Friday, September 4, 2009

Making Cinema of the Book of Mormon

A new project of mine, which you’ll be able to read about on my personal blog soon, has gotten me thinking about the various attempts we’ve seen at Book of Mormon movies. There have been a lot of films with plots based on stories or characters from the book, and even more sharing Book of Mormon themes. We’ve even seen films with original stories set either partially or completely in Book of Mormon times. But it seems to me that depictions of the events in this book of scripture have been the rarer than those of other books, including the Doctrine and Covenants.

This leaves me asking why? Here are some possibilities:

1. Expense

Recreating any extensive or believable version of Book of Mormon culture/setting requires money. We know just enough about what these things may have looked like to have certain limited expectations, which leads me to my next point:

2. Precedent vs. Lack of Historical Data

Church productions like The Testaments and a host of seminary videos have created Nephite and Lamanite looks that we seem to have adopted as official, if not authentic, as evidenced by films like Passage to Zarahemla. At the same time, we don’t have nearly the wealth of information about these societies that we do regarding, say, the ancient Jews. So Bible stories are a lot easier to depict from one perspective because we can establish legitimacy through historical accuracy. Restoration stories are even easier than the Bible. Because we don’t have third party descriptions of clothing, armor, weapons, architecture, social habits, etc, that we can definitively associate with Book of Mormon cultures, much of what we see and hear in a film of this type is essentially made up. This brings an element of world building autonomy to Book of Mormon films that is generally absent from other scriptural stories.

3. Faking the Scriptures

That freedom can be a little uncomfortable when you’re dealing with scripture. For the most part, anyone who is interested enough to make a serious Book of Mormon film will probably be Mormon, so there would be a vested interest in representing the material well. Doctrinal accuracy would probably be a prime consideration, as would realism. But audiences are also looking for a way to visualize scripture stories. As has been discussed in this forum before, however, filmmakers aren’t really authorized to take on the role of scriptural interpreters for everyone. No matter how much a filmmaker tried to stay away from it, many LDS audience members would probably view the film expecting to see the scriptures – as they personally understand them. I’m sure you can see the problems with that. A notable exception may be the Liken the Scriptures series, which avoids this issue by targeting children, making their films the cultural equivalent of a “My First Scripture stories” book, rather than the book itself. The musical numbers also help with this differentiation.

4. Wrong Types of Stories and Characters

The Bible – particularly the New Testament – gets put into film all the time, and the filmmakers don’t generally have the burden of developing the main characters too much. For one thing, one of them is nearly always the Savior, who for much of the world needs no introduction. Additionally, the New Testament is very vignetty, if I can make that a word, and lends itself in some ways to disjointed, fairly shallow storytelling. Again, the characters and events are so well known that for many audiences this doesn’t really hurt the film. We expect the background to be already built. Not so with the Book of Mormon.

First of all, most of the major stories require a longer telling than New Testament episodes. Additionally, to really develop a character (let’s take Helaman), several chapters and/or books of scripture need to be covered, but the stories don’t always transition nicely. Filmmakers would need to add supplemental (read: fictional) material, which could be viewed as a no-no. This is one reason I think the makers of The Testaments were wise to stick to fictional characters involved indirectly in actual events. You notice that none of the western characters in that film actually come from the scriptures with the single exception of Christ. Honestly, I wondered why for a long time. I mean, you see the real apostles and others in the scenes in the Holy Land, but once you get to the Americas everyone is made up. But when you think about it, who can you follow in the Book of Mormon that would make a compelling main character? Nephi the son of Nephi? I suppose there is potential there, but he’d be hard to tamper with. Mormons might not like to see a beloved ancient prophet depicted with too much creative license.

Then again, given the popularity of Book of Mormon based novels, I may be wrong.

Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, so what do you think? How do you depict Book of Mormon events in a movie, and why haven’t we seen more of it?

25 comments:

Th. said...

.

For me the biggest issues are the worldbuilding ones. No one has done it right because no one can do it right yet everyone keeps trying to do it right. It can't be done right. Recognize that and decide what you're going to do instead.

Also, the Book of Mormon ain't a novel. It wasn't designed to tell good stories and for the most part it doesn't. And since we want good stories from film, that means we need to embellish. And, as you said, no two people are apt to embellish in the same way. You give Alma a sense of humor and some people will be offended. You make him everlastingly serious and other people will disagree with all their heart might mind and soul. You can't win.

I think the right way to pick story matter is something in between Testaments and something attempting a word-for-word filming. What exactly that will look like I'm not sure.

