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‘Redeeming Love,’ Santa Rosa author’s novel, coming to the big screen

Google “best Christian fiction writers” and you’ll inevitably turn up the name Francine Rivers.

Some rankings place the Santa Rosa writer in heady company, with the likes of C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rivers has turned out more than 30 popular novels in what Publisher’s Weekly characterized as a “formidable segment” of the religion and spirituality market niche. But her most beloved remains her first: “Redeeming Love.” The story of a young orphan forced into prostitution during the California Gold Rush is based on the Biblical Book of Hosea. It’s sold more than three million copies since it was first published in 1991.

Over the years, it was optioned for film several times, but Rivers invariably exercised her contractual right of refusal after reviewing the scripts. It was only when Cindy Bond, CEO of Mission Pictures International, a respected name in the faith/family film genre (including the 2018 movie “I Can Only Imagine”) optioned the rights to “Redeeming Love” that Rivers was seriously intrigued. Rivers bought a book on screenwriting and drafted a sample treatment of the story for Bond to review. To her surprise, Mission Pictures bought the script, giving her control over characters she created and fiercely protects.

Rivers collaborated closely with director D.J. Caruso to polish her first attempt at script writing into a screenplay that is both faithful to the book and friendly to the much different art of cinematic storytelling.

The film opens Friday, Jan. 21, in theaters across the U.S., including the Roxy Stadium 14 and Airport Cinemas in Santa Rosa and Reading Cinemas in Rohnert Park.

The movie carries an underlying message of Christian faith and redemption but attempts to do it with a light touch to appeal to a broader audience.

“It’s more of a mainstream love story, and it’s presented as a mainstream story. There’s nothing heavy-handed in it, but there is definitely hope all the way through it,” said Rivers, who at 74 is churning out page-turners, most of them historical romances laced with a message that reflects her own Christian faith. Her latest, “The Lady’s Mine,” publishes on Feb. 8, right on the heels of the movie.

The cast

It’s a high-flying time for the writer, who has a large international following but lives quietly in west Santa Rosa with Rick Rivers, her husband of 45 years. Filmmaking was a new challenge, and she took an integral role from the beginning, including in casting. Rivers sat in on interviews.

She said when she met Abigail Cowen, she knew immediately the actor was perfect for the role of Angel, a hardened prostitute with a fragile beauty who hides her heart and feelings under a hard shell to survive a life of degradation and abuse.

“She looks just like Angel. And she wrote a long essay to D.J. Caruso because she wanted the role. She loved the book. Her mother loved the book. So she was just right,” Rivers said of the 23-year-old actor who recently starred in Netflix’s “Fate: The Winx Saga.”

It was harder to find the right actor to portray Michael Hosea, a farmer who finds himself called to take Angel as his wife, despite knowing she is a prostitute.

“He has to be innocent,” Rivers said. “He’s a virgin who waits for the bride God gives him. There weren’t any American actors who could pull that off. It was down to the wire. But we went to England to get a classically trained actor, Tom Lewis. He has the emotional nuance in his expression and he’s a terrific actor.”

The film also features Eric Dane, of HBO’s current hit “Eurphoria” and who “Grey’s Anatomy” fans will remember as Dr. McSteamy, and Nina Dobro (“The Vampire Diaries)” as Angel’s mother who resorts to prostitution when the man who kept her as his mistress cast her out, leaving her and her daughter destitute.

Gold Rush town

The movie was filmed in South Africa in late 2019 and early 2020. Rivers and her husband spent three weeks on set, mesmerized by the skillful recreation of the fictional prospecting town of Pair-a-Dice on a massive ranch just a few miles outside Capetown.

“It’s less expensive to build there, and you can build whatever you want,” said Rivers, who was amazed by the level of detail that went into constructing the rough and dusty town of mainly young miners. “In the general store, they stocked all the shelves. They even had a basket of real fish so you had that smell and the ambiance of the time.”

Caruso, better known for darker films like “I Am Number Four,” “Eagle Eye” and the thriller “Disturbia,” at first seemed an unlikely choice to direct a faith-based film. But Rivers said he had a sensitive approach to both the script and its execution, spurred by his wife, who was a huge fan of Rivers’ book and encouraged him to take on the project.

Filming was completed almost miraculously just before the world shut down due to the coronavirus. That left a year to edit the movie while producers — Caruso, Bond and “Touched by an Angel” actor Roma Downey — waited for theaters to reopen so the epic film could have a big screen run before heading to DVD and streaming. Universal is among the distributors.

Ever since the book “Redeeming Love” was first published, Rivers has donated all proceeds from its sales to charitable causes, such as Redwood Gospel Mission. A year ago she set up the Redeeming Love Sanctuary Foundation to give grants to organizations that directly support victims of sex trafficking. She partnered with Caruso’s wife Holly to form the foundation, a cause close to her heart.

When she set out to write “Redeeming Love” 30 years ago, Rivers didn’t consider sex trafficking a theme, she said. Instead, she saw the story as an allegory about what many people go through on their path to accepting God.

“I felt the whole story really plays out what it was like to be a nonbeliever, and you come to faith and you look back on your life and you realize how many times God reaches out and wants you to come to him, and you refuse.”

But she’s hoping the story also will resonate with non-Christians.

“I’m hoping they’ll get a hunger and thirst,” she said. “It’s meant to encourage and maybe show how people should treat one another, and maybe offer hope at a time when people really need that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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