Thoughts on Mormon art and the impending production of The Book of Mormon Movie Volume II: Zarahemla.

Matt Bowman continues as a guest blogger at BCC.

Or, as I like to call it, TBOMM-VII:Z. The first movie -The Book of Mormon Movie — Volume I: The Journey (or TBOMM-VI:TJ) -was, as Rod Kimball would say, “all heart.” (Then he said something else which I won’t repeat here.) I saw the thing twice in theatres and bought it on DVD, partly because I fell in love with the absolute earnestness and sincerity that dripped off of every frame. It had the sort of passion and holy-crow-we’re-making-a-movie energy that only first time projects really do. I could easily picture the sort of pep circle that you see in the locker room tunnel before NBA playoff games happening on the set every morning. It was also a good example of a tendency I’ve noticed in much of Mormon art.

We are obsessed with our own past — witness the often repeated pithy line, “Mormons don’t have a theology — they have a history.” It might be more accurate to say that we have made theology – and scripture – of our history, and Mormonism has a long tradition of scriptural literalism, from Joseph Smith onward. Our art depicting the events of the Restoration has traditionally stressed representational accuracy — CCA Christensen’s study of the martyrdom, for example, consistent with primary accounts of the scene in Carthage Jail, shows Hyrum on the floor, Willard Richards trapped behind the door, and Joseph Smith confronting the mob.

Particularly interesting is Christensen’s caption; he labels the picture “The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church.” Yet the scene itself lacks the religious themes that the caption might imply; there are no sacred motifs, no angels waiting, no glorious light; indeed, not even a view of the heavens. Rather, it is the gritty, mundane deaths of Joseph and Hyrum that Christensen sanctifies through journalistic dispassion and the accuracy of his documentation. Thus does Christensen create sacred history by identifying the hand of the divine in the reality of the detail.

Further, while the Work and the Glory novels left little doubt as to the truth of Mormonism, the first film went even further, elevating viewers into elite company when it gives us the assurance of a glimpse of the golden plates. Even our Book of Mormon art follows in the tradition of the powerful imagination of Arnold Freiberg, imitating the forcefulness and eclectic imagery of his style to create what feels like a genuinely ancient Mesoamerican world dotted with jaguars and colorful feathers. The shared message of all of this art is the veracity of its subject.

In the case of the Book of Mormon Movie, the screenplay hewed very closely to the narrative as laid out in First Nephi. Nephi probably did not intend to produce a treatment for a feature film; thus, First Nephi doesn’t do much with dramatