It was a September Sunday morning in 2015 when my friend Lee Strobel raised the idea of adapting his best-selling, non-fiction book, The Case for Christ, into a movie. We were chewing the fat together at Mission Hills Church in Littleton, CO, following the service at which he had just spoken. It had been a few years since we had last seen each other and I had gone to hear him give the weekend message for old time’s sake. When he broached the film, I wagged my head enthusiastically and said “absolutely.” Truth is, I’d be happy just digging a ditch with Lee Strobel – let alone make a movie about him.
When Pure Flix, the studio behind the 2014 hit film God’s Not Dead, blessed Lee’s dream to turn the book into a movie a few months later, and asked me to write and help produce it – I was instantly a deer in the headlights. How in the world do you turn an exhaustive work on apologetics – featuring 13 interviews with the world’s most foremost authorities on the historical evidence for Jesus – into a compelling movie that could hold an audience’s attention for two hours? At first, I had no clue.
But I soon fell back onto my journalism training – along with what I’ve learned of Aristotle’s principles of dramatic construction. Screenwriters are really the first architects of movies. We create the blueprints. We draw in the details: the super-structure, the inner-workings, but also the aesthetics inside and out. And it all must be up to code. It all must hold together, or the whole thing can fall in on itself. In the case of The Case for Christ, I employed a few big girders to keep it all standing tall.
Because Lee’s book is virtually an encyclopedia of all the best thinking on the reliability of the evidence for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, I knew I would have plenty of grist for that side of the story….But from what I already knew of Lee’s background, I also believed this film had to be a love story.
Because Lee’s book is virtually an encyclopedia of all the best thinking on the reliability of the evidence for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, I knew I would have plenty of grist for that side of the story – his actual journalistic investigation into Christianity. But from what I already knew of Lee’s background, I also believed this film had to be a love story. So, I coaxed Lee and his wife, Leslie, to spend a few days with me in my basement office to probe their true journey. We dug deeply. What that process revealed was that their marriage was Lee’s primary motivation for trying to debunk Christianity. Leslie had become a Christian, which totally blew up their perfect atheist marriage. The “Bible-thumpers” had gotten to her, and he decided he had to save her by proving the whole thing a big con-job. It was a rescue mission that turned into redemption. But instead of him rescuing her from the “Willow Creek cult,” it was Leslie’s deep love that ultimately rescued him from his skepticism. But on the way that redemption, fueled by the overwhelming evidence for Jesus that he discovered, there was such powerful conflict between them, I knew I could use it as the central through-line of the movie. As Aristotle said, great drama is fueled by great conflict.
As for the “case” itself, I also knew from Lee’s book that his banquet table of evidence was way too big a feast for a two-hour movie. So, I decided to focus on just a few of the most compelling, most cinematic dishes: The proof of the 500-plus eyewitnesses who encountered Jesus after his crucifixion, the reliability of the ancient manuscript stream, and the evidence against any conspiracy to fake the resurrection. And like Tom Hanks’ character, Robert Langdon, in the Da Vinci Code, Lee is in a race against time to save his wife by trying to find a crack in the Christian story. He locates and interrogates five key experts about this “biggest mystery of all time,” which helps make this film a thriller without overwhelming the audience with information.
My digging with Lee and Leslie also produced a few other powerful subplots, which I also realized were essential. For instance, at the same time Lee was trying to debunk Leslie’s faith, as the awarding-winning legal affairs editor for The Chicago Tribune, he was also investigating a true cop-shooting story that ended up having uncanny parallels to his personal faith quest. Meanwhile, his own troubled relationship with his father provided another a deeply poignant through-line, when he discovers that most of the great icons of atheism in history – Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, Voltaire, Wells and Jung, among others – all had significant “father wounds” like he did. During the film, these additional elements keep the audience guessing, while all weaving together in a satisfying, organic way.
In all of this, I also hung into a maxim of screenwriting: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Here’s why: We’re not making a documentary film here. We’re a making a narrative film… an entertainment. It’s a completely different endeavor. My job is to pull you into our world and make it so compelling you never want to leave. The worst thing that can happen is for the audience to trip over some aspect of the story and then spend the next minute thinking about what they are going to have as a midnight snack. Sometimes true life doesn’t lay out neatly in a three-act structure. Sometimes in real life, the hero’s journey (character arc) doesn’t escalate in the right way, or resolve itself the way it needs to in a movie. When that’s the case, you take necessary license to make it all work.
In Lee Strobel’s case, much of his and Leslie’s story rolled out beautifully in movie structure – in fact, I would say approximately three-fourths of their true life in 1980 is there as it happened. The rest is our job as story-tellers is trying to take audience members on such a compelling journey that it will change their lives for eternity.
Brian Bird is the screenwriter and co-producer of The Case for Christ, which comes out in theaters nationally on April 7, 2017