How does one take an inherently unsympathetic character, and make the audience root for her?
It helps when that character is Abby Johnson—a big-screen representation of the actual pro-life activist, based on the book she wrote about her own experiences: subscribing to the lies of the abortion industry, devoting herself to her job as Planned Parenthood’s youngest clinic director, suffering through two abortions… and then coming to see the inherent dignity of human life, realizing that she had been complicit in the deaths of more than 20,000 unborn babies, and becoming one of the nation’s most outspoken pro-life advocates.
For screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, the challenge of making the “intrinsically unsympathetic” Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson someone that audiences could root for was solved by essentially having two Abbies, they said at the recent premiere of “Unplanned.”
“The narrator is the future, repentant, wise Abby,” said Konzelman—a stark contrast to the Abby who so long resists really seeing what her job entails, and who refuses to change.
Because we know the character’s trajectory—whether or not we are familiar with Johnson’s real life and the book about it—we can forgive her when she behaves in ways that seem unforgivable, he added, and anticipate her change of heart.
Human Life is Always Viable
The plot is straightforward enough, although the emotional arc of Johnson’s character is far from simple.
As a college student, Johnson encounters Planned Parenthood at a career fair, and—given the organization’s efforts to “empower women”—decides to give volunteering there a try. When she encounters the sidewalk counselors praying at the fence around the parking lot, their actions and attitude rile her, making her more committed to Planned Parenthood.
And so it goes. She moves up the ladder at the clinic, becoming a counselor, and then being promoted to director. Her parents are horrified by her employer, and her boyfriend—later her husband—feels the same. But if they push too hard, she becomes defensive; and if they ask simple questions or offer hard facts, she always has the Planned Parenthood party line to fall back on.
Even when her boss asks her into the POC room, she remains unfazed.
“POC—you know what that stands for, right?” a colleague asks her before she enters the room.
“Products of conception,” she answers promptly.
“Pieces of children!” the colleague responds with a grin.
Faced with an aborted baby, Johnson’s character is awed—but not dismayed. Not until she is asked to assist in an abortion procedure is her mind completely opened to the fact that, in the course of her work, she has participated in thousands and thousands of deaths.
“One of the things I really love about the film is that it’s a really honest conversation about abortion in the first trimester,” said Johnson at the premiere. In fact, her character has a very pat explanation for her pro-choice stance: a fetus in the first trimester is not viable outside the womb, she tells her family, but she is against abortion in the second or third trimester, because by then it’s really a baby.
“There’s never been a film like this before,” said Johnson.
“The pro-life movement has never been willing to push the boundaries. Now, I think they’re ready. I think people are seeking the truth about this issue.”
A Tale of Redemption
The March 18 film premiere was a long time coming: when Solomon was given the book Unplanned six years ago, he knew immediately that it would be the next project he and Konzelman—the writers and co-producers of “God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead 2”—would undertake. But it was four years before they began to move forward with financing and production.
In the wake of New York’s aggressive late-term abortion legislation and ensuing conversations about abortion survivors and infanticide, now is the perfect moment for the film’s release, the pair said. “It’s coming out right at the right time,” said Konzelman.
That didn’t mean it was an easy project to undertake—beyond the unsympathetic nature of Abby Johnson’s character. They knew finding the right cast and crew might be tough, given Hollywood’s support for abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular. And then there was the faith element of the story—another potential black mark.
While Konzelman and Solomon agree that they didn’t set out to make a “Christian movie,” faith plays an important part in the film—and in Johnson’s conversion to a pro-life activist. Her character squirms in church when her pastor reads from Psalm 139: “… you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” She weeps as she asks her husband how God could possibly forgive her for what she had done.
That remorse, however, should not be interpreted as condemnation either of people who work in the abortion industry, or of women who have undergone abortion. “It’s not about condemnation,” said Konzelman firmly. “It’s about love, it’s about hope, it’s about forgiveness, it’s about redemption.”
Still, Johnson admitted, it was not easy to see her story on the big screen. “It’s a very vulnerable place to be,” she said.
“You see your greatest sins, your biggest hurts, the biggest struggles you’ve been through up on a screen—for anyone to watch.”
In fact, she said with a laugh, after screening the movie for the first time, she said to her husband, “Why are we doing this? I don’t think I want to do this anymore!”
But, she added, the film really isn’t about her.
“I did not sign the deal to do this film to make Abby Johnson a household name,” she said. “I did it to make the redemptive power of Christ a household dialogue.”
Changing Hearts and Minds
When the film received an R rating, there was outrage from the pro-life community: an underage girl can actually obtain an abortion, but can’t watch a movie about one? But the “Unplanned” team looks on the bright side. Since viewers under the age of 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, they hope that the R rating will spark family conversations about abortion, Planned Parenthood’s true mission, and the dignity of human life.
And, on the other hand, the Motion Picture Association is saying with its R rating that the film contains disturbing, violent images.
In other words, it is saying abortion is a disturbing, violent act.
Across the nation, groups and organizations are already holding red carpet screenings of the film for their constituents. Not everyone viewing the movie enters the theater committed to unborn children’s right to live.
Johnson related a story about a pediatrician who invited his entire staff to a screening of “Unplanned,” mistakenly believing that they all must certainly be against abortion. He did not know that one of his nurse practitioners was pro-choice until she exited the theater and said, “I will never support abortion again.”
“I believe we will reach a point when abortion truly is unthinkable in this country,” said Johnson.
“In the meantime, we have to keep showing that truth.”