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?