Some critics use the term “feel-good movie” as shorthand for “Lots of people are going to go see this film because it has a happy ending. But trust me, it’ll never win Best Picture. It might not even be good filmmaking.” But I like feel-good movies, because I like…well…feeling good. And who would go see something advertised as a “feel crummy” movie?
If you go see a movie like last month’s Annie, you already know what to expect; you’re paying for the happy ending, and you’ll feel cheated if you don’t get it. Imagine, for example, a different ending. Here’s the cast of the musical gaily singing and dancing their way down the streets of New York. Suddenly, in swoops a band of terrorists, and everyone is machine-gunned to death. Roll credits. How do you think the audience would react? (And how many angry letters would parents write to the producers for making their little ones cry?)
Here’s a more serious example. Let’s rewrite the story to make Annie a Christian. Every day, she prays that God would bring her parents back to her, or rescue her somehow from Miss Hannigan’s mockery of a foster home.
And now, let’s write and shoot two alternative versions of the movie and screen them for test audiences, who will vote which story makes it into theatrical release.
Version 1 is pretty much the story we already know: Annie escapes her “hard-knock life.” She runs into Will Stacks, who rescues her from danger and eventually learns to love her as if she were his own daughter. At the end of the movie, we’d take the story as a lesson about prayer and providence: Annie prays, God comes through, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In version 2, however, Stacks is in full agreement with his sleazy campaign manager’s strategy. He merely uses Annie for publicity, gets himself elected as mayor, then dumps her back into Hannigan’s clutches. There’s no happy ending. Annie just goes back to her prayers.
With those options in mind, consider these two questions. First, which version do you think test audiences will prefer? Even Christian audiences?
And second: which of the two versions is closer to the way the Bible portrays the nature of Christian hope?
There’s nothing wrong with liking stories with happy endings. They give us a certain kind of hope. Sure, we know Annie has a hard-knock life. But we want a story that assures us that it won’t always be a hard-knock life; something will happen to redeem her suffering.
My concern is that as Christians, we sometimes expect our lives to follow the plotline of Hollywood happiness more than a specifically biblical hope. We narrow the gospel to the good news of what God will do to write a happy ending to my story, to rescue me from my suffering.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about our suffering, or that we shouldn’t pray to God for help. The Scriptures are full of just such prayers, and we probably have our own stories to tell of miraculous interventions.
But we also have stories of seemingly unanswered prayers, of inexplicable personal suffering that has no end in sight. If, in the story I make of my life, I expect a climactic escape from the hard-knock life, I may be profoundly disappointed and tempted to blame God.
The alternative? A biblical hope that is less about what happens to me before I die, and more about the larger story of what happens after. More on that in the next post.