LOS ANGELES (RNS) — It may not come as a surprise to hear that W. Bruce Cameron, whose bestselling novels, "A Dog’s Purpose" and its sequel "A Dog’s Journey,” depend heavily on redemption and life born anew, gives credit for his success to a higher power.
But it wasn’t always that way. “I learned the wrong lessons from my early successes,” he said.
After his 2002 book ‘8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter’ was adapted into an ABC sitcom that ran for more than two years, it gave him all the evidence he needed to think he was calling the shots in his life, he said. “I was such a great writer. It was all due to me.”
Putting himself at the center of his artistic universe soon took him off his career path. “I lost track of my spiritual relationship with God,” Cameron said. “I just thought, I don’t need his help. As it turns out, I do.” But overall, Cameron has relied on his Christian faith to anchor his work, which has ranged from self-help (“How to Remodel a Man”) to non-canine suspense novels.
It was shortly after he turned to God again, in the late aughts, that Cameron said he got the idea for “A Dog’s Purpose,” which came out in 2010 but topped the New York Times fiction bestseller list in early 2017 when the movie, produced by Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment among other top Hollywood media companies, came out in 2017.
The second movie in the series, “A Dog’s Journey," with a screenplay by Cameron’s wife, Cathryn Michon, debuts today (May 17).
The movie brings the golden retriever Bailey, voiced by Josh Gad, back to the big screen for multiple reincarnations, as he did in the first film, always finding his way back to his master in a time of need. But this time, instead of helping Ethan, played by Dennis Quaid, he sets out to help Ethan’s granddaughter, CJ — acting as her guardian angel.
For those wondering how Cameron fits reincarnation into a Christian worldview, Cameron told the Christian Post, “I would urge Christians not to take it too seriously. After all, the movie opens with a talking dog, so clearly it is a fanciful tale.”
Like the first movie, "A Dog’s Journey" plumbs dark topics, including domestic abuse, alcohol abuse, and child abandonment, all as a route to portray themes of redemption and forgiveness.
“People aren’t black and white, good or bad. There’s a gray area,” said Kathryn Prescott, who plays CJ. “And no one is beyond forgiveness.”
Marg Helgenberger, who plays Hannah, Ethan’s wife, said it’s the perfect movie for a time when the country feels so divided.
“It’s about the interconnectedness between all of us,” she said.
Or, as her co-star Quaid put it, “Republicans and Democrats alike love dogs,” he said.
Quaid, who said faith “comes into every part of my life, whether it’s apparent or not," has become one of a few Hollywood names who has crossed over from the mainstream to faith-based films. Last year he starred in "I Can Only Imagine," about Bart Millard, the lead singer of the Christian band MercyMe, and the story behind his Christian radio mega-hit of the same name.
But Quaid said the movie is about more than faith. He said audiences can connect their own stories and relationships with their own dogs to the ones in the movie. Doggie heaven in the film is a beautiful trail, an ideal version of places many ordinary folks walk their pooches.
“That’s the reason they feel so much from this,” Quaid said.
Critics who blasted "A Dog's Purpose" for being calculated to produce more tears than sense might argue that the flimmakers have simply come back to extract more easy emotion. But "A Dog's Journey" Director Gail Mancuso says the situations in the movie hold a mirror to life.
“It’s a family movie and at the same time it’s real,” Mancuso said. “It’s based on real things that happen in life.”
How exact this reflection will be of course depends on one’s belief system. Bailey's soul is shown to rise higher and higher as he cycles through lives, a metaphor, Mancuso said, for earthly beings approaching heaven.
Whether animals go to heaven has been a longstanding theological question, especially for the Catholic church, most recently in 2014, when a fake news story about Pope Francis believing all dogs go to heaven went viral.
But for those in the movie, it’s obvious.
Just by looking in a dog’s eyes, Quaid said, anyone can see their soul.
“They’re family members,” he said. “We’re all souls. We’re all created by God.”
But for the novelist Cameron and his screenwriter, Michon, the point is less about what happens above and more about how we relate here below. These movies, Michon said, "are opening people to talking about themes of unconditional love and that our souls are united in love.”