The novel “The Shack” was a surprising literary phenomenon. After author William Paul Young self-published the book in 2007, it went on to sell more than 20 million copies, to a predominantly Christian audience. (“The Shack” overtly deals with evangelical ideas of God.) The film adaptation captures the meat of Young’s text, focusing on the didactic aspects of its premise. As a film, “The Shack” works best as a thought experiment, because its promise of big answers to big questions is so appealing. But whether taken as an emotional experience or an intellectual exercise, “The Shack” falters under its own inconsistency.
Sam Worthingon plays Mack, a devoted husband and father of three who has taken his kids camping when disaster strikes: Shortly after rescuing his two eldest children from an accident, Mack discovers that his youngest, Missy (Amélie Eve), has disappeared. The police embark on a wide search, noting that there have been other abductions in the area. When they find her blood in a ramshackle hut, they assume she has been killed.
Months pass, with Mack still suffering, at which point he receives a mysterious note inviting him back to the shack. Because the note arrives during a blizzard — with no apparent tracks in the snow — Mack entertains the notion that the note was written by God. He ultimately heads back to the shack, bringing a gun (just in case the note was written by his daughter’s killer).
What Mack finds is downright startling: The harsh winter has given way to a warm, more welcoming climate. There is a gorgeous lake house, with three guests (played by Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush and Sumire Matsubara). They explain they are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Mack spends the weekend with them, and “The Shack” functions as a series of episodic, ostensibly moving lessons about the nature of God. Mack learns how to forgive and accept God’s love. He even has time to walk on water with Jesus — literally.
In translating the book from page to screen, “The Shack” faces challenges. Cinema is a more objective medium than literature. Where a reader might conjure up a personal idea of the action, film presents a less ambiguous version. Director Stuart Hazeldine and his cast must convincingly render scenes that take place between an Everyman and the physical embodiment of the supernatural. On one level, Spencer represents the trope of the Magical Negro: Her character exists primarily to help the white protagonist (and, indeed, everyone Mack encounters is a person of color). At one point, God switches from an African American woman to a Native American man. This is a lazy form of racism, yet the film pushes past it, on a somber journey toward spiritual awakening.
One of the big questions it tackles is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But there’s no satisfying answer. Hazeldine and his screenwriters take a stab at explanations that lie somewhere between platitudes and riddles, with Mack’s spiritual growth presented as a metric of our own satisfaction. Worthingon’s transition, however, is unconvincing, and not just because his American accent keeps slipping back to his native Australian: Mack remains a bland cipher, accepting God’s love only because that’s what the screenplay requires of him.
“The Shack” never explores what makes Mack deserving of God’s audience, a frustrating oversight, given that so many others have suffered far worse than he has. His interrogations are feckless, and his dialogue explores little beyond his own hurt feelings. Mack explains that he’s only of average intelligence, a rationalization that almost insults our own capacity for curiosity or skepticism.
Parts of “The Shack” are, admittedly, appealing: Mack observes that he’s most comfortable around Jesus, for example, and their subsequent dialogue adds a human dimension to the drama. Still, the film’s conclusion — that crying and hugging it out are all we need to heal — gives short shrift to how difficult real grief can be.
Jesus tells Mack that he wants friends, not worshipers. That’s a pretty audacious statement. Yet by the end of “The Shack,” Mack is shown to be restored because he’s singing the contemporary worship song “Awesome God.” A film this bold should not compromise its own ideas.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence and mature themes. 132 minutes.