5 Questions With the Writer-Director of the Animated ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ Film

Puritan preacher John Bunyan authored his classic allegory over 300 years ago. Now an award-winning director and his team—including some Pixar talent—are bringing it to the big screen.

The epic tale of a determined traveler and his quest for freedom plays out in The Pilgrim’s Progress, a feature-length animated film opening in theaters on April 18 and 20. Producers have spent five years reimagining one of the most popular and significant works of all time.

“We tried to stick to the original book as much as possible,” says Robert Fernandez, writer and director of the new animated feature. “Like any other project I’ve done, scripting is always a fight. We worked on draft after draft, fine-tuning, quoting verses and fighting it out. God came through with a solution and guidance.”

First published in 1678, the allegory by Puritan minister John Bunyan has long been ranked as one of the Top 10 most-printed books in history. Referenced by figures from preacher Charles Spurgeon to humorist Mark Twain to apologist C.S. Lewis, its influence has marked the church and popular culture for centuries.

A fast-paced, action-packed adaptation, The Pilgrim’s Progress features voice actors including John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings), Ben Price (Audacity) and Christian singer/songwriter Kristyn Getty.

Director Robert Fernandez spoke from California about the story’s remarkable origins, their missions focus with the film … and some unforeseen animation help along the way. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

IMPRISONED FOR HIS CONVICTIONS 

Why is John Bunyan’s classic allegory relevant for today? 

Robert Fernandez: There is no way John Bunyan could have anticipated the influence his story would have in the centuries to come. He wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in a prison cell, because he was prohibited from preaching. God had been working on his heart, and I think he used Bunyan because he was willing to pay the price.

This allegory shows what following Christ is really all about. It illustrates his call to believers: “Take up your cross and follow me.” It was a truth embedded in Bunyan’s heart, who received it from the Gospel. The story came from his soul and innermost being.

On most things I work on, it’s always a challenge to consider two audiences. If it’s a believing audience, how can the story serve as an inspiration or conviction? It needs to be a catalyst in believers’ hearts. But if a nonbeliever comes in without any form of faith, how can they catch up and understand what it means?

This animated version doesn’t digress from the original story at all. In the book, it begins with Christian and his burden, making a decision to flee the City of Destruction. We went in a little deeper to try to explain things visually. That’s why we started our film with a short backstory on the city, revealing how the enemy Apollyon is behind it.

How did you come to be interested in this story and the life of John Bunyan?

Fernandez: I’ve been working in animation for the past 20 years. My work often has a strong focus on children. When the whole family watches, the stories speak to adults as well.

Beyond writing, I got more heavily involved in the process when I became the producer for The Torchlighters — an ongoing series in partnership with Vision Video and Christian History Institute. Each animated half-hour presents a true-life Christian hero, such as Jim Elliott, Harriet Tubman, Eric Liddell, Amy Carmichael and John Wesley. I think we’re on the 18th episode now.

You use your craft to pull all the historical research into a comprehensive story. At the same time, we weave in the ways God works in that particular individual to bring about his will. These well-known Christians never had any idea of what God was going to do with their lives. They often ask the same questions, like: Is this what you want me to do, God? 

We did one on John Bunyan. With each story, we produce a documentary filmed on-location. Our team has filmed in Tunisia, China, Rome, all over the world. For the Bunyan episode, we did all the recording in London and visited Bedford — including the actual prison cell he was in.

It was a very simple, primitive cell, not like the type of jails you find today. Because Bunyan was not part of the Church of England, it was against the law for him to preach or even pray apart from the official Prayer Book. They would let him go if he promised not to preach. He said, “No, set me free and I will preach again.”

Bunyan had a family and his wife stood by him. She and his children sacrificed too, it wasn’t just him. Eventually, he won over one of the caretakers and was allowed to go home every once in a while and continued preaching.

MOVIEMAKING AS MISSIONS

To create a feature-length animated movie, who were some of the talent involved? 

Fernandez: You meet a lot of people making a film like The Pilgrim’s Progress. My role as director, including overseeing all the character designs and art, connected me to many artists.

In working on the script, I always get these pictures of what I want and start making sketches. When I started to work on character designs, you have to include everything. If they wear shoes, is it buckles or shoelaces? What are the size and color? How worn is it? It has to be that specific for the animators to use.

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Source: Christian Headlines