Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Mormonization of the Modern Fairy Tale

Certain activities in my life have led me to take interest in a company called RHI Entertainment (formerly Hallmark Entertainment), that produces, distributes, and licenses long form television content. One of RHI's fairly recent releases is a reinterpretation of The Wonderful Wizard of OZ called Tin Man.

I read a review of Tin Man that got me thinking.

The author (Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune) said, speaking of L. Frank Baum, "It’s almost as if the writer was planning ahead, not just for his own series of sequels, but for the latter-day artists and writers who’ve found endless creative possibilities in the realm of Oz."

After listing some other Oz interpretations and briefly mentioning the film's central themes, she continues, "
Sure, those well-worn concepts are not the most original starting points for stories, but those themes have endured for generations because they resonate not just with kids but with everyone who’s ever felt like an outcast."

So this got me thinking about how frequently people try to reinvent "classic" stories and try to turn them into blockbusters, social commentary, or whatever else they have in mind. RHI, for example, has films in its archives that give new interpretations to stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Gulliver's Travels, Snow White, Jason and the Argonauts, etc....

But we also see this in Mormon films too. Pride and Prejudice and Beauty and the Beast are the two that spring most immediately to my mind, but even classic Mormon stories like Johnny Lingo have already seen remakes. Plus there are a whole host of LDS films that take scriptural stories as their themes.

I'm wondering why it is that this is so popular, especially with the fairy tales and classic literature. Does this come from an impulse to claim mainstream but potentially meaningful works as our own, as seems to have been done with the writings of CS Lewis and others? I know some people who seem to look at the Narnia movies as church-sanctioned productions (this may be only a slight exaggeration). On the other side of that, are we sometimes trying to make our ideas seem compatible with mainstream lore, and therefore culture? Do we simply want to rearrange the tales so that they can be seen from what we consider to be an ideal LDS perspective (in order either to use them as teaching tools or to justify embracing what we might otherwise not)? If so, are we uncomfortable with or unwilling to consider them from other perspectives, not obviously LDS? If so, does that indicate an attachment to the natural man (the aforementioned desire to embrace the world's culture by ignoring its incompatibility with our perception of gospel culture)?

I realize that not all of the questions above apply to every classic story (or even all of the ones I've listed) and that my list of questions is not complete, but I'm not supposed to say everything there is to say on a topic. I'm interested in your thoughts on the place of fairy tales and classic literature in LDS filmmaking. What do you think?


Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I realized after I wrote this that in my second-to-last paragraph there is an unintended implication: namely, that mainstream stories and/or productions can't be meaningful. I hope the rest of the post makes it apparent that I don't hold this view, but just in case, I wanted to clarify.

Bryan said...

Call me a cynic, but I think another possibility is screenwriter laziness/script by committee. It's far easier to put a "Mormon spin" on a classic story than to come up with something original yourself.

I can see it now: a bunch of suits gathered around a table, trying to figure out what will be the next big thing. Then someone says, "Hey, those BYU chicks just love that 18-hour 'Pride & Prejudice' with that British guy as Mr. Darcy. What if everyone in that story was LDS? And we set it in the 21st Century? Ka-ching!!"

(Full disclosure: I have the A&E "Pride & Prejudice" in my personal library, and enjoy it quite a bit. I cannot say the same for the LDS take on it, which really missed a lot of excellent opportunities at the end, when it opted for slapstick humor and campy hijinks over fidelity to Austen's story.)

I do think that the majority of "Mormon makeovers" of classic tales are driven far more by the desire for a box office home run than artistic considerations. I would also lump in the controversial sanitizing of commercial films (i.e., CleanFilms, ClearPlay, etc.) as part of the phenomenon. Though they certainly don't attempt to graft in specifically LDS values, one could argue that they create "Mormon-friendly" versions of popular movies.

My take: forget about "Mormon-izing" fairy tales and classic literature. If you're going to do something that's been done (and done well) many times before, bring something fresh to your adaptation - and not just the religion and vocabulary of the characters. If you want an LDS audience, keep it PG-rated or below. Otherwise, go back to the drawing board.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Point well taken, Bryan. I'm sure you're right about the primary reason most of these films get made, but why do you think this sort of film is successful? I mean, from the audience's perspective, I can't believe that people sit around thinking, "what can I do today to be a good member of the LDS filmmakers' target market? I'd better go to Deseret Book and see if there are any new cheap rip-offs of great stories that I can buy."

Do you see what I mean? There has to be a reason the "suits" see so much money in it. I guess what I'm asking is why, if these films are as inferior as you say, are they so popular? The novelty of LDS themed adaptations has to have worn off by now, so in my mind it must be the appeal of the story being adapted. But why do these stories appeal to an LDS worldview? Or, if they don't, why do we seem to want to make them fit?

What would happen if we saw a really well done adaptation with Mormon themes of, say, Alice in Wonderland? Don't ask me how to do that one, but what if? I think this kind of "what if" is a question that keeps us aspiring - it nurtures creativity.

Those of us interested in art more than money might find fertile ground in this kind of thing. There's a great fairy tale called The Shoes of Fortune that I think could be done brilliantly.

