It was heralded as a landmark faith-based movie. A Christian film with a real budget, real stars and plenty of real theology. But as The Shack now appears on home and digital media, perhaps enough time has passed to be able to ask the really tough question: did the team who created it succeed in their ambitions? Did The Shack make the splash that many Christians hoped it might? And did its release make a difference?
The easiest bit of evaluation we can do on The Shack is to look at the numbers. Despite a few previews from within the Christian subculture which actually warned believers not to see the film, it had almost made its entire $20 million budget back by the end of its US opening weekend. By the end of its theatrical run it had grossed almost three times that figure in the USA alone, while worldwide it had grossed over $96 million. By anyone's standards, grossing five times your budget counts as a box office success; add to that the significant extra DVD and digital sales expected (mainly to church leaders who want to use clips in their sermons), and the final figure could top $150 million.
Well... it was good to start with a positive. For various reasons, critics didn't love The Shack. The consensus score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes barely rose north of 20 per cent and major reviewers like the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw took great delight in stabbing the knife into Stuart Hazeldine's film. In his one-star review, Bradshaw wrote 'The film could have been just crazy enough to be brilliant but it winds up looking like a wet weekend at Christian Disneyland,' while Empire magazine's Hayley Campbell said it was 'far too earnest to appeal to anyone beyond those who believe you can fight a true crisis of the soul with a campfire and some Kumbaya'. The latter comment seems to epitomise a general snideness among critics towards the subject matter, and Christian faith in general. It's hard to imagine such reviewers giving a film with such a weight of theological content a fair crack of the whip, although to be fair to them, most of us wouldn't want to sit watching characters having lengthy conversations about film theory.
Without wanting to be awfully self-referential, Christian Today took a rather different view. While recognising its imperfections, my own review stated that 'The Shack does a great job of explaining God's love for every person, his presence in our darkest moments and his offer of meaningful personal friendship.' Meanwhile Focus on the Family's Plugged In site gave the film a 4/5 rating, praised the film-making and said 'The Shack delivers significant messages about God in a world desperately looking and longing for answers.' Similarly positive appreciation came from faith-based sources as diverse as The National Catholic Reporter and Premier Christianity magazine. For Christian critics, The Shack was among the very best faith-based movies to emerge from Hollywood (if you don't count The Passion of the Christ, I'd argue it's the best).
The great anomaly on that Rotten Tomatoes page is the yawning gap between the critical consensus and the average audience score, which at time of writing was at a more-than-respectable 78 per cent. Of course, the vast majority of people who saw the film would have been Christians or at least faith-friendly, but still the film seemed to strike a chord with them. Many praised the performances of Aviv Alush, who does a tremendous job of bringing a very different Jesus to the big screen, and Octavia Spencer as the God-the-Father character, Papa. Whereas the book proved quite divisive among audiences, the film adaptation manages to helpfully blur some of the more controversial aspects, and the result seems to have been a broadly affirmative response across the church.
Did Christians 'seize the opportunity'?
Plenty was made in the run-up to release of the 'opportunity' that the film presented to churches to hold evangelistic or whole-church screenings, and distributors in the US and UK worked hard to enable these. The Baptist churches of Reading in the UK brought together about 150 people to watch and then discuss the film, and Director Stuart Hazeldine even made a surprise appearance for a Q+A (you can read about what happened here). Aside from the special screenings, which were popular across the US, individual Christians also made use of the opportunity to talk about faith at a moment when the subject was being raised. At one public showing in Bedford, a British evangelist told of how he led a stranger to faith after standing up at the start of the film to offer prayer.
Let's be honest: the critics hated The Shack. But on every other metric – including the one which Hollywood values most, money – the film was a real success. It wasn't perfect, but it was pretty good – and perhaps it will now pave the way for a lot more films that take both faith – and a high standard of film-making – seriously.
The Shack is released on DVD & Blu Ray in the UK on October 16.