How Heaven and Hell are construed in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

Term Paper, 2010

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Afterlife in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come
2.1. Heaven
2.2. Hell

3. Summary

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“When I was young, I met this beautiful girl by a lake.”[1]What Dreams May Come starts and ends with a beautiful love story. Leading actors Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) and Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra) meet in Switzerland, marry and have two children: Ian (Josh Paddock) and Marie (Jessica Brooks Grant). Some years later, Ian and Marie are killed in a car accident. Annie becomes mentally unstable and attempts suicide. She is institutionalized but eventually recovers. Shortly after, Chris is involved in a car accident, too. When he dies as well Annie’s grief is unbearable. Meanwhile, Chris awakens in the afterlife, trying to adjust to his new environment with the guidance of a man named Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Chris trusts him to be his friend and mentor from his medical residency. Later, he meets a woman named Leona (Rosalind Chao) who shows him a children’s realm in Heaven. Chris recognizes her as his daughter Marie.

In parallel to this, Annie, distraught at the loss of her family, takes poison and dies. Albert breaks the news to Chris, whose initial relief that her suffering is over quickly turns to anger when he learns that suicides are sent to Hell. Chris decides that he will rescue Annie from Hell, even though Albert tells him that no one has ever succeeded in doing so. Nevertheless, Albert agrees to find Chris a Tracker (Max von Sydow) to help to find Annie's soul. Journeying to Hell and encountering hundreds of damned souls, Chris finally realizes Albert is actually Ian. Ian returns to Heaven, while Chris and the Tracker continue the search. Chris sees Annie in a field full of faces of the damned, but as he runs towards her, the ground gives way and he falls into a vast, upturned cathedral. Chris recognizes his and Annie’s house at the bottom. The Tracker warns Chris that if he stays with Annie for more than a few minutes, he may become permanently trapped, too. Chris enters the house, finds Annie pale and withdrawn and is unable to make Annie recognize him. Chris decides to “give up” in order to join Annie forever, even if she will never know who he is. This behaviour enables Annie to recognize Chris and allows the two to escape to Heaven. After all, Chris and Annie are reunited with their children and family Dalmatian Katie. However, Chris suggests being reincarnated, so the couple can experience meeting and falling in love again. The film ends with Chris and Annie meeting as young children, in a rough parallel of their original meeting, repeating the opening line.

Important to mention is that the film is idiosyncratic, meaning it is filmed in a not-chronological way in which the layers of the story are peeled away, flashing backward and forwards in time and jumping between Earth and the Beyond, separating the scenes “with blindingly blank, white-out screens”.[2]

What Dreams May Come - the title is taken from William Shakespeare's To be, or not to be soliloquy in Hamlet.[3] The film is directed by Vincent Ward, with a screenplay written by Ronald Bass, after a novel by Richard Matheson, and was released in 1998 with a budget of $ 85 million. However, it brought in only $ 55, 4 million in the US and $ 17 million overseas. Its reception was different. Many reviewers criticized the plot and screenplay but complimented its visual effects: Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post disliked the film, which he felt was “overproduced and underpopulated, with either characters or ideas” and “lacks [...] drama.”[4] The Time Out Film Guide concludes: “Ward dazzles the eye and boggles the mind, but leaves the heart relatively untouched.”[5] Then again, James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave What Dreams May Come three stars out of four, saying:

“Many movies have offered representations of heaven and hell, but few with as much conviction and creativity as What Dreams May Come. The plot, which focuses on the sacrifices one man will make for true love, is neither complicated nor original, but, bolstered by the director's incredible visual sense, it becomes an affecting piece of drama.”[6]

Fact is, the film won an Oscar in the category Best Effects/ Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration. What Dreams May Come also won four further prices and got another nomination.[7]

The following paper focuses on how the afterlife is allegorized in Vincent Ward’s film. Ward combines motifs from various religions. Ancient, Western and Eastern versions of afterlife merge to an individualistic Great Beyond. The leading literary influence seems to come from Dante‘s The Divine Comedy, especially considering the movie’s depiction of Hell. Also several parallels to art work stand out. Of course, as no sources can prove it, it is just speculation if, especially the referred literature and paintings were an inspiration for the film. However, some parallels cannot be dismissed out of hand.

For a clearer arrangement, I assembled the research paper in a Heaven (Chapter 2.1.) and a Hell (Chapter 2.2.) section and will then summarize my observations as well as explicate how this all fits into the science fiction genre (Chapter 3). Unfortunately, apart from various reviews on the internet, no other secondary text on What Dreams May Come can be found in literature. On that account, my paper mainly bases on the film itself and several reference books on theology, philosophy and mythology. Namely, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Boxton’s The Complete World of Greek Mythology as reference books as well as work on afterlife: Coward’s Das Leben nach dem Tod in den Weltreligionen and Braun’s Das Jenseits – Die Vorstellungen der Menschheit über das Leben nach dem Tod.

2. The Afterlife in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come

Is there a life after death? This is one of the most fundamental questions that humans cannot evade. Even if there have been historical changes over time and various medical innovations in the modern era, death governs inevitable and no science can avert it.

