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New Pilgrim’s Progress Movie a Time-Tested Classic with a Missions Mindset

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

I guess you could say The Pilgrim’s Progress is a movie that was 340 years in the making.  However, this is not the classic Hollywood story of a book being optioned by a movie studio and then sitting in filmmaking purgatory for decades … or in this case, centuries. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress took a very long time to make its journey from page to screen because, well, John Bunyan wrote it in 1678.  Since then, it has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print. While seven other movies have been based on the book previously, this is the first animated version to be produced.

Featuring the voices of Ben Price (Audacity), John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings), and Kristyn Getty (singer, In Christ Alone), The Pilgrim’s Progress will be shown in theaters nationwide on April 18 and April 20 as a Fathom Movie Event.

Find a theater near you to see The Pilgrim's Progress live movie event.

I recently sat down with The Pilgrim’s Progress executive producer Steve Cleary to determine why this time-tested allegory still resonates with audiences today, why his team chose to make an animated feature rather than a live action movie, and his global vision for showing it around the world for free.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic book that was written and first published 340 years ago yet still resonates today.  Why are you so passionate about the story of The Pilgrim’s Progress?

John Bunyan is a Christian hero of mine. He was in prison for 12 years. He's away from his wife, he's away from his kids, but he chooses to serve God in this capacity. And then God gives him this amazing allegory called The Pilgrim's Progress. And now you think that's 340 years ago. This is a very old story. How's that relevant to today? The Bible is still as relevant today as it was when it was written. The same is true about The Pilgrim's Progress because it is the story of every believer. I am on a journey. You are on a journey. Everybody who is reading this is on a journey. Even if you say you are not, you are. You're on a path and that path will lead to a destination. 

And the question is what destination does that lead to? The allegory points to a eternal city where the king is obviously Jesus Christ. We know from Scripture that this world is not the destination. This world will face destruction. This world will face judgment and God will restore his perfect creation. We are on that same journey and we have a destination which is heaven and to be with Christ, to be with God the Father. Along that journey what do we face? We face trials, tribulations, and temptations. That's what The Pilgrim's Progress reveals.

The main character Christian has demons. That's a spiritual battle. It's spiritual warfare. So we're all on a spiritual journey and it's the story of every one of us. That's why it's really stood the test of time.

In your retelling of the story, what is the same about The Pilgrim’s Progress and what might be different? How do you modernize it so to speak to create interest from contemporary audiences?

We really kept the movie tightly aligned with the book. My goal was that if John Bunyan were alive today and watched the movie he would be honored by our presentation of his book. We kept all the major characters. We kept their names. We kept their traits. We kept all the major locations. People that are extremely familiar with the book have said that it mimes very well. We obviously could not tell the whole story. 

There are more than 100 characters in the book. So we have a lot of characters in the movie, but we could not maintain every character. If we did it would be a six-hour film. So we had it narrowed down to under two hours. We added supervisors that are the demons that kind of piece the story together. There was obviously an evil force at work that does not want Christian arriving in the Celestial City. They tried to stop him along the way. So in the book they did not have characters as supervisors. We added that to the movie and it worked very smoothly to help move the story along and understand the powers of darkness.

Why did you choose the animation route over a live action retelling of the story?

There were a couple of major reasons. One, to do a live action film would just be astronomically expensive. For example, Giant Despair in our film is 30 feet tall. It would take a lot of special effects to do this movie the right way. 

CGI (computer generated imagery) is expensive in itself. It's the most expensive form of animation because the detail that goes in with the textures and the 3D approach to the film. But the other reason why is when I share this on the mission field, even in dangerous countries, animation is received differently than live action. I've experienced this personally. I've been in Colombia to guerrilla camps, and if I was to give them a Bible, or if I was to show up with a preacher, we would be dead. But when I show up with a children's illustrated Bible and an animated movie, they welcome me in. We actually have seen this happen because animation lives in its own world. They view a pastor and print as propaganda and politics. However, they view illustrations and animations as storytelling. 

A lot of people that are persecuted Christians, they're not necessarily atheist. They believe in something but they're against the doctrine that they're teaching. So, we still go back to the basics and we can show Hindus, Muslims, and even terrorist groups an animated film and they will watch it. Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit will begin to plant seeds and convict them of the ways they've chosen their violence and turn them toward Jesus Christ. Animation translates amazingly well.

We think The Pilgrim’s Progress will be a little bit safer to show because it's animation and it lives in its own world. So there was no human person on the screen telling you how you should think or telling you what they believe. 

It's pure imagination. It allows you to consider what the character is saying because it's not real. Oftentimes it can be a true story, but it can also be a made up story that proves a point. The Pilgrim's Progress is like a big parable. It's this make believe story that reveals Biblical truth. And it does open doors.

As you have mentioned, one very unique part of this production is the heart for missions behind the film. What is the global vision for The Pilgrim’s Progress?  How do you plan to give away the film around the world?

Our film is free to the missionary and free to any non-commercial mission activity in any language, and in any country. And we are busy. We are already in production in four languages. Our goal is to be translated into 100 languages. We have determined that with 100 languages you can reach over 90% of the world. I would love to have the faith to translate The Pilgrim’s Progress into a thousand. The Jesus film has been translated into more than1,700 languages. We want to follow in their footsteps. 

I think that story of Pilgrim’s Progress is an incredible door opener. So now I imagine what about overseas? What if they bring in families and show this film on some night and it's this animated entertaining film that shows about the journey and reveals the king, the king who wants us to be with him in eternity. Then they watch the Jesus film and they see the working out of the King. That's it. Jesus is the King. I think this is a tremendous opportunity. We are committed to be free. We're not free to the theaters, we’re not free to retail stores, but we're free to missions.

That might be a Sunday school teacher who has no budget. That might be a prison chaplain or a Salvation Army center. That might be a homeless shelter. It doesn't always have to be overseas. It can be right here in our own communities. I don't own The Pilgrim's Progress. John Bunyan wrote it and it's in the public domain. I had rights to it but it’s not my story. It's John Bunyan’s story but he would tell you it's not his story either. It's a story inspired by God and the Holy Spirit. This is a tool that belongs to the church and we want to handle it carefully. We want to handle it with honor and respect. We want it to continue going out freely to missions. This makes it hard to attract investors when you say you're going to give you a movie away for free. But we've done it.

After people have seen The Pilgrim’s Progress, from your perspective, what would you like audiences to take away from the film?  What is your greatest hope for the movie?

Our big dream for the movie is for it to be the most watched animated film on the mission field and to be the second most watched film period after the Jesus film. We really have a desire to let it be seen by the world and that is already happening. Completing the film was a five-year milestone. So now I want to spend the next five years distributing it for the mission field. For people who watch it, my personal goal is that number one, you wake up every day saying, what path am I on? One line from the movie is ‘help in some form or another is never far off.’  That’s what I want our audience to realize.  That there is a straight path and there is a King who is going to help us on that straight path. And then I want you to say, how can I use this film to help lead others to the straight path? How can I use it to help evangelize? Could I invite my neighbors over?

This is an easy tool to start sharing the Gospel and not simply saying, would you pray with me right now? But actually talking to somebody about their faith, their journey, and their destination. Have an ongoing conversation with people about their life. You have a King who's going to help you every step of the way. I want people to embrace it, share it, and then talk about it.

Find a theater near you to see The Pilgrim's Progress live movie event.
 

Watch a trailer for The Pilgrim's Progress live movie event:

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