Ian said...

This is something I actually think about as I read the scriptures, I mean, not all the time, but a lot of the time. There is definitely movie material in there. The "Book of Mormon Movie" I think did an ok job with the story, but the script was really weak, and so was the acting and the sets. I could write a long post about how it could have been made better etc.

The truth is, the war chapters almost write themselves. If someone made a movie about Chief Captain Moroni, they could even change the names to something else to hide it's mormonness, it would make a great movie. Have Mormon be telling the story about CCM to his son Moroni. I'm guessing you aren't looking for movie ideas...

I think any good BOM movie needs to stay away from the artistic depictions of the stories. Those pictures are great, but they don't make good movie material. Nephi in the BOM movie looked just like the picture, but couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag.

Dave C. said...

Good post.
Producing an accurate portrayal would be an R-rated film. I think the BofM movie was a good attempt, but the producers goofed up big time on costumes etc. While you point out that we may not know how those people lived, I know one things for certain, that is that after 8 years of wondering in the wilderness, Lehi's family did not look like they had just bought some cheap clothes at K-Mart.

I think the church should consider producing a mini series on the BofM with Testaments being one of the installments - it is the only organization with the money an interest to launch such an endeavor.

Ian said...

I agree that the costumes were a big part of it. The movie was made on a small 2 million dollar budget, and the producer of it made it like a big budget movie. I think, had it been made by a small, independent film maker mindset producer, it would have been much better.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Th. said, "Also, the Book of Mormon ain't a novel. It wasn't designed to tell good stories and for the most part it doesn't."

I completely agree. Even the war chapters, although rife with conflict and dramatic potential, don't necessarily give us enough on an individual level. When compounded with the fact that this is scriptural rather than just historical dramatization, the lack of character definition becomes a real problem, as you discuss.

"I think the right way to pick story matter is something in between Testaments and something attempting a word-for-word filming."

Interesting that you would say that, because that's sort of what my new project that I alluded to is, except it's from the Bible. Specifically, it's a short format retelling of the story of the woman taken in adultery, but set in modern times. By "modern times," I mean it is set as though this were the meridian of time, and the Savior's mortal ministry was underway now: all other factors being as equal as possible. So it's got the word-for word element on some of the dialog, but there's a lot of interpretive stuff too. I've thought about how to do something similar with Book of Mormon stories, but haven't thought of many that I feel confident would work well.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Dave C.,

I'm not sure that Testaments would make a good installment to such a series, although I like your idea. The Church already reuses actors and footage from its past projects quite frequently, which really contributes a sense of consistency that is somewhat series-like, but Testaments is so far removed from the Book of Mormon in terms of the characters, that I don't think it would serve as you suggest.

The only way I think it could be pulled off is if the unifying thread in that series was Christ, and the rest of the films involved fictional characters surrounding other Book of Mormon encounters with Him. Then again, there aren't really many other encounters that involved unknown characters. The only one I can think of off the bat would be one of the converted Lamanites from the Alma & Amulek in prison episode.

I've thought about a film that would combine the stories of the two Almas, with Abiniadi as an influential character and using fire as a central metaphor, since it features prominently in both Almas' lives. Perhaps one of those baptized at Mormon could play a unifying role. But I don't think that could be part of a series based on The Testaments except in the sense that they'd both be Book of Mormon inspired.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Ian,

Thanks for the comment.

It does seem particularly appropriate to use Mormon as a narrator for that story, doesn't it? But I guess he's obviously a good narrator for anything that comes before Ether.

I'm always looking for movie ideas, and you never know who will read the blog, so don't be afraid to make suggestions. They just might go somewhere someday.

Bringhurst Family said...

I have to say that I largely disagree with most of this post. I do think that the BoM has great movie potential. Yes, characters need to be developed with some fictional work. Yes, interpretations need to made on the actual historical setting. Yes, some people will disagree with these decisions. However, look at arguably the most successful scriptural movie, "The 10 Commandments". Characters were developed well beyond what is directly scriptural particularly Moses and Pharaoh. They also took great liberty with time and place in putting stories together to make smooth transition. And yes, even the setting is not historically accurate. We do know a great deal about Christ's day. However, we do not have much in the way of 3rd party information about Moses' day. Much of the film's setting is actually closer to what Chirst's day would have been like than it is to Moses' day.

The key to that movie is solid acting, solid script, cohesive concept and a few characters that were well developed. I have yet to see a BoM movie that puts those four things together. I believe if one came along, it would be extremely successful.

