I had the privilege of attending a special preview of the new movie adaptation of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, directed by Steve Taylor. I read the book, just like possibly everyone else, while in college. This book preceded my interest in theology, so represents a time before I read heavy dogmatics. Although not academic, the book asks questions of faith and helped spur me deeper. I have, in short, a deep affection for the book for the time in my life it represents.
When I discovered that they wished to adapt Blue Like Jazz into a feature film, I was bewildered. The book is comprised chiefly of essays, with a spattering of cartoons throughout. I did not see how they could adapt it easily. After reading Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, I saw how they took that issue into consideration. In Blue Like Jazz: The Movie, we see a fictionalized account of Don’s life.
Then, a few days ago, I discovered that Miller and Taylor would be in Greenville to promote the film and show the final cut. I managed to arrange last minute plans on Saturday to return to Greenville on Sunday and attend the screening. We stood in the cold for an hour and met Miller and Taylor before proceeding into Regal Hollywood 20 to view the film.
Those familiar with the book will immediately notice the discrepancies. In the beginning, fictional Don works in a communion cup factory. He has a relationship with his estranged father. He attends Reed College full time instead of auditing. The biggest one involves his mother, though that constitutes a pretty big spoiler. If you can separate fictional Don from real-world Don, then your experience with the film will improve immensely. I admit, I struggled with this. Since I have read four out of his five books, I feel familiar with the real Don. If you do as well, do yourself a favor and put the real Don out of your mind.
Although the filmmakers based the movie only loosely on the book, they do import many elements from the book. The short cartoons “Don Astronaut” and “Sexy Carrot” are integrated within the film. I’m not sure if I would have understood them without reading the book first. Taylor weaves them in subtly. Don Astronaut appears often, but never with the short narrative of the cartoon. However, I think viewers will get the point.
The script-writing sessions depicted in A Million Miles paid off well. The script is sharp and taut. The story follows the fictionalized Don’s journey as a young Evangelical who struggles with faith in a place that rewards him for abandoning it. The story will feel familiar for those who have attended colleges similar to Reed. As someone who attended an Evangelical school, I have had little experience with this (though I have had some). The film is evocative, avoiding sentimentality in how it deals with life, faith, and doubt.
The film ends somewhat abruptly, though I think it worked. Like jazz itself, the movie does not neatly resolve. They do not tie the plot neatly in a bow. They end with the famous confession scene from the book. We never find out what Don’s actions accomplish. We don’t know if he gets the girl. The movie desires to life as it really happens, not shrinking from the uncertainties, complexities, or, even, the vulgarities.
That the film doesn’t gloss over the real world could shock those prepared for typical Evangelical fare. The movie depicts lead characters drinking alcohol, possibly consuming drugs at a party, making crude references, and speaking crassly. Many viewers might find this abrasive. I can assure those viewers, of course, that real people do actually conduct themselves in this manner. This fact will not, of course, surprise anyone.
The struggle in Christian media is typically “to what level does portrayal in media constitute approval?” If we depict actions we disapprove of in movies, will people simply replicate those actions unthinking? I think such questions represent a simplistic way of viewing media, one that could not even properly interpret the Bible. For instance, the Book of Judges represents a society spiraling out of control. One could not lift a scene of Judges out of its context and believe that it represents an exemplary life.
I have longed for Christian media that tells the truth. Many of the Christian movies I have seen depict a simplistic reality in which things resolve easily. I understand that for many filmmakers, their aim is purely didactic. The makers of Fireproof, for instance, said “We did not set out to win any Oscars.” I certainly appreciate their honesty. However, well-made, moving film can teach us more than a poorly made film. For instance, the movie I think of when I think about faith is not a Christian film, but the 2008 film Doubt, which was nominated for several Academy Awards.
So, is Blue Like Jazz a “Christian film”? I find that question more difficult to answer than I would have expected. I think the filmmakers seemed a bit confused in this regard. They clearly wished to distance themselves from such films, but also expressed a desire for us church leaders to bring groups to the film. The film certainly makes for a great discussion piece, particularly with teens and young adults about to attend or currently in college. Indeed, for any of us who feel compelled to abandon association with Christianity for acceptance, this film serves as a great reminder to live with integrity. But, given the content, could I easily bring a church group there? I don’t know.
All and all, Blue Like Jazz, while significantly different from the book, was a great experience. The movie told the truth about life in a way that genuinely compelled, never manipulated. Church leaders will be warned of content. I would advise all to proceed informed simply so that you do not leave surprised. However, the movie is so much more than its rating. I only fear that its rating will detract from what is a good, honest, and at times beautiful film about faith and the courage required to live as a faithful follower of Christ.
(Originally posted on russmcdonald.blogspot.com)