Water for Elephants: Can Good Movies Teach Bad Things?

Mark Beuving —  December 13, 2011 — 10 Comments

My wife and I finally watched Water for Elephants. And we loved it. It’s a well-written, well-acted story about a man falling in love with a woman. Without giving too much away, the story is set during the Depression in the context of the circus. I have no idea if that sounds like a promising set up for a love story, but it works. As a bonus, the film features Reese Witherspoon, “Edward” from Twilight (although he is much less sparkly in this film), and “Landa” from Inglorious Basterds (one of the creepiest villains ever).

As the movie unfolds, you find yourself rooting for Jacob (“Edward”) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) to get together—you really don’t have a choice, the movie almost forces you to want them to be together. They are a perfect pair, they are romantic, and it is clear that they would love each other for life. But there is a problem: Marlena is married to the circus ringleader, August (“Landa”). August treats Marlena poorly, and Jacob has to try to protect Marlena from her husband.

As a Christian, I feel a tension at this point. Jacob and Marlena clearly seem right for each other, and I don’t enjoy the thought of this poor woman being mistreated by her creepy husband. But she’s married. Can I really root for a woman to leave her husband in favor of a better, nicer, more romantic husband?

The movie resolves the tension by implicitly teaching that love is more powerful than marriage. Marriage is fine and good, unless you’re married to the wrong person. Feeling love is far more important than maintaining a commitment.

That’s a message I can’t endorse. I want to see “true love triumph” as much as the next guy (“the next girl” would probably be more accurate, it’s not a very manly movie), but the Bible has a lot to say about the value and permanence of marriage. As great as romantic feelings are, they simply do not supersede commitments made before God.

Overall, the movie is fairly “clean” (there are a couple of suggestive parts), and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a good movie. But even good and “clean” movies can teach bad things. Do we avoid all such films, then? I don’t think so. At least, not necessarily. The key is to use discernment and try to see every aspect of our world and our culture the way God sees it. When we take this approach, we can learn a lot about the values and desires of the people around us. Then we can help them see that God’s kind of love is far better than any circus romance could possibly be.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Equipping and Discipleship at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Mark,

    Your final comment about “not considering a book, movie, or whatever to be all good or all bad” is an important one and opens up a whole new discussion.

    One distinction that I’ve found helpful is between movies (songs, etc.) that CONTAIN sin vs. movies that PROMOTE sin. The best movies are not those that avoid sin, but those that CONTAIN sin and CRITIQUE it. As such, some of the “cleanest” movies are not true to a biblical worldview, since they don’t acknowledge the reality of sin–they’re very flat, theologically.

    This brings me back to one of the most biblical movies around: Gran Tarino. It contains tons of swearing, some violence, an abundance of racial slurs, and even a rape scene (the aftermath, anyway). In most cases, however, the evil in the movie (which reflects reality) is not promoted but critiqued. While containing tons of sinful activity, the movie promotes racial reconciliation, reveals the absurdity and foolishness of gang violence, and, of course, the glory of self-sacrificial redemption. On a worldview level, Gran Tarino is much, much cleaner than Water for Elephants, though Christians will generally stay clear of the former and blindly watch the latter.

  • Tom Reed

    Well written, Mark. I know I was expanding the subject beyond your intentions. I like to push the envelope in any discussion to raise the spectrum of the subject, so we can consider broader consequences. I agree with your main point that we all need to be active listeners and watchers and readers in order to avoid falling into the traps authors, directors and producers set for us.
    As to the rest of the book, there are some good lessons about dealing with difficulties in our lives (like the death of Jacob’s parents), caring for the elderly with dignity and respect, and valuing human life.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Mark Beuving

      That’s good to hear, Tom. I have a couple of friends who really enjoyed the book. And I’m very passionate about not considering a book, movie, or whatever to be all good or all bad. We can learn and grow from pretty much everything (but that qualifier “pretty much” is important).