Brandon

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Brandon,

I think you misunderstand the premise of this post. It's not that there's no potential or that it shouldn't happen, it's that turning Book of Mormon stories into movies is rife with complications and is seldom tried, at least in terms of depicting events as the scriptures describe them Testaments has scriptural elements but is not itself a scriptural story.

You're right to point out the things that need to be done to make a Book of Mormon movie work, and I'm saying that perhaps we don't see it tried very often for those reasons. Not that you have to see it this way, but I would argue that confident interpretation is more useful and honest than trying to get an accurate depiction because, as Th. points out, you really can't get it right.

I do applaud those who make their best efforts, either way.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

I think another difference between Bible and Book of Mormon stories is this: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly..." vs. "I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth..."

I think we have a higher tolerance for creative tampering with the Bible than we do with the Book of Mormon built into our culture as a result of these teachings. When you consider how closely some people hold their interpretation of the scriptures and how much things like testimonies can hinge on these interpretations, you can see that the stakes are raised when dealing with the more "correct" book.

Bringhurst Family said...

Let me clarify and then disagree again. My first disagreement is not that BoM movies should not be made. It is that it is not as complicated as you are making it out to be. Again a BoM story would make a tremendous movie so long as it has solid acting, solid script, cohesive concept(read creative interpretation as accuracy is not possible)and a few well developed characters be they fictional or real BoM characters. I think the complication that filmmakers are finding is that they are trying to be too complicated and getting away from good story telling.

Not to be a huge pain in the butt, however, I will also disagree with your assertion that people are more tolerant of biblical creative license than BoM creative license. While we (LDS) view the Bible as having many errors, other christians do not. Their interpretation of that work is just as set and important to them as is our interpretation of the BoM. Yet, they (non-LDS christians) have been very accepting of many, many interpretations of biblical stories.

My main assertion is that it is not the difficulty inherent in the material that is holding back quality BoM films, it is the quality of the films themselves. I realize that the purpose of this blog is to champion LDS filmmaking. However, part of championing the art is being realistic in our criticism of the films. I would argue that no LDS film depicting a BoM story has yet achieved the level of execution necessary to demonstrate what could be done with the material. I admit I have not seen them all. I have seen "Testaments" which appears to be considered the best of the group, and I would argue the film is far from being considered great. It hits its intended target, but that target is not great filmmaking.

Brandon

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Thanks for the clarification, Brandon.

I agree that other Christians are remarkably tolerant of bilblical interpretation, but there are a lot of bible-based denominations and few of them I'm aware of expect the same kind of doctrinal consistency among members that we do. Also, my point is that Mormon culture and doctrine specifically create a higher tolerance for variation in biblical interpretation than for Book of Mormon. I was speaking of LDS audiences particularly there.

Micah said...

I'm new to this blog but I've thought a lot about Book of Mormon movies. Because there is no one character throughout the book you couldn't make a trilogy each main story stands alone.

For a book of mormon movie to succeed it can't be labeled as a book of mormon movie. If I were a film producer I would take some stories from the book of mormon, change the names to something more broadly accepted as native american I would probably mix stories as well. I would take the wars from alma but perhaps place alma the younger right in the middle of the war years which makes his mission to the lamanites a little more exciting. I might even move the whole story to Mormon and Moroni times and include the annihilation of Nephites.

The story would definitely not be very accurate but what it would do is establish the idea that there were more civil "christian-like" native americans that became extinct.

Randy Astle said...

Adam,
Thanks for raising the topic and sorry it's taken me so long to catch up with TLDSC, as I haven't been by in a while. I'd noticed a similar distinction between LDS scriptural films that invent around their characters (or even invent their characters from scratch) and those that adhere to the written text as we have it. In my casual survey, however, I didn't mark the split so much upon Book of Mormon/Bible lines as upon whether Christ is depicted or not. "Testaments" is a good example, as it could be argued that all the material with Christ, including in the New World, is fairly by the book (in America he simply appears a la 3 Nephi 11 and then heals Helam, speaking only his name as invented dialogue) while all the material without him is invented. But you also see it in other films: I don't know if Liken the Scriptures has depicted Christ beyond their nativity film, but in the older Living Scriptures cartoons from the 1990s there was all kinds of original material, much of it comic, for all of the characters--except for Jesus. Whenever he spoke, you can be pretty sure it was a quote. This is most interesting in films like "The Good Samaritan" where we see Christ's parable enacted (so presumably he's the narrator) with all kinds of comic slapstick, etc., but whenever he's on screen it's straight from Luke 10.

Anyway, I think your thoughts on it--and the comments posted here--are intriguing. Most everyone has brought up production design and costumes as barriers to creating a viable Book of Mormon film, and it's true that poorly executed art direction has often kept us from suspending our disbelief in watching Book of Mormon films, but I think you hit closer to the cause of this phenomenon in talking about what is essentially the burden of representation filmmakers face in depicting the most correct book on earth, or the words and actions of the Son of God. When depicting subjects as intensely personal as these filmmakers can never hope to live up to audience's expectations--which are essentially to create a film as "true" as the scriptures they are taken from. I'd have to do a count on the Mormon Literature Database to see if there actually have been more films set in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon, but one reason it might seem more common and easier is that since Latter-day Saints base so much of their testimony around the veracity of the Book of Mormon it therefore makes it impossible to do, and hence a lot of potential filmmakers get frustrated before they even begin. And then there are the other factors that have already been mentioned like the lack of an archaeological record, individual visions of what it looked like, the aesthetic influence of Arnold Friberg and others, cost, etc.

At any rate, this is great timing because I actually have an essay in the next issue of Dialogue about a lot of these issues. It's called "What Is Mormon Cinema?" and the issue should be out around December 1, I think. Obviously it's a can of worms that just keeps giving.

Randy Astle said...

Oh, by the way Brandon brought up "The Ten Commandments" (presumably the 1956 remake) as an example to strive for. While I like that and similar epic religious films I think it's a slippery slope on which to base our Book of Mormon films--in fact, it's precisely where both "Testaments" and "The Book of Mormon Movie" fail, in pretty much the same way: they attempt to make an epic film that will overwhelm the spectator with spectacle (think of enormous sized crowds, the racetrack in "Ben Hur," the huge sets, or matte paintings, in "Testaments," overwhelming music with the likes of the Tabernacle Choir, etc.). This is really raising another issue, but it might be that the best way to make a Book of Mormon film is to go the other direction: since we just can't win making a huge sweeping spectacle of the book, perhaps we ought to try the smallest, cheapest, most mundane, domestic thing possible. Not only could it be more realistically done ("realistic" meaning more viewers would accept the verisimilitude) and avoid giving the game away in the production design and overacting of big speeches, etc., but it just might let viewers have more access to the Holy Ghost and spiritual experiences if they're not always distracted with the huge sets, Roman costumes, special effects, Photoshopped vistas, and so forth. This dichotomy was very much on the minds of T.C. Christensen and the folks who made the Joseph Smith film, but even then they weren't entirely successful in escaping the abundant spectacles.

Well, obviously there can and should be a multiplicity of ways to go about it. I'm glad the subject was brought up.

Ian said...

I agree with Randy. A BOM movie should be made with the mindset of an independent, low budget film maker.

I don't know how much the movie made by BYU cost that was about Moroni called "Firm in the faith", I thought it was an excellent depiction of the lamanites and Nephites.

I think this is the video I'm talking about.

http://broadcast.lds.org/video/BookOfMormon_Presentations/BM_GospelDoctrine_Video_06_Lesson31_Firm_04396_eng_300k.wmv

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Randy,

Thanks for catching up. I think you're probably right about the split being related to depictions of Christ, but there are so few of those in the Book of Mormon outside of 3 Nephi, that in a way it ends up approximating a Bible/Book of Mormon split anyway. Nevertheless, your way of putting it seems more useful to me, because it identifies the specific content that creates the most difficulty.

I'm actually struggling with that right now on a project I hope to move along with once I'm done with school in December. You can read about it here. I think your observation about keeping a small or personal paradigm when approaching such a production has unlocked some thoughts for me regarding that project that are very helpful. Thank you.

Also, I appreciate that you brought up the older Living Scriptures films. I have a good friend and classmate who is a sales manager for that company, and my next post for this blog was going to be an interview with him about the place within and influence of those films on LDS culture and film making (assuming he's willing). I might even be able to get access through him to some of the creators of those films. So thanks for the food for thought.

Unfortunately, I'm not a Dialogue subscriber (for economic reasons - there's only so much I can spend on this kind of thing) but I'll try to get a hold of a copy this time so I can read your essay.

Adam K. K. Figueira said...

Ian,

That's the very film I had in mind when I made the comment about seminary videos, although it may not have been made for that purpose exclusively. That's where I first saw it. I like it, too, but it contributes to the "official, if not authentic" Nephite and Lamanite looks that everyone seems to feel they have to adhere to.

Randy Astle said...

Well, I definitely think you're on to something with the Book of Mormon/Bible split, and everyone that's commented has had good ideas about why that is. Nor do I think one method (invention vs. fidelity) is necessarily right or wrong: they certainly yield different films, however, and filmmakers should just be aware of the ramifications of going one way or the other before they do so. The same is true of the abundance/sparsity split.

parkerd said...

Hi, This is a very interesting thread, seeing as I've been working on writing some movies based on part of the Book of Mormon for some time. Every point of difficulty raised on here and things considered are things I've had to look at. Big epics may have once impressed with spectacle, or seemed to, but it always needs to be secondary to the story. There could be grand spectacle in a Book of Mormon movie but it's what's happening on a personal level that has the power I think. The audience needs to care strongly about the characters, then everything that happens to them matters, and they will follow characters through a series of movies. As far as setting there are lots of archaeological and other evidences pointing exactly at where it fits culturally. A definite choice needs to be made then place it there, even if not everyone agrees, because they won't, best fit for what we now know is the best we can do. What I've written is an action movie, the religious element is there being the main source of Character motivation, however it really needs avoiding explanations, which is preaching; scriptures explain; movies entertain; and inform on a different level. I'm still working on perfecting:( a first full screenplay and a sequel that's part done, but they are not perfected yet. There is an element in the religious side that can really enhance a very real depiction of events, dreams and visions are part of the Book of Mormon and can come for characters as a result of reading scripture or as visions of the future, using some artistic license, these can be shown accurately but they are also surreal, and not showing an explanation of the meaning will leave an audience wondering, which they will vastly prefer over spelling stuff out which is explanation and preaching, which no audience likes in film. The difference between a mystery and a lecture. It's just a bit hard to see where that line is drawn, or should be drawn, and if the story action and excitement will override what people may feel is a controversial religious history. I figure if it's telling what happened to people rather than trying to preach to people it can work as cinema. I'm sure it needs to be based mainly on historical characters otherwise it looses a lot of strength, for what I'm trying to do anyway. All the best Mark

Randy Astle said...

So this is getting off topic, but I wanted to let you (all) know that that article I mentioned earlier--about LDS film as a genre--is now available in the newest issue of Dialogue. The print issue should be really interesting, with Proposition 8 and Truman Madsen and things, but hopefully this link will take you straight to the pdf of my article. If it doesn't work but takes you to a page with a search field instead then look for "What Is Mormon Cinema" and that should do it. Here 'tis: http://dialoguejournal.metapress.com/media/n0ppqnmqqqw4cxnxuq7p/contributions/b/7/4/2/b7426m4802q3647g.pdf

Adam, if you'd like to write a full critique of it that would be more than welcome--criticizing each other's criticism is just as necessary as criticizing our films. That's how to purify our criticism in the way President Kimball was talking about in the Gospel Vision of the Arts. But at any rate, everybody enjoy!

Randy Astle said...

Yikes. That didn't work at all. Try this?:
http://dialoguejournal.metapress.com/app/home/main.asp?referrer=default
Then search from there.

Randy Astle said...

Okay, third try's a charm. (It looks good when I preview it, wrapping around, so apologies.) Stick these two lines together on your address bar.

http://dialoguejournal.metapress.com/app/
home/main.asp?referrer=default

Ian said...

http://dialoguejournal.metapress.com/media/pf9kvjxgqg5efb7hwkak/contributions/b/7/4/2/b7426m4802q3647g.pdf

I'll give the article a read.

Anonymous said...

My Book of Mormon based screenplay is making interesting progress, it's becoming very interesting how many things come together, mine is based on the war chapters in Alma so it's set 70s BC. So it is combining known mesoamerican culture(which has all necessary matching elements so its got a strong foundation of plausability) combined with the Book of Mormon history and elements of the Old testament, the latter being important to see just what sort of culture the Nephites and Lamanites took with them to the promised lands, it's amazing how it comes into something that fits very precicely. It also brings dramatic elements that link both books of scripture and powerfully effect the characters. My view is that a film or book of history is always an interpretation, it's always influenced by the perspective of the writer, so I'm not going to worry about the liberties I take, more than what seems right to me, it's not a simple thing at all, because it needs to be accurate, and still work at the highest level of Cinema art on a dramatical level to do its intended job, which is taking the Book of Mormon to the world and vise versa. My movie is about war so it's violent, but it is also about heros both men and women who sought to follow the teachings of the God of Israel. Mark Parker