When you become Pope, you become a prisoner of the Vatican," worries rising young priest Karol Wojtyla in Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II (ABC, Dec. 1, 8 p.m. E.T.). He would prove himself wrong, taking more than 100 overseas trips and becoming a hugely influential and popular figure--enough so that his death is marked, less than a year later, by two network specials (though not enough so that either was scheduled during sweeps).
ABC's movie and CBS's Pope John Paul II (Dec. 4, 9 p.m. E.T., and Dec. 7, 8 p.m. E.T.) cover the same birth-to-death span: his youth in Poland, his resistance first against the Nazis and then the communists, his rise to world leader. But they bring out different sides of his personality. Have No Fear's Wojtyla (Thomas Kretschmann) is starchy and principled, more a paragon than a person. CBS's mini-series presents a soft-focus, avuncular Wojtyla, dividing the role in two: the young priest (Cary Elwes) is a jocular guy who talks sex (within marriage, don't worry) with his young parishioners; the Pontiff (Jon Voight) is a self-deprecating wit whose career is unified by a belief in the dignity of life.
But John Paul II was more than a kindly pastor. While Pope John Paul II shows his steel in butting heads with communists, it, like the ABC movie, glosses over the controversies and conservatism of his papacy. Women's role in the church gets maybe a minute's attention; contraception comes up only by allusion. In the end, both movies stick to what viewers can agree on (commies and Nazis, bad; love, good), while skipping much of the Pope's sometimes polarizing tenure as a leader--an unsurprising choice in treating a man literally on track for sainthood. As a result, he becomes less human and less interesting once elected Pope. John Paul II, it turned out, was no prisoner of his papacy. Too bad these movies are.