Henry Miller once said: “Of course you don't die. Nobody dies. Death doesn’t exist. You only reach a new level of vision, a new realm of consciousness, a new unknown world.”[8] - The afterlife is the idea of the consciousness or mind of a being continuing after its physical death. In many popular views, this continued existence often takes place in an immaterial or spiritual realm, typically believed to be determined by a God, based on their actions during physical life. Major views on the afterlife derive from religion, esotericism and metaphysics. Present in various media it is also the central topic of the film What Dreams May Come.

2.1. Heaven

Heaven, in a physical sense refers to the sky or firmament. In theology, and this is the more relevant definition in this context, it means paradise in the afterlife, considered to be the home of the God or Gods in religion. In various religions and spiritual philosophies it is often described as the holiest possible place, accessible by people according to different standards of faith or other virtues. Very common is the belief that the deceased live on in that place. Best known is the concept of Heaven in Christianity and European culture but it is also common in Islam and Eastern religions, even though the details differ in important respects, especially to the crucial issues of the conditions of achieving Heaven and visual nature.[9]

No religion obviously gives a clear description of what Heaven looks like, any envision is speculation. Just as much speculation as Ward’s created Heaven in this feature film. In What Dreams May Come, Heaven is whatever one wants it to be, like a dream. In the afterlife, everything what one can be able to imagine is possible. Ward follows a concept of many actually individual Heavens. It is based on the assumption that Heaven exists in a state of flux and that its inhabitants assume identities that please themselves. Heaven, in one sense, means becoming who you want to be and, of course, where you want to be. Or as Albert Lewis says: “’Here’ is big enough for everyone to have their own private universe.”[10] It seems to be a place with endless space and potential.

But before Chris arrives in Heaven, he as a ghost is given a voyeuristic tour of his own wake and funeral. First, when entering his house, he thinks it is a dream:

Man: Can you see me now?

Chris: Why are you so blurred?

Man: I'll get clearer. Confused how you got home so fast?

Chris: Dreams don't deal in time. Time doesn't count.

Man: You've died, Chris.

Chris: Doc, if I were dead, would I need you to tell me?

Doc: I guess you do. Everyone's different.

Chris: Why do I see everyone? Everybody but...

Doc: You don't wanna see me. You don't wanna be dead.[11]

Later, at his funeral, he gets used to his new ‘state’:

Chris: Where are we now?

Doc: Maybe you won't want to stay. This is your funeral.

Chris: What am I on? You're real fuzzy.

Doc: At least you're willing to see yourself…You're losing your fear.

Chris: Fear?

Doc: That you disappeared…You didn't. You only died.[12]

Ward transfers the idea of a person not having disappeared after death but living on in Heaven, generally depicted as a place of happiness, sometimes eternal happiness. Thus, especially in a Christian context, dying is not a curse.[13] This is probably what Albert tries to explain when saying: “You only died.” In Christianity, only the fleshly body dies and is displaced by the celestial body.[14] Similar concepts can be found in other religions, Hinduism for example.[15] Chris’ ghost-like appearance right after his death then can be interpreted as attempt to realize this state in which the soul needs to become conscious of the transition.


[1] What Dreams May Come. Dir. Vincent Ward. Perf. Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Annabella Sciorra,

Max v. Sydow, and Rosalind Chao. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. USA, 1998. 0’ and 102’

[2] O'Sullivan, Michael. What Dreams May Come review. Washington Post, 02 October 1998.

< osullivan.htm >

[3] The line in Act III, Scene I says:

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause…“

[4] Hunter, Stephen. What Dreams May Come review. Washington Post, 02 October 1998.

< hunter.htm >

[5] TJ. What Dreams May Come review. Time Out Film Guide. Date unknown.

< >

[6] Berardinelli, Jamens. What Dreams May Come review. Reelviews, 1998.

< >

[7] Awards. Internet Movie Database: What Dreams May Come. 1998.

< >

[8] Wickes, George. Interview with Henry Miller. In: The Art of Fiction No. 28. 1962.

< >

[9] See: Einleitung. In: Coward, Harold (Hrg.). Das Leben nach dem Tod in den Weltreligionen. Freiburg, Basel

und Wien: Herder. 1998. p. 9-19

[10] What Dreams May Come. Dir. Vincent Ward. 1998. 40’

[11] What Dreams May Come. Dir. Vincent Ward. 1998. 13-14’

[12] What Dreams May Come. Dir. Vincent Ward. 1998. 17-18’

[13] Coward, Harold (Hrg.). Das Leben nach dem Tod in den Weltreligionen. Freiburg, Basel und Wien: Herder.

1998. p. 56

[14] Coward. 1998. p. 51

[15] Coward. 1998. p. 87

Excerpt out of 20 pages


How Heaven and Hell are construed in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come
Dresden Technical University  (Institut für Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Science Fiction Films
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
508 KB
What Dreams May Come, Vincent Ward, Robin Williams, Heaven, Hell, Richard Matheson, Dante
Quote paper
Antje Schoene (Author), 2010, How Heaven and Hell are construed in Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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