A Pastor’s Unlikely Journey from Nebraska to Hollywood

When Todd Burpo took the unlikely journey from rural Nebraska to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, it was inevitable that Hollywood wanted a piece of the action.

Heaven Is for Real, the pastor’s nonfiction account of his own crisis of faith following his 4-year-old son’s recollections of a visit to heaven during a near-death experience in 2003, seemed tailor-made for a cinematic adaptation. Yet the personal nature of the story made Burpo reluctant, and even defiant, about such a notion, despite numerous lucrative offers.

“When you think of integrity, you don’t think of Hollywood,” Burpo said during a recent stop in Dallas. “No way did I want to trust something sacred to us — something I knew was real and impacted every part of my life — to let someone mess with that. It was easy for me to say no, and hard for me to say yes.”

Burpo relented three years ago after a conversation with veteran producer Joe Roth that got to the heart of his skepticism.

“I’m a pastor, but I’m a father first,” Burpo said. “Whatever is put on the screen, my son is going to see that and is going to hold me accountable. Are they going to be faithful to that? I’m not going to risk my relationship with my son for a movie.”

Several months after Roth acquired the rights to the story, Heaven Is for Real was handed to director Randall Wallace (Secretariat), who spent a year in seminary school many years ago and said he responded to the book on multiple levels. Still, he wasn’t convinced that he was the right filmmaker for the job.

“My stories have always had to do with a lot of battle and grit. I didn’t want to make a kind of genre religious film. But that’s not what this is,” said Wallace, who also contributed to the screenplay. “This story has power to every person. It’s about life and death, and the questions we all face about our mortality.”

As the film opens, Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is as average as they come — a blue-collar pastor and volunteer firefighter who lives a happy life with his wife (Kelly Reilly) and two children, blemished only by financial difficulties.

The family is thrown into turmoil when their youngest son, Colton (Connor Corum) becomes suddenly ill and nearly dies at the hospital. When the relieved family takes the youngster home, he begins recalling a near-death experience that includes details about the family’s history that he couldn’t have known.

Convinced that he visited heaven before returning to Earth, Colton claims he encountered Christ and other biblical figures, which confounds his pastor father whose faith is shaken because he isn’t sure what to believe, and neither is his congregation.

After directing We Were Soldiers and Secretariat, Wallace is familiar with tackling stories of real people who are still living, and the accompanying pressure.

“I always feel responsibility, because you’re going to have to look them in the eye, and they will tell you if you’ve done an honest job,” he said. “I also felt a responsibility to the millions of people who have read this book. I want them to feel that the movie was a reflection of what they were responding to in their hearts about the story. I want the movie to tell a story that resonates as truth.”

Wallace hopes that both adults and children will connect with the characters, regardless of religious affiliation.

“Todd is grounded in reality. He’s not arguing an abstract concept. He’s arguing something as tangible as a father’s love for his son,” Wallace said. “I wanted people to have the experience of this family, that you would love Colton the way Todd loves him. We give room to doubt. We are asking questions right along with the audience.”

As for Burpo, did his faith in Hollywood improve after watching the finished product? He said he family gave him the answer.

“It’s hard to watch a movie about yourself. There’s no way you can be a normal moviegoer when people are depicting you on screen,” he said. “I just let my kids talk, and they said we should support the movie.”