With more than 6 million copies of “Heaven is for Real” sold, and translations being made in 36 languages, you knew there had to be a film in the works. “Heaven is for Real,” starring Greg Kinnear as Todd Burpo, Kelly Reilly as Sonja Burpo, and Conner Corum as four-year-old Colton, opens in theaters today (April 16). Will people like the movie as much as they did the book? I spoke with “Heaven is for Real” author Todd Burpo about the film, and how the explosive success of the book about a little boy's journey to Heaven has changed the lives of the entire Burpo family.
Anne: What did you think about how your family was portrayed on film?
Todd: It's really hard to watch yourself on screen, period. But as my friends watched it, they were just chuckling because of how good a job [the actors] did at portraying us. The second and third times I saw it, it was easier for me to watch it, and one of my friends said Greg Kinnear even walks like me—and he does. As far as portraying our family, especially the boy who plays Colton, it's impressive how good a job they did. It's almost too impressive. It's so impressive that . . . it gets creepy. How did they do that?
Anne: The film added characters and situations that are not in the book. Was this done for dramatic purposes?
Todd: I think you have a couple of real obstacles that Hollywood had to deal with, especially Randall Wallace, the screenwriter. . . . First of all, legally, you can't go into Imperial, Nebraska and take a shot of downtown Imperial and put it on film without getting sued. In our country the legal obstacles are tremendous. You can't shoot real-life people and real-life characters and real-life buildings, so they had to create their own version of Imperial residents and Imperial the town.
The other obstacle is time. The clock's ticking, and you have to condense characters and condense subjects, and you have to pick themes. You can't tell the whole book in the span of an hour and forty minutes; [we had to] compress time and then create characters to have the real-life conversations that Colton had with people. That was real challenging, but at the end of the day, we all looked at it and went “Wow, we can support this.” I think they dealt with those obstacles, they compressed some things, but they did it in a tasteful way and they did it in an accurate way. Some of the things that you see in the movie we dealt with in real life, some of the things they did made up a little bit. I remember [my daughter] Cassie wrestling a few kids, but never punching them [as she does in the film]. I think most of the people that have read the book and watched the movie are really impressed with the movie and really like it.
Anne: One of the made-up characters was the psychiatrist Todd Burpo consults when he's trying to figure out what's going on with Colton.
Todd: Yep. That did not happen in real life. That's one of the things they did creatively for the right reasons. In Imperial, Nebraska, we're still kind of in the Bible Belt, if you will. I think if you go to the East Coast and West Coast, there's a whole lot more people that don't have faith. How do you give those people in the audience a chance to watch the rest of the film [without a character who represents] their opinions? And so I think Randall Wallace brilliantly created this character that probably wouldn't offend anyone in Imperial but at the same time would [appeal to] all those people that don't accept faith and things of faith. With this character, we say, “Okay, we'll let you voice your opinion, but please stay in the theater and watch what this little boy does and says.” And the way he did that I thought was beautiful. You'll find I'm the simple one and he's the brilliant one.
Anne: What did Colton think of the film?
Todd: He thought it was really well done, too.
Anne: What do you hope the film will accomplish?
Todd: There's several themes we dealt with, but we just try to be honest. Honest in how our son represented things to us, honest in how [Colton's stories] came to us in bits and pieces and how we questioned him. In the film, Colton is still driving most of the big points of the story.Anne: How do you stay uncompromisingly biblical without offending viewers?
Todd: Kids can say things that, if an adult said the same thing, people would be offended. But a kid can say it and they'll go “Wow, really?” And they'll listen. I just hope that as people listen to Colton, maybe they can get the thought . . . “You know what? I'd like God to do that for me too.” And the thing I want people to know is that Jesus wants to do for them what He did for Colton if they'd just let Him.
Anne: How have the book and film changed your lives?
Todd: Well, we definitely have a new normal. [Once] I didn't travel much at all. Now we could tell you about most of the airports in the United States! I never had a passport until after I wrote the book. We go home as much as we can and stay home more than we travel, but still, the traveling is the whole new normal that we've all had to adjust to. People are constantly asking us to come share and to talk. We can't do near as much as we're asked to do. That's why we've done a lot of writing. Writing is one way where God can take [the message of the book and film] and distribute that in ways that one person just can't. People just really need hope and they're looking for something that can give them peace. And I think what Colton shares and what he says he experienced is providing a lot of peace and hope for people, and it’s pointing them in the right direction to find it.
Anne: Are you still working as a pastor?
Todd: I am. I still pastor Crossroads Wesleyan church.
Anne: What is Colton's life like today, at age 13?
Todd: He goes to public school. He doesn't travel near as much as I do. He travels more in the summertime when he's out of school. So far Spain and Singapore are the farthest he's been. This semester he's going to miss a lot more school because starting at the end of this week he helps with promoting the movie. But we really minimize his days of travel . . . during the school year because he needs to be in class.
Anne: Near the end of the film, your character has a talk with a character named Nancy Wallings, who asks you if he thinks her son, who died in combat, is in heaven. Does the film get slightly fuzzy here in terms of theology? It almost sounds as if your character is saying, “God loves everybody, and everybody gets to go to heaven.” Did it seem this way to you?
Todd: No, not at all. Nancy Wallings is a board member in a church, she's a friend, her character is developed all the way through the movie—someone who not only prays with us, but for us. In my church, to be a board member, not only do you have to have a profession of faith in Christ, but you have to be baptized. When you disconnect this scene from the rest of the movie, maybe it's fuzzy, but if you put it in context of the whole movie, because the character is developed, you know who she is and you know what she believes before she ever gets to that scene.
Anne: What is your favorite part of the film?
Todd: My favorite line in the movie is when Greg Kinnear says to Nancy in that cemetery scene, when she's talking about the pain she still has because she lost her son: “You don't have to apologize to me for a broken heart that you carry.” I love that line because I think in church we need to be honest that when mommies and dads bury kids, you're gonna hurt. And it's okay. Jesus wept at Lazarus's grave, and He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead!
Anne: Did you expect the book to turn into a massive bestseller, and then be made into a major motion picture?Todd: No, not at all. Not at all. People somehow seem to suggest there was some grand design plan that we had, but the only person who has this plan is God.