Saint Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) was a towering figure in many ways. He was physically strong and vital; he was a dynamic speaker; he was the first non-Italian pope in a long time; he stood against modernism and Communism; he survived violence and oppression to stare down violence and oppression; he generated love from without and within.
He’s also a tragic hero — in that his body failed him by increments in front of the whole world, reducing the former hiker and skier to a stooped figure who could barely move or speak. At the same time, the Church he loved and led was torn apart by darkness from within in the last years of his life, when he was significantly weakened.
In short, if you had to invent a pope made for a dramatic story, you couldn’t do better than than the former Karol Józef Wojtyła of Poland.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that his life and papacy have been dramatized several times, by both American and European producers. Here’s a rundown of some of the ones worth watching.
“Pope John Paul II” (1984)
British actor Albert Finney (in his U.S. TV debut) plays the pope in a CBS TV movie that follows him from his early days as an actor in Poland to being elected pope. Writer Christopher Knopf received a 1985 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award nomination for his screenplay.
And, here’s the whole thing:
Produced during John Paul II’s lifetime — and seen and praised by both the film’s subject and by his successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — the European TV miniseries stars Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk as the young Karol Wojtyla, as he survives World War II to become a priest, a bishop, a cardinal and eventually pontiff.
It was set to be released in early April 2005, but was delayed until later in the month by the pope’s death on April 2 at the age of 84 (a bit over a month shy of his 85th birthday).
It was successful enough to generate a sequel, “Karol: The Pope, the Man,” which came out in 2006.
Writes film reviewer and Catholic deacon, Stephen Greydanus:
Even before production began, the Holy Father met with Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk, who plays him in the film, jokingly telling him, “You are crazy to make a film about me.” After the completed film was screened privately for the Pope, Vatican press spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described John Paul II as “very impressed” with the portrayal. Then, following a subsequent Vatican screening the day after what would have been the Pope’s 85th birthday, Benedict XVI addressed “a word of admiration” to the director and star, offering some moral reflections on the film’s portrayals of the inhumanity of the Nazi era of Wojtyla’s youth.
Again, here’s the whole thing:
“Pope John Paul II” (2005)
After airing in the Vatican in November 2005 and then on Italian TV, this CBS TV miniseries hit U.S. airwaves in December of that year. British actor Cary Elwes (a Catholic) plays the young Karol Wojtyla, with American actor Jon Voight (also a Catholic) taking over when the Polish cardinal becomes pope.
The new Pope Benedict XVI saw the film. From a CBS News story at the time:
When Pope Benedict screened the mini-series, Voight was sitting near him. “I was able to watch him a little bit, sneak a look… I could see he was moved by it and stuff. It was quite an experience.”
Afterwards, the pope greeted Voight in Italian, probably because the movie had been dubbed in that language for the Italian audience at the screening. Voight doesn’t speak Italian.
“You can see he’s very warm and everything. I could get the words he was talking about. Very sweet.”
As for Pope John Paul II, Voight said, “I really always thought he was such a man of grace and such a moral force. Good guy. Very good guy.”
Elwes is well-known for his role as Wesley in the cult favorite “The Princess Bride,” and apparently the pontiff he was to play was a fan.
From a 2014 New York Post story:
Elwes briefly met His Holiness at the Vatican in 1988, a year after the movie was released. After posing for a quick photo, the pontiff turned to the actor and asked if he was the one from “The Princess and the Bride.” (Infallible, my backside.)
Elwes was so startled, he could barely speak. “Yes,” he answered.
“Very good film. Very funny,” the pope said.
“I mean, what are the chances of that?” Elwes tells The Post. “‘Inconceivable’ was what went through my mind.”
As for the miniseries itself, Greydanus wrote:
Reverent, respectful, well acted and well-paced, Pope John Paul II does about as good a job at covering both halves of its subject’s life as could be hoped for in a TV movie. The miniseries neatly splits its two nights between the pre-election Karol Wojtyla and the reign of Pope John Paul II, with Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) playing Wojtyla from his youth to the 1978 conclave and Jon Voight (Holes) playing John Paul II from the conclave to his 2005 death.
Both actors do a remarkably good job at evoking the speech, style and physical presence of this most media-exposed of popes. Elwes particularly excels at projecting Wojtyla’s formidable intellect and passion, and Voight is especially good at realizing the Holy Father’s pastoral spirit and iron resolve. Both actors effectively tackle the physicality of the role, Elwes energetic and athletic as the younger Wojtyla and Voight giving an impressively controlled performance from the vigor of the early years of the papacy through the slow decline to that painful final public appearance when all the pope’s immense willpower could not coax speech from his throat.
Unfortunately, the whole movie is not on YouTube. Here’s a trailer:
Of more recent vintage is this documentary, produced by Ignatius Press. Narrated by “The Passion of the Christ” star Jim Caviezel, it can be streamed or purchased at Amazon.com and several other platforms (see here).
George Weigl wrote at First Things:
It took me nineteen years of research and three books (The Final Revolution, Witness to Hope, and The End and the Beginning) to do what executive producer Carl Anderson and writer/director David Naglieri have done in ninety-three minutes of gripping videography and marvelous graphics: explain how and why John Paul played a pivotal, indeed indispensable, role in the greatest drama of the last quarter of the twentieth century, the collapse of European communism. In doing so, they make us think hard, again, about how this miraculous liberation took place—something no one expected on October 16, 1978, when a little-known Polish cardinal, who styled himself the pope “from a far country,” was presented on the central loggia of St. Peter’s as the new Bishop of Rome.
Pope Francis is well on his way to being put into as many TV specials and documentaries as Saint Pope John Paul II, while no great dramas have yet to be announced concerning the life of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
One suspects he’s fine with that.
Image: Courtesy CBS