Karol: A Man Who Became Pope, which aired on the Hallmark channel this past August, is a beautiful film about the pre-papal life of the man the world knew as John Paul II. Piotr Adamczyk does a marvelous job as Karol Wojtyla; the brutalities of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the skullduggeries of Poland’s communists are powerfully conveyed. At the end, when Karol becomes pope, viewers can only conclude that this was a life in which grace built on remarkable natural gifts to produce a compelling witness to the power of truth and love in human affairs.
Which is precisely the conclusion one should draw from the early life of Karol Wojtyla. The problem is that Karol fictionalizes – and in some cases falsifies – the late pope’s pre-papal life.
I counted five historical errors or falsifications in the first four minutes of the film. There is no room here to list, in numbing detail, the dozens of things the film makers got wrong. It is important, however, to flag several major distortions and falsifications, before the mythologists completely take over the late pope’s story.
The personal drama of the first half of Karol includes the resolution of the young man’s relationship with “Hania,” in real life the Polish actress Halina Krolikiewicz Kwiatkowska (who was helpful to me when I was preparing Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II). Karol is portrayed as torn between the priesthood and his love for “Hania;” there is a wrenching moment when, during World War II, Hania blunders into a church and finds Karol in a cassock. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks; “I’m sorry,” he answers (as she cries on his shoulder), in what is clearly intended to be the film’s emotional hinge.
None of this is true. Karol Wojtyla and Halina Krolikiewicz were good friends, but there is no indication that they were planning marriage; moreover, the real-world Halina was very much part of Karol Wojtyla’s discussions with his friends about his vocation (as any reader of Witness to Hope would have known). The film makers want viewers to think that Hania, who doesn’t marry for seven years, was virtually crushed by Karol’s decision; in fact, the real-world Halina married shortly after the war and Father Karol Wojtyla baptized her first child in November 1946.
It gets worse. “Hania” moves to America where she is miraculously cured from a lethal disease through the intercession of Padre Pio, to whom her former boyfriend, now a bishop, had spoken of her illness. But this incident, in reality, involved someone else entirely – Dr. Wanda Poltowska, whom Bishop Wojtyla met in the late 1950s, not during the war (which Dr. Poltowska spent in a concentration camp).
And still worse: “Father Tomasz Zaleski,” who, before he’s shot by the Nazis, is portrayed as Karol’s close boyhood friend and, later, spiritual adviser, is a complete invention. Young Karol Wojtyla did have a spiritual director, Father Kazimierz Figliewicz, but Figliewicz was not his contemporary and was not shot by the Germans.
The film does manage to credit the lay mystic Jan Tyranowski as an important influence on Wojtyla. The portrait of Tyranowski is all wrong, though (he’s depicted as a kind of wild-haired Slavic spiritualist, which is risibly false), and his meeting with Wojtyla is re-created as a kind of divine accident; Karol runs into a house to avoid the Gestapo and bumps into…the man who introduces him to St. John of the Cross! In fact, the pastor of Karol’s Kraków parish asked Tyranowski to take charge of the local youth ministry, and Tyranowski deliberately recruited Wojtyla.
The film makers also invent a member of a Wojtyla youth group who is really working for the SB, the secret police. This is not only a total fabrication; it’s an insult to the men and women who were, in fact, Karol Wojtyla’s closest lay friends, and whose networks were certainly not penetrated by Polish intelligence.
Legitimate artistic license cannot mean fiction that distorts the truth about a person; Karol Wojtyla’s story is dramatic enough without fictional add-ons. The makers of Karol didn’t understand that. Others pondering similar films should do better.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.