Written in 1678, John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" is one of the most beloved books of all time, second only to the Bible itself in global Christianity sales. Chock-full of Biblical wisdom, vivid imagery, and fantastical allegory, "Pilgrim's Progress" remains relevant even to this day.
That's why Christian filmmakers King Street Pictures decided to base their upcoming faith-based fantasy feature film, "HeavenQuest: A Pilgrim's Progress", on the iconic story.
"We wanted to match Hollywood in making a film that is beautiful, stylish, and edgy, but at the same time includes the simple tenets of Christianity," HeavenQuest director Matt Bilen told The Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. "We wanted to make something the whole family can watch and enjoy that has some action, cool costumes, and creatures that would make it fun but not push past a PG-13 rating."
"HeavenQuest", which began filming last month, boasts of a stellar cast including one of South Korea's most successful stars, In-Pyo Cha, as well as Karyme Lozano and Fernanda Romero from Mexico, Peta Sergeant from Australia, and Ricky Kim from South Korea. Well-known American Christian actor Alan Powell is also a part of the lead cast.
The film doesn't re-tell the story of "Pilgrim's Progress"; rather, it's a prequel to the book focusing on the backstory of one of its key characters, Evangelist - or, as he's known in the film, "Vangel". Filmmakers created an entire fantasy kingdom around Vangel, which Bilen compared to "Lord of the Rings" or "Game of Thrones" - without the sex, language, and violence.
"If we were to totally remake "Pilgrim's Progress", to really do it justice, we would have needed a far larger budget, huge set pieces, and a way larger cast," Bilen said. "So, we focused on Evangelist. He's the most iconic character in 'Pilgrim's Progress' because he's a wise, Gandalf-like sage. Because 'Pilgrim's Progress' is an allegory, there's no 'where' or 'why'. We took it on ourselves to make it a little more relevant and went back to when Evangelist was 30, 32 and his journey if becoming who we know him to be in 'Pilgrim's Progress.'"
Reads the film description: "In a war between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Eos, a regal man named Vangel is thrust on a journey against his will when he is suddenly and mysteriously arrested. Brought before the Southern King and sentenced to death, Vangel escapes a chain gang and flees for the North. Armed with a book called the Record of the Ancients that he receives from a wise sage, Vangel embarks on an adventure that takes him through haunted forests, dark swamps, and enchanted mountains while being hunted all the while by the Southern King's men in hot pursuit. Along the way, mysterious travel companions with special giftings arise and assist him on the journey, sharing about a fabled good king and pushing him onwards towards the Wicket Gate, the gateway to the North, while enemies lurk at every corner trying to derail him from his path."
Bilen said he was inspired to create the film after reading "Dangerous Journey" - the illustrated, condensed version of "Pilgrim's Progress" - to his young sons several years ago.
"The art in it was absolutely amazing, and I thought, 'Why is this not a movie? It's so cool, even the art is whimsical,'" he recalled. "So, I went back and read the old one and tried to develop a portion of the story into a film."
Still, it wasn't easy to turn his dream into a reality.
"This film was really hard to get off the ground," Bilen admitted. "So many people thought it was a great idea, but we just couldn't make it happen. We had this great concept, it was wholesome and adventurous, yet we couldn't make money. In Hollywood, they know sex and violence and profanity will sell. It's hard to keep up with that."
In the future, "HeavenQuest" will be turned into a series of films, the next of which may focus on "Pilgrim's Progress" protagonist Christian. Filmmakers hope to not only tap the faith-based market in America, but the untapped faith-based markets all around the world - particularly in Asia.
"It's such a huge market," Bilen shared. "Korea is actually a very Christian nation and has a large following of kids who've read 'Pilgrim's Progress.' We wanted to do everything we could to do bring faith based projects to Korea, as there's no faith based film market."
With HeavenQuest, King Street is also hoping to reinforce the idea that faith-based films don't need to sacrifice the storyline or character development for the sake of an obvious ethical statement.
"It was really important to me to make a beautiful film," Bilen shared. "And, it didn't interest me to do fluff. Even if the message is simple, I wanted audiences to leave wanting to talk about it. We don't beat audiences over the head with the Bible, but we do challenge them to think about their own walk."
He added, "Still, this is one of those films that, while it will resonate with the faith community, you don't have to be a Christian to get something out of it."
For additional information on "Heavenquest," visit the website.