'Heaven is for Real' hits the silver screen

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The captivating story of heaven from the eyes of a pint-size package— who reveals compelling details of his ethereal trip after a near-death experience—hits the big screen April 16. "Heaven is for Real," starring young newcomer Connor Corum, with Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly as his parents, is based on the blockbuster best-selling book by the same name.

The book, released in 2010, spent 64 weeks in the No. 1 spot on The New York Time's best-seller list. Published by Thomas Nelson, the non-fiction work was co-written by San Diego author Lynn Vincent and Nebraska pastor Todd Burpo, whose 4-year-old son experienced a taste of heaven after he nearly died during surgery to remove his burst appendix. Three and a half years after the book's release, it remains on the Times best-seller list, having sold 10.5 million copies in 25 languages.

For the film adaptation, "Heaven is for Real" widens its scope, incorporating Todd's struggles in deciding to go public with Colton's story. His son's story not only impacts the Burpos, but also their small town, which was inundated with media in light of the revelations about the child's experience. While immensely moving and comforting for some fans, the book has its critics and skeptics.

In a 2011 commentary in The Washington Post, atheist writer Susan Jacoby ridiculed the book, its authors and those who read it.

"What is truly disturbing about this book's huge commercial success is that it attests to the prevalence of unreason among vast numbers of Americans," she wrote, later adding, "At age 4, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is charming. Among American adults, widespread identification with the mind of a preschooler is scary."

In interviews across the country, Burpo has admitted he and his wife, Sonja, were initially skeptical of their son's tales, which emerged shortly after his life-threatening illness. Valiant work on behalf of the doctors and nurses saved Colton and he returned home to heal.

Over time, though, Colton began to tell stories of things he experienced from heaven, providing details of people and events the young boy was never told about: He watched his dad wrestling with God in the hospital chapel while his mother prayed in the waiting room. While on his heavenly excursion, Colton meets Pops, his paternal grandfather who died decades before Colton's birth. He also describes meeting an older sister who tells her brother she died in their mom's tummy.

Colton's revelations, including an uncanny exchange involving Pops, force his parents to grapple with the realization that they were dealing with far more than creative imagination and happenstance.

"What do you do when your 4-year-old son looks at you and says, 'I went to Heaven and this is what it's like,' ... and you're a pastor? That, for me, is the stuff of drama," said Director Randall Wallace, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Parker.

"Todd grounds the story in day-to-day reality, the way it really unfolded," Wallace said. "Colton doesn't just blurt it all out. It comes out in little bits and pieces in the course of everyday life."


Personal inspiration
Although the foundation of the book is based on Colton's heavenly experiences, director Wallace said the movie transcends that storyline.

"Whatever your feelings on the afterlife—even in your current life, right here, right now there is this beauty all around you that's been nicely captured for this film through the eyes of a little boy. If you don't have any personal inspiration, 'Heaven is for Real' will give you some."

Committed to maintaining the integrity of Colton's story, Burpo signed on with the Sony Pictures Entertainment project after receiving assurances from producers Joe Roth and Pastor T.D. Jakes they would protect the story.

Roth's credits include "Anger Management," "Alice in Wonderland," "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Snow White and The Huntsman," while Jakes has produced such titles as "Woman, Thou Art Loosed," "Sparkle," "Jumping the Broom," and "Black Nativity."

"A lot of things in this story appealed to me, and one was Todd's conflict," Roth said. "Should he stir up the townspeople with his son's story or put it aside? And he did the unsafe thing. He backed his son's vision, though it could cost him his job and made him quite unpopular in town."


Celebrating intangibles
Jakes, also a best-selling author, said he was drawn to the project because of its intangible qualities.

"The great gift of 'Heaven is for Real' is the possibility of the impossible, the touchability of the abstract—so powerful that we feel as if we are one with something we just can't touch," Jakes said. "That's what faith is."

At the same time, Jakes said, the story also reveals the complexity of faith.

"The faith in this film is far from simplistic," the Dallas pastor said. "It's no quick solution, nothing magical. It's a struggling, stumbling, groping, grasping faith, reaching through dark fear and confusion to solidify the abstractions of life. And it's appropriate that a little child teaches adults how to believe again, how to trust again."

Filmed in Winnipeg, Canada, "Heaven is for Real" opens in time for Easter weekend. It also stars Margo Martindale and Thomas Haden Church. Learn more at www.heavenisforrealmovie.com