Lets imagine that the people making these films read your comment and are struck to their hearts (I'm honestly not making fun of you). Lets say that they start to really be creative and inspired with their adaptations. Just imagine that they're well done. What place do they have then? What can we aspire to?

Th. said...


There is nothing intrinsically wrong with reworking classic tales (just ask Shakespeare, the copycat) (or the zillions who have since copied him) --- if it didn't work, we wouldn't do it. Really, the emphasis on originality is a fairly modern invention (probably fueled by things like emerging middle classes and printing presses, but I'm not expert) and has distinct disadvantages. Starting with a recognizable story is not just an artistic shortcut, but it can be artistic effectiveness. Don't we want the audience to understand what we're all about? Doesn't common ground make it easier to start there? And when things change, can't the significance of that be more obvious.

In short, nothing wrong with it. Especially in a nascent market. Evil to make it a crutch, perhaps, but sensible to have it available in the ole toolbox.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Many thanks to Bryan and th. for breathing life into this post. You both make excellent observations.

David T. said...

Not to trifle with sacred things, but you might try to morph 'Alice in Wonderland' with Lehi's Vision; Give it some formulaic meat for the journey, introduce characters resembling Didi & Gogo from Waiting for Godot. Who knows? With the right talent and intelligence it could be a downright rad piece.

Benjamin Thevenin said...

Good post Adam. Your comments made me think of some studies of subcultures that I've come across, and that line of thought may be helpful in our figuring out what LDS Cinema is. It seems like when a subculture (like Latter-day Saints) adapts a popular work, there's a negotiation of cultural identity taking place. On one hand, we're connecting our little group with the mainstream, finding shared human experiences in these popular stories. On the other hand, we are appropriating a story to emphasize the particularities of our unique culture. So, just like gangsta rappers have appropriated the film Scarface in an effort to create an identity for themselves, we can appropriate Jane Austen novels to create ours.

Another thing about this study of subculture that I find interesting also, is that most of the time, the subculture is dissatisfied with the dominant culture its surrounded by. They'll use these appropriations of mainstream culture to challenge the dominant perspectives. So, it may be worthwhile to see if/how LDS adaptations, and our films in general, challenge standard Christian, Hollywood, western, etc. cultural perspectives. Just like Trevor talks about learning from global media movements, maybe we can learn something from punk rock, gangsta rap, and other subcultures we'll find here in the states and across the world. Whatcha think?

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

David T.,

That's an intriguing idea. My knowledge of Godot is woefully lacking (a condition I've been intending to correct for some time now), but I nevertheless think I can see some of the possibilities you're alluding to. Thanks for the suggestion. How would you approach a project like that?


Thought provoking comment. It sounds like you're addressing one of the conflicts we face in missionary work, which is balancing the necessity to build on common ground with the imperative to create a sense of urgency or importance based on seeing the difference the restored Gospel makes. I don't know much about Gangsta rap, but I wonder how well Pride and Prejudice (the Mormon movie) represents what we want our culture to look like.

I think you could say that our theology instructs us to be dissatisfied with our host culture to an extent, which raises the question you already posed: do our adaptations seek to challenge or conform to that host culture? The patterning of LDS films after Hollywood standards has been discussed on this blog before and was a topic of sorts at the LDSFF last year. I guess that means we're aware of it, but the application to adaptations in particular is interesting because it places the question in a not-quite modern day context - at least inasmuch as the stories we're adapting are from generations past.

I'm sure you're right about learning from subcultures at home and abroad. Perhaps a discussion of some of those subcultures and their influences is in order.

David T. said...

Adam (#8),

How would you approach a project like that?

Just shooting from the hip here...

Waiting for Godot is a quintessential work on existential philosophy. Despite Beckett's denials, it's been considered that "Godot" was, in fact, God and the play basically satirizes the faithful (for example, the two key characters claim to know him, but eventually it turns out neither has ever met him) and their awaiting His return (Godot never does shows up). Existentialism is the antithesis of religious faith, so it would be an ironic and poetic gesture to, perhaps, "rewrite" the story as Lehi's dream and turn the tables on the secular, making them the absurd.

Or, as I initially suggested, keep this as just one stage of the journey and make it primarily an homage to Alice in Wonderland, which constantly toys with nonsensical logic, each stage getting "curiouser and curiouser". Eventually the protagonist determines the world's view of life is "just a pack of cards" and as the deck falls to the ground like scales off his eyes, he clearly sees the way to the light.

Very rough, I know. It's more of a stream of consciousness but I think could be a fun piece to write.

William Morris said...

Th writes:

"Really, the emphasis on originality is a fairly modern invention (probably fueled by things like emerging middle classes and printing presses, but I'm not expert)"

Yes, both forces were part of the mix -- because easy reproduction + buying public meant that you could make money in publishing. But the legal (and aesthetic) argument that worked to create an preference for originality among the reading public was copyright.

Th. said...


But do you think copyright would have really come into being without the first two being in place? Otherwise, what need?

(Incidentally, this is why I think the length of copyright should be shortened right back down. We should be able to do with, say, Casablanca what we're already doing to Hamlet. Some works with a limited timeliness could be rendered immortal if they had been remixed by other writers within the first couple decades. Instead, they can't be fiddled with and disappear. But this is a different conversation.)