  • Tom Reed

    I have read the book, but not seen the movie. If the movie is “clean,” they have made some major changes from the book.
    The book tells the story of these two people who don’t get together at first, for large part because Marlena knows she ought to be true to her husband, as does Jacob, in spite of their attraction to one another. If you are rooting for the two of them to get together, you are the one who needs the values check. Don’t blame it on the movie “forcing” you to root for them.
    I have to agree with you concerning the message of the movie, though. It is that love trumps a bad marriage, a message we must reject. However, if you take out the third party, Jacob, would you still be in favor of Marlena remaining with her husband and being regularly beaten?

    • Mark Beuving

      Great thoughts, Tom. They bring up some important clarifications.

      1) From what I’ve heard, it sounds like the book is racier than the movie. But even so, the movie is only “clean” in the sense that it doesn’t feature a lot of bloody violence, graphic sex and nudity, or overt profanity. It is definitely suggestive at parts, and will certainly make some people uncomfortable.

      2) I didn’t intend to blame the movie for forcing me against my will to want Jacob and Marlena to get together. I was simply trying to say that the movie presents the characters in such a way that I found myself wanting them to get together. Basically, I felt compelled, but obviously that’s a function of my desires. Movies can’t force people to do or feel anything.

      3) Marlena’s marriage was definitely dysfunctional, and far from the biblical picture of what true marriage is. So in that sense, we are right to feel disapproval of the marriage itself. The issue of how a wife in an abusive relationship should respond is beyond the scope of this post. But I still think it is helpful to expose the lie that the solution to a dysfunctional marriage is another spouse with whom we “click” better. That was my main point, and I’m sticking with it.

      Again, great thoughts, Tom. Thanks.

      • Becky

        Ok, I know this conversation is two years old, but I’m curious about this discussion. – If “the movie is only ‘clean’ in the sense that it doesn’t feature a lot of bloody violence, graphic sex and nudity, or overt profanity” than a “bad” movie would contain these things? I’ve heard it said that even the Bible contains all these things. (I’m just trying to work these things. I’d truly love your feedback.)

        • MarkBeuving

          Hi Becky.

          Good question. My intention wasn’t to say that the lack of blood, sex, and nudity makes the movie “clean” or to imply that a “bad” movie is one that contains those things. Far from it. What I intended to communicate is that most people would consider the movie “clean” purely on the basis of the lack of those things. However, I would say that even though the movie is free from graphic sex and nudity, I think it teaches a harmful message, which makes it a “bad” movie in some sense (though there are still plenty of things that make it good). Does that make sense? I, too, think that we too often determine which movies are “good” or “bad” simply on the basis of some of these content factors, and I think that’s fairly shallow of us.

  • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

    Great thoughts, Mark! I would even take it a step further and call it a dangerous movie–much more dangerous than movies with violence, swearing, and party scenes.

    The Bible is clear that God values commitment. Commitment to Him, commitment to God’s people, commitment to husband or wife. And it’s also very clear that our society is pumping a wrong view of love down our throats, which has consequently helped wreck many marriages and transform relationships into transactions rather than covenants. It’s dangerous. There’s few things more dangerous than to be convincingly swayed into thinking that your marriage is the pits and that God wants you to be happy more than committed. I’m not a prophet, but I predict (don’t stone me if it doesn’t come true!) that thousands of Christian wives and not a few husbands who are teetering on the fence of having an affair, checking out of their marriage, or finding a new, more romantic, partner, will be given the push they need through this movie. And since it’s a “clean” movie, many Christians will probably watch it since it doesn’t have swearing. So this will help them not swear as they have an affair.

    A dangerously clean movie.

    • Mark Beuving

      Best Comment of the Year award goes to Preston Sprinkle: “This will help them not swear as they have an affair.” I think they should put that on the back of the box.

      • http://prestonsprinkle.com Preston Sprinkle

        Thanks bro. What do I win?