In 2003, Colton Burpo was on an operating table in North Platte, fighting for his life after his appendix burst. Hospital staff members were told not to give any encouragement to his parents, a sign that the 3-year-old wasn’t expected to live.
But little Colton survived. A few months later, after he’d turned 4, Colton began to recount what happened to him when he was near death. He’d gone to heaven, sat on the lap of Jesus and petted Jesus’ multicolored horse.
In 2010, Todd Burpo, Colton’s father and the pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, put Colton’s story into a book.
“Heaven Is for Real” became a bestseller. Shortly after its release, it was optioned for a movie.
On Wednesday, “Heaven Is for Real” comes to the big screen, with Greg Kinnear playing Todd Burpo and 5-year-old newcomer Connor Corum as Colton.
The movie is co-written and directed by Randall Wallace, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Braveheart,” who has gone on to direct “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “We Were Soldiers” and “Secretariat.”
Last weekend, Wallace talked about writing and making “Heaven Is for Real,” calling in from California to discuss the film and its Nebraska ties.
Told that I grew up 90 miles from Imperial and continue to spend time in the area, Wallace immediately asked: “Did it look right?”
My reply: There are too many trees and the town is a little different from Imperial. But it is close enough for those who will never come close to southwest Nebraska.
“That’s good. We filmed it in Canada,” Wallace said. “Todd Burpo told me one thing about Imperial. The fields are in circles because they irrigate that way. They don’t do that in Winnepeg. But we have the green fields there and the town. We tried to do justice to Nebraska.”
Wallace had to do justice to the book as well. That began when he and Chris Parker started adapting the 164-page paperback into a screenplay.
“Since the book had sold 8 million copies when we started, and it’s now jumped back on The New York Times best-seller list, we had to be faithful to the book and capture what the essence was,” he said. “The whole issue of creating a movie is what you focus on at its core. This, I think, was a tale of love and a tale of suspense.”
The tale of love was easy to lay out for the screen. Its pivotal scene takes place when Colton is on the operating table. Todd is in an empty room, yelling at God for seemingly taking his son.
“I’m a father, and the thought of being in a hospital waiting room and not knowing whether the doctor will be coming with the worst possible news was riveting for me, and it’s what I think we can all connect to,” Wallace said. “We’re not being dogmatic. We’re sharing an experience the audience gets caught up in.”
The tale of suspense revolves around Colton’s revelations. Can they be believed? By his parents? By church members? By the public? What will happen in the aftermath of the revelations?
One thing Wallace did not do when he was writing was constantly consult the Burpos.
“I did meet them, but I wasn’t in touch with them,” Wallace said. “I didn’t feel the need to study them, because they had revealed themselves so much in the book. I could tell who they were just from the book. Todd revealed himself completely in the book, and the Colton today is not the Colton then. One of the points they make about Colton is he’s an ordinary teenager.”
The 4-year-old Colton, however, was far from ordinary when he began recounting, in bits and pieces, his trip to heaven. Finding a little boy to play him was one of the film’s biggest challenges.
“We had auditions all over the country and into Canada,” Wallace said. “We got the right kid, just about miraculously. He came in, and he was it. The whole process then was to let him come in and play.”
That kid was Corum, who’s from northern Ohio and had never acted. He turned out to be a natural in front of the cameras and convincingly carries the movie.
“He’s great, isn’t he?” Wallace said. “He really was good. Sometimes he would look at the camera. But he has an enormous playful spirit, and at the end, that’s what any great actor has to have…He made it easy for Greg. Greg is a father and is used to being around little kids, and Greg made it easy for him.”
To create a movie, Wallace added characters, like the church leader who has lost a son, played by Margo Martindale.
She’s not in the book. But, in another pivotal scene, she speaks the words taken from the book of a distraught mother who talked to Todd after he gave a sermon about Colton’s story -- an example of how Wallace carried elements from the page to the screen.
The movie beefs up the Imperial Fire and Rescue Department, where Todd is a volunteer, rearranges and slightly alters the order of some events and creates conflict that isn’t present in the book.
Most of the conflict is embodied in Todd, who experiences a crisis of faith that threatens not only his belief but the family’s life and the stability of his church.
That crisis, Wallace said, was key to making “Heaven Is for Real” a serious questioning film, not simply an evangelical tool or a believe-it-or-not story.
“Whether you believe in heaven or you don’t, so what?” Wallace asked. “What difference will it make? If you believe with my group that you’re going to go to heaven, that’s fine. But what changes if you believe that God loves you? That God loves everyone?
“It was really important for me to focus on the fact that love is inclusive rather than the things that exclude and not to say that faith is such an easy choice as following a formula. Love requires more than that.”
While it’s not spelled out -- or even mentioned in the book -- Todd Burpo has said that “Heaven Is for Real” does capture something of what he went through after hearing Colton’s story, with the caveat that he had a far longer time to digest it than is shown in the film.
"I didn't know what I believed about near-death experiences," Burpo told the Christian Post. “"Where does his vision match reality, Scripture and reason? No one had prepared me to talk to someone who had a NDE. I come from a church tradition that sometimes undervalues personal experience and says Scripture's way more important, and I agree with the validity of Scripture, but sometimes to a fault where we almost dismiss personal experience. But I could not dismiss my son, and I had to deal with that."
“Heaven Is for Real,” which is timed for Easter week release, has been widely prescreened, primarily for faith-based audiences. But Wallace said he’s most pleased with the reactions of nonbelievers.
“People who are believers have really connected with the movie,” he said. “The shocker has been, and it was my greatest desire, is that people who do not identify themselves as practicing any kind of religion have been moved by the experience.”
As the interview wound down, I asked Wallace if there was any kind of continuity in the movies he has directed and written, adding that I didn’t see what could connect “Braveheart,” “Secretariat” and “Heaven Is for Real.”
He replied that there was a thread that connected all the films -- strong central characters who lived out their beliefs, whether Scottish rebel William Wallace from “Braveheart,” Secretariat’s owner Penny Tweedy or the Burpos.
There’s another connection between the movies, he added, one of inquiry.
“In ‘Braveheart,’ I wrote the line, ‘Every man dies; not every man lives,’” Wallace said. “‘Heaven Is for Real’ asks the next question, ‘Everybody dies; what’s next? What if heaven and life are eternal?’”