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Hearts in Atlantis

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
Hearts in Atlantis
from Film Forum, 10/4/01

This month, director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars) brings us a big-screen adaptation of one of Stephen King's kinder, gentler tales—Hearts in Atlantis. It's a nostalgic, inspiring story about youth and courage, with just a touch of the suspense and nightmare expected from America's scariest storyteller. There's more Stand By Me than The Stand here.

Newcomer Anton Yelchin plays the young, inquisitive Bobby Garfield. Bobby's father died young, and his half-present mother Elisabeth (Hope Davis) sooths her wounds with self-absorption and profligacy. When a new tenant moves in upstairs, an aging gentleman named Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), Bobby finds the mentor and father figure he needs. But this rewarding new friendship is at risk. Elisabeth suspects Ted's motives, fearing he might be a sexual predator. Ted is harmless, but hunted by some sinister characters called "the low men."

Mary Draughton at the family-friendly site Preview calls Hearts in Atlantis "intriguing and suspenseful as well as touching and uplifting … one of this year's best movies for mature viewers." Right away she addresses one aspect of the story that will concern many Christians—Ted's limited psychic powers: "Ted's supernatural powers attract suspicion and danger, making them more of a curse than a gift." Scripture rightfully warns against consulting psychic powers for wisdom. But in this sort of story, Ted's future-seeing is more of a fairy-tale element, a metaphor for power and responsibility. The "gift" afflicts him the way visions afflicted the Old Testament prophets.

Still, Ted's powers made the critic at Movieguide so uncomfortable that he accuses the film of being "loaded with occultism and New Age pagan concepts." "No one in the movie acknowledges or calls upon the One True God," complains the unnamed critic, who accuses the film of a "pessimistic, anti-innocence worldview."

But this is not a sermon. Hearts in Atlantis is a parable about how, as we mature, confront evil, and suffer loss, we have to fight to maintain courage and resist hard-heartedness. Is that pessimism? It sounds more like real life.

Bob Smithouser at Focus on the Family sees and hears in this story "great messages about friendship, kindness, responsibility to one's children, respect for elders, and the need to keep from prejudging people. It's also wonderful to see an 11-year-old boy captivated by the fond reminiscences of a man old enough to be his grandfather, rather than by the latest TV show or video game."

"The strength of Hearts in Atlantis lies not in its plot but in the realistic treatment of its characters and their relationships," says Michael Elliott at Movie Parables. "Screenwriter William Goldman accurately captures the unique 'best friends forever' feeling that most of us have felt at one time or another in our lives. It often seems as though we spend our youth hurrying to grow up and, once done, spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture that which was lost in the process … our hopes, dreams, passions, joy of living, and our trust which enables us to believe with our whole heart."

J. Robert Parks of The Phantom Tollbooth doesn't complain of pessimism or occultism. He's bothered instead by emotionalism. "When the film gets emotional or intense, as it often does, [Yelchin's] quivering lip and hang-dog expression feel phony. [The film] relies on beautiful pictures and reminiscing about first love to draw its audience in." He also observes "a lot of plot threads that were never adequately resolved." Similarly, The U.S. Catholic Conference says, "Hicks' tender film beautifully explores human frailties and vulnerabilities yet is often weighed down by its own heavy-handedness."

I'd have to agree that a few of the emotional high points melodramatically overshoot their target. Some scenes come off as glossy and idealized, but I can't complain. Like Almost Famous, this story is told as a fond flashback. A grownup Bobby is sharing precious, even glamorized, memories of adolescence. When you think back on your own youth, I would bet that some things seem glossy to you, elevated by their significance and meaning.

In my review at Looking Closer, I suggest that old Ted Brautigan can be a powerful example to believers—he shows us the difference between merely evangelizing and actually living as a Christlike example. Bobby's mother shouts at him, but Bobby listens to Ted. Brautigan listens, takes the time to get involved, and looks out for Bobby in a dangerous world.

It is also important to mention this film's fantastic cinematography, by the great Piotr Sobocinski (Three Colors: Red, The Decalogue) who died last year. If good cinematographers are "panning for gold," Sobocinski put his pan in the river here and came back with a fortune.