do you see Miracles from Heaven as a “faith-based film” or do you see it as a “movie”, like a mainstream movie?
Beam: I do see it as a faith-based film, I really do, because there is still that underlying message of, again, there is a plan and God is faithful, but it is also a love story of a couple’s love, their love for their children, but also their love of the Lord. So I do feel like it still does centre and go back to being a faith-based movie.
Is there anything that you really wanted to get into the film that, for whatever reason, simply didn’t get in there?
Beam: Oh, goodness. I don’t know. I’m sure that there were little things here and there. Yes — and the reason that answer is yes is because Annabel was actually sick for four and a half years, and the movie, due to time constraints, only chronicles her illness as if it were a year, and my greatest reservation was that people would think, “Oh, well there’s this mom and she has this sick little girl, and then she’s only sick for a short period of time, and she quickly loses her faith and gets upset and kind of loses it,” as opposed to, well, actually, it was a lot longer of a process and a five-year journey, and there was a whole lot more grooming than even what they were able to portray. So that was my only reservation, was it was actually so much longer. But again, I understand why they can’t explain it, because that would involve the characters growing up and a lot of different aspects of it.
One question that occurs to me — and I don’t want to jinx anything — but, she got better, very suddenly, and you’ve been telling this story and a few years have gone by, but as you tell this story, do you ever wonder at the back of your mind, “Well what happens if she relapses?”
Beam: You know, that is a great question, because in the very beginning of telling this story — and even when the book first came out — and when we were working on the script for the movie, I did have a little time period where I did live in fear that she was going to have a relapse, and in fact my daddy actually told me, one day — when I was just talking about how Annabel wasn’t feeling well, and he could sense the angst and he could sense what I wasn’t saying — and he said something along the lines of, “Christy, either believe and accept wholeheartedly that she’s been healed and God is capable and that’s that, or just don’t, but you don’t get to live in the middle. It’s not fair for you and it’s not fair for the Lord.” So I really took that to heart and that very day I said, “She’s healed, and it’s over.” And we have celebrated accordingly.
Here is an online featurette that profiles the real-life Beam family:
Christy and Annabel Beam also took part in these other videos with the filmmakers:
July 13 update: Sony has now posted this excerpt from the featurette ‘Accounts from Annabel’, which is included on the Blu-Ray of the film but not on the DVD: