In 1998, I began a dramatic screenplay about angels. Twenty-five years later, the screenplay remains unfinished. I’ve written dozens of drafts with myriad characters. I’ve experimented with voice-over narration, flashbacks, linear narrative, circular narrative, dreamscapes. Each iteration focuses on the human characters and tries to minimize reliance on CGI. Perhaps this approach is doomed. Angels are otherworldly beings and maybe a movie about them requires heavy special effects. But I’m not interested in this approach. My story involves angels interacting in the human realm.
All supernatural stories need rules. I based my rules on Judeo-Christian sacred writing (Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah) and two apocryphal texts (Book of Enoch, Book of Tobit). The rules dictate the who, what, when, where and why of angelic behavior. This list was taped to the wall over my desk as I wrote.
—What are angels? Angels are messengers of God.
—Why do angels exist? They guide, protect and offer comfort to those who are faithful to God. (Psalms 91:11: “For He Will give His Angels Charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”)
—Where do angels reside? They exist in a higher energy realm than the physical plane. They interact with humans on the physical plane.
—What do angels look like? In the celestial realm, they have human form with wings and a halo. On earth, they appear in human form without fanfare. (Hebrews 13:2: “some have entertained angels unaware.”)
—Why do angels engage with humans? They appear to aid, minister and deliver messages from God.
—When do angels engage with humans? They appear at crucial junctures in a person’s life. When someone is in crisis or danger, at risk of temptation or when someone needs divine guidance or protection.
—Can angels become human or humans become angels? No. Angels are a separate creation from humans. They can appear in human form, but they remain celestial in nature.
—Are angels immortal? No. God can destroy angels. God is all powerful.
—Do angels have free will? Yes. They were created to love, serve and obey God. If they turn against God, they become demonic.
—Were all demons once angels? Yes, all demons are fallen angels. According to Revelations (12:3–4), the angel Lucifer rebelled against God and was purged from heaven. One-third of the angelic host joined Lucifer’s insurrection.
—How do angels differ from demons? Angels herald God, demons reject God. Angels celebrate our salvation, demons obstruct our salvation. Angels appear to humans, demons inhabit humans. Angels protect, demons attack. Angels seek to unite us, demons divide us. Most important: Angels point us toward God, demons distract us from God.
—Should we pray to angels? No. Offering prayers to anyone but God is idolatry. Angels reject our worship (Revelations 22:8–9) while demons demand it.
The above list was the road map for my angel screenplay. It also helped explain why there were more movies about demons than angels. Angels respect human decisions. They’re not involved in power plays or battles of will. They’re like your buddy at the bar who says, “Maybe you shouldn’t have another drink.” He doesn’t pull your shot glass away or forcibly remove you from the bar. He offers advice then steps back and honors your decision.
Demons show no respect for you. The guy at the bar who buys you another drink when you’re already drunk might be under the influence of demonic energy. Same with the guy who encourages you to drive home drunk since it’s only a few blocks away. Demons use persuasion, force, violence or any means necessary to hurt you. Demons can take physical form or inhabit a person to attack you. This makes demon movies compelling since demon/human relationships are filled with conflict and screenplays are all about conflict. Angels have no desire to engage in conflict with people.
Once I had my list of angelic rules, it was easy to discern the good angel movies from the bad ones.
Michael (1996)—This film is a celestial mess. John Travolta plays a drinking, smoking, cursing angel who screws around with women. In biblical terms (Genesis 6), this constitutes one of God’s greatest sins. Angels who mate with women on earth become fallen angels and produce grotesque beastly offspring called Nephilim. (Satan’s plan to pollute the human seed.) Michael may think it’s a movie about angels but it’s actually an instructional manual for how to act like a demon on earth.
Angel-A (2005)—Directed by Luc Besson, this French film isn’t just an angelic abomination, it’s a primer in plagiarism since it steals the opening scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. A small-time convict who owes money to a crime boss attempts suicide by jumping from a bridge over the Seine. A beautiful woman jumps in the river and saves him. The two fall in love and have a torrid romance. He learns she’san angel who fell from the sky to save him. Once again, an angel disobeys God’s directives against romantic or sexual interaction with humans.
Heaven Can Wait (1978)—This remake of the classic film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) tells the story of a football quarterback named Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) who’splucked from his body prematurely by an overzealous rookie angel. The angel takes Pendleton to heaven before realizing his mistake. The angel makes plans to return Pendleton to earth but his body’s already cremated. He convinces Pendleton to occupy a different body, that of a wealthy industrialist murdered by his wife. The story has wonderful cinematic conceits and is a decent film. But when viewed from angelic tradition, it’s a sacrilegious train wreck. Angels don’t have the power to determine life and death. (The angel of death fulfills God’s bidding.) An angel who causes a man’s death then reincarnates the man’s soul in another man’s body is acting well above his pay grade.
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)—This was director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Trainspotting. A man kidnaps his boss’s daughter after being fired. Two angels are sent to earth to help the couple fall in love. The story is anathema to angelic ideology. Angels help us stay faithful to divine behavior (Rule #2). It’s hard to imagine an angel intervening in a kidnapping in any way other than freeing the captive. The film has little relevance to the angelic canon.
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)—This film stars Denzel Washington as an angel who comes to earth to save a preacher and his family. It’s a remake of The Bishop’s Wife (1947) but feels closer in spirit to It’s a Wonderful Life. The story has heart and does a great job describing the nature of faith, but it’s angelic ethos falls short. Angelic encounters depicted in scripture are short-lived. The angel played by Denzel is in nearly every scene. The film is sappy and predictable and feels like an episode of the television show Touched By an Angel.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—The touchstone of angelic cinema. Directed by Frank Capra, the film tells of a distraught businessman named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge into a river. An angel in human form appears and jumps into the river first. Bailey abandons his suicide attempt and saves the man (angel) from drowning. Bailey then learns how different the world would be if he never existed.
Based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (involving a ghost instead of an angel), the film is cornball but earnest and true to angelic lore. The angel’s presence in the man’s life could be construed as imaginary leaving viewers to ponder whether the angel existed. This is the film’s strength. It’s a tale about humans, about good and evil on earth. There’s no need to focus on demons. Human behavior, as exemplified by the banker Henry Potter, is evil enough. Our actions resonate long after we’re gone. The angel is a messenger (Rule #1). He doesn’t force anything upon Bailey. He teaches him, inspires him and shows him he is loved. His final words to Bailey are, “no man is a failure who has friends”
Wings of Desire (1987) is a German film directed by Wim Wenders. An angel grows tired of his celestial duties overseeing humans and yearns to become mortal. The plot’s filled with scriptural heresy (it violates Rule #7), but the scenes of angelic activity are the greatest angel depictions ever put to celluloid. Adults can’t see them though children can. Angels hear our thoughts and fears and try to help us find peace through simple gestures like placing a hand on a pregnant woman’s stomach. In a heart-wrenching scene, an angel consoles a suicidal man on a building ledge. The man jumps anyway and the angel is overcome with anguish.
Wenders brilliantly depicts how angels and humans co-exist. They’re with us even if we can’t see them. They respect our free will. They link the physical and spiritual worlds. They help us navigate our existential journey. The main character, a trapeze artist named Marion, realizes we’re so obsessed with our own lives we fail to see the wonders (angels) around us. She concludes that the central question of existence is not how I should live but how I should think.
Wings of Desire accomplishes something no other angel movie has done. It captures an angelic vibe. The black and white expressionist cinematography is muted and ethereal. The angels wear trench coats instead of flowing gowns. They display their wings only when they’re high above the ground. Instead of CGI, director Wim Wenders utilizesangelic POV imagery with a serpentine Steadicam and soaring crane shots. The style’s cerebral and esoteric and feels like an ethereal dream sequence.
While I was working on my angel screenplay, I braced myself every time a new angel or demon movie appeared. I feared another writer would beat me to the market and crack the code of angelic storytelling. It never happened. Modern angel films are more concerned with the visual spectacle of angels battling demons (Constantine, Legion, The Prophecy). The stories are often based on graphic novels and have little concern with angelic doctrine. The angelic sub-genre is closer to video games and zombie movies.
In the late-1990s, I met Gregory Widen who wrote and directed the angel movie The Prophecy starring Christopher Walken. I told him I was working on my own angel screenplay. He patted me on the shoulder and said, “God help you.” I asked if he had any advice. “Yeah, write something else. Angel movies are brutal.”
To believe in angels one must first believe in God. I remind myself every day that if God wants me to write a script about angels, He will provide the inspiration. Maybe it will come in the form of an angel. If so, I’m ready.