Time interview: Randy Alcorn & Courageous film novel

By Randy Alcorn
Eternal Perspectives Ministries, Sandy Oregon

Please visit his blog

Some months ago I was contacted by Time magazine reporter Tim Newcomb, who asked me a number of questions about the Courageous movie and the novel. Tim’s final article was just published on Time’s online magazine.

As is often the case, decisions are made on the editorial level to allot more or less space to articles, and to include and not include some portions of articles. Since the article was scaled back and Time chose not to use any of the following, I’m now free to post my interview. I have edited a few of my answers to bring them up to date, but 90% of this is what I said originally to Tim Newcomb. (Tim is not only an accomplished writer, but a great guy from my church who I used to play tennis with and talk about the Lord with when he was in high school back in the 90’s).

Do you see the rise of Sherwood following similar lines to that of Christian music and Christian novels?

In terms of crossover and infiltrating secular culture, there are parallels. But the Sherwood story is distinctly different, in that it happened completely outside the mainstream. It wasn’t birthed by a producer or a publisher, the way movies and books, whether secular or Christian, typically are. It began with the vision of a few church leaders who solicited the help of their local church, learning and improvising as they went. There’s a great deal of creativity in local churches, lots of great songwriting and musical performances and even some quality drama. But it’s often limited to songs sung by the choir, skits that illustrate sermon points, or localized Christmas and Easter pageants. People may come to these events from thirty miles away, but almost never do they break out of a community and achieve a regional status, much less a national or international one.

Sherwood Pictures is in many ways unparalleled, a Cinderella story of staggering proportions. How could a church in Albany, Georgia have produced four films, counting Courageous, that have already had an amazing national and international impact, selling millions of DVDs and spinoff books? How could they have done so with mostly volunteer labor, at a fraction of the cost of conventional movie-making? Each movie has been better than its predecessor, and ten times better than what could be expected for the budget. But Courageous raises the bar to a whole new level. When many people see Courageous, they won’t be thinking, “Not bad, for a church” or “Not bad considering it wasn’t done by Hollywood.” A lot of people will just be thinking, “Wow, this is a really good movie.”

How unique is it to have a movie simply be a launching point to tell a story and then have other resources (i.e. books) be the support to further that development?

Some movie screenplays are based on novels, others are written directly for the movie. In those cases, a novelist, such as myself, is called in to do a “novelization” of the screenplay. The fun thing about this project for me is that the excellent spine of the novel Courageous already exists in the screenplay, but the novel is over four times longer, meaning that the novelist must invent 80% of the story line. This is an exciting process, because I am free to use my imagination and introduce new characters and locations and many scenes that are not in the movie. I was determined to remain true to the movie so that while the novel goes behind and beyond the movie, at the same time it never contradicts it.

Many who watch the movie Courageous will want to learn more about the story than what is in the two hours. The novel is the equivalent of ten hours of screen time, and allows much more exploration of the characters, back-story and subplots as well as new dramatic scenes (without having to spend millions of dollars to produce them).

Likewise, the nonfiction book The Resolution for Men, written by Stephen, Alex and myself, explores a set of commitments made by five men in the movie. This is unusual, since most movies have a corresponding novel, but not a spinoff nonfiction book, unless it’s a “making of the movie” product.

The Love Dare book was actually in the movie Fireproof. Though The Resolution for Men isn’t in the movie, the concepts behind the book are a central part of the movie. (Like the Courageous novel, The Resolution for Men is available many places, including from EPM at a substantial discount.)

From the outside coming into the Sherwood fold, what has struck you most?

Without a doubt, it’s the character and integrity of Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and the leadership of Sherwood Baptist Church. When I spent three days in Albany, Georgia, researching the novel Courageous, I spent a great deal of time with the Kendricks. I was with them at meals, in the editing room where they were working on Courageous, and in a full day of discussion about the novel and the nonfiction book The Resolution for Men.

They drove me around town, introduced me to people and I observed them in a number of situations with many different people over the course of those three days. I saw them in real life over a long enough period that they couldn’t just put on a happy face and “fake it.” I saw them deal with some challenges and was struck not just with their professionalism and commitment to the artistic elements of moviemaking, but with their personal integrity.

Sometimes the more time you spend with people, the less you admire them. Not so with the Kendricks. What you see is what you get. I saw no hypocrisy or insincerity, and believe me, those things register on my instruments. I met their wives and children and felt their genuine warmth and affection.

I stayed through Sunday in order to worship at Sherwood Baptist Church. I wasn’t prepared to keep noticing people in the choir or the hallway who I’ve seen in Flywheel, Facing the Giants, Fireproof or Courageous. It was an odd experience, but there was nothing superficial or phony in the majority of people I interacted with. Sure, every church is different, but Sherwood Church is the genuine item.

Since I have always written my books on my own, without plugging into someone else’s vision, many people have asked why I would become involved with “someone else’s project.” It’s a good question, and it certainly created challenges. I’ve written about forty books now, with over five million copies in print. I was not desperate to write another one! I choose my projects carefully. That’s why I took a good look at Sherwood, because I don’t want to put my name on anything that isn’t both high quality and honorable. For the Courageous project, I felt good about becoming part of a storytelling team led by people who are not only dedicated and skilled, but honest and authentic.

As a novelist, do you find it to be the intertwining of a message with a story—instead of just a story—that helps bring people to Sherwood films?

Yes, that’s certainly true. Every novelist knows that movies don’t just have plots, they have themes. And in the exploration of those themes there is inevitably a message, whether or not it is carefully crafted. The message may be that life is random, pointless, hopeless, chaotic, cruel, or that it is full of both good and bad, and that even in the bad there can be ultimate purpose and meaning. Every writer and director has a worldview, and the movie will reflect it.

The Kendrick brothers have a distinctively Christian worldview. But people are drawn to their movies not because nothing bad happens in them, but because even when bad things happen—and bad things certainly happen in the movie Courageous—there is a surprising amount of good that surrounds it, and even comes from it. This isn’t Pollyannaish, rather it is redemptive, and it rings true to life.

The highest compliment a New York Times book review can give is to call a novel “a redemptive story.” People love redemptive stories, and that’s what Courageous is—a powerful redemptive story. Now, because the book is longer, I had to have many more things go wrong in the story line that demanded resolution. If I had not added any new characters, new scenes, new conflict or new humor, the novel would have been a miserable failure. Many movie-goers are readers, and they expect to learn a lot more and immerse themselves deeper in a novel than is possible in the much shorter format of the film.

Even when they face tragedies, most people, regardless of whether they are Christians, don’t want to die, they want to keep on living, because they believe that life is worth it. They believe there is reason to keep going, and they hope for something better. The Christian faith deals directly and honestly with the problem of evil and suffering, while affirming there is a sovereign and good God who loved the world so much that he became a man to take the world’s evils and suffering on himself, so that people can live forever with Him, experiencing eternal goodness. The gospel is the prototype redemptive story. Many people believe in and want to see that sense of hope, that redemptive element, in books and movies.

What kind of reaction have you received when telling people what projects you are working on for Sherwood?

The response has included a lot of surprise, partly because, as I said, for 27 years now I have been writing what God has entrusted to me, not others. I have a strong sense of responsibility to my novel readers because there are certain things they’ve come to expect from my stories, and those are not easily incorporated into a book that started with someone else’s vision.

But when I explain my reasons, my readers’ responses has been very positive. Furthermore, the first three Sherwood movies have many loyal fans. They are each good stories, showing increased professional quality. Having seen all four movies, I’m convinced that Courageous is a major step forward.

People love the idea of seeing the movie, then exploring it in the novel form, in characters and storyline and themes in greater detail at their leisure.

Movie making and book writing are not contradictory, but supplementary mediums. Watching Alex and Stephen sit at their computers surrounded by big screens, editing Courageous, showed me that making a good movie is remarkably similar to making a good book, which I’ve been trying to do for twenty-five years. The painstaking editing process helps you to make it into the most compelling story that reaches into hearts of the audience.

What makes a story unforgettable and haunting and the subject of water cooler conversations is the same thing in movies as it is in books. We crave a story that has the ring of truth, that involves action and conflict and the growth of characters we care about. A story that we don’t leave behind when we leave the theatre or read the last page of the book. We want a redemptive story that stays with us and changes us for the better. That’s what I’m convinced the movie Courageous will do, and the Courageous novel also.

One thing I should add that I didn’t say in the Time interview: no movie and no novel is sufficient to change a life in the way that is necessary for the long haul. That requires a work of God’s Holy Spirit that continues over time. It also requires a change of life priorities and habits. Men and women need to turn off the television, look away from the computer and read God’s Word, read great books, talk with their children, join Bible studies, and become accountable to others to grow in their walk with God, their marriage and their parenting.

Though a movie isn’t enough to change people, it can be one more instrument used by God to get their attention and challenge them to take the next step. The key to long-term growth and turning around hearts and families will obviously not be theatres showing movies, but churches and families and individuals meeting with God and each other day after day, calling upon Him to transform us, by the grace and truth of Jesus Christ and the power of His Holy Spirit.

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