Repent of Your Movie Snobbery
We need to consider messages of truth and beauty, even when imperfect.
This article was adapted from episode six of The Way to Glory.
A film adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress could be problematic for many reasons. A Giant named Despair attempts to persuade travelers into killing themselves. The Vanity Fair lures pilgrims with promises of happiness and indulgence, and it threatens death to those who dare to skip or disrupt events. Darkness abounds in The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is tricky for an animation studio intent on producing a family-friendly movie that children can also enjoy.
But that’s not the only hurdle Revelation Media has faced in their production of this film. People have criticized the trailer of The Pilgrim’s Progress and even the movie itself for not featuring state-of-the-art animation.
Shouldn’t studios strive for excellence when creating art that’s intended to reflect the difficulty of life and the goodness of the gospel?
Steve Cleary, founder of Revelation Media, the company producing The Pilgrim’s Progress, wrestles with this question every day, and for him, the answer isn’t an easy one. He joins us in our latest episode of The Way to Glory to discuss his hopes for the film.
Cleary knows that his movie doesn’t meet the modern-day aesthetic standards of many people. “If you want to compare us to Pixar, there's plenty of criticism to be had,” he offers. “But I want the animation to be worthy of the story. That’s what haunts me.”
It’s not only Bunyan’s story that keeps Cleary motivated despite financial and technological limitations—it’s the stories of people he’s never met, those who live all around the world: “We’ve shown the film to people overseas, and they have tears in their eyes as they say, ‘You're going to give us this film for missions?’”
When Cleary founded Revelation Media in 2017, he was committed to providing quality and culturally engaging media for the global missions community. His budget is not, and likely never will be, that of an animation studio like Pixar. “Do we put the quality bar so high that we stop attempting to even make a film?” Cleary asks. “It’s a hard one. You can probably sense it's a difficult subject for me.”
Revelation Media set out to make an excellent movie reflecting the depth of The Pilgrim’s Progress. But due to budgetary restrictions and in light of a global mission field desperate for content that serves their communities, Cleary is compelled to sacrifice some of his artistic desires for what he sees as a greater purpose. It’s not that the latest animation is irrelevant or that art shouldn’t reflect the grandeur of God. There’s simply more to the story, more to the need.
The Harvest Is Plentiful—and International
The underground church prints The Pilgrim’s Progress in secret—many risk imprisonment because they are convinced Bunyan’s text will encourage unbelievers toward salvation and believers toward faithfulness. “For America, the mission field, the underground church, and persecuted Christians, The Pilgrim’s Progress translates well to the world,” Cleary says. “The book’s believed to be translated into 200 languages. I’ve met people from all over the world—from many, many different countries—who know this story and love the story.”
While Revelation Media may not be able to produce the type of animation they desire, they also recognize their unique position in the film community as a studio focused on global missions. Cleary says that if given twenty million dollars to animate a film however he wanted, he’d refuse and make four just like The Pilgrim’s Progress. Why? Because the global community deserves the content. “We probably make forty movies for the United States before we make one for the mission field,” he observes. “I'd like to see that change.”
The Pilgrim’s Progress is especially valuable for the missions community because, as Cleary says, “the allegory speaks to everyone. It's not a Western story, and it’s not Eastern, Asian, or African. When I see the pilgrim in Christian—his burden, his fear, his temptations—that's me. That’s anybody in the world, at any time in history. We are in a City of Destruction. Our only hope is a Celestial City ruled by a good and noble king.”
Revelation Media’s goals for the movie, with self-admitted mediocre animation, are high. They want it to be the second-most watched film on the mission field (after The Jesus Film, which Cleary cites as an example of a lower-quality film with astronomical impact for the gospel). The Pilgrim’s Progress is the second most influential book on the mission field, and Revelation wants to see the film ranked identically.
Intent on reaching the world with Bunyan’s story of salvation and faithfulness, Revelation Media challenges the formation of our entertainment standards and asks us to consider other purposes for film. Maybe we won’t find ourselves marveling over special effects as we sit in the theater, popcorn in hand. But we might find tears in our eyes as we think of people the world over meeting Great Heart for the first time. It’s not that our global community deserves anything less than the best—it’s that the world is waiting, hungry, right now for messages of truth and beauty, even if they’re imperfect.
Cleary plans to get a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress in every Salvation Army Center worldwide. The film will air on Easter weekend in Iran for an approximate six million viewers. They’re doing a film tour in Cuba. Over time, Cleary hopes to see the film translated into 200 languages.
Despite what Cleary refers to as “B+” animation, he still has hope for its impact on an American audience: “I want to keep the story alive. I want to see generational impact, and I want it to leave a legacy.” Cleary trusts that the thoughtfulness his studio has put into adapting the story while adding bits of humor (like making Giant Despair a fainting giant) will resonate with the hearts and minds of children and open the door for spiritual conversations within families.
Perhaps the ideal would be a perfectly animated film wedded with a perfectly curated story. Or maybe, sometimes, an imperfect tool is just what we need.
The Way to Glory is produced by CT Creative Studio in partnership with our sponsor Revelation Media and their upcoming movie, The Pilgrim's Progress, in theaters Easter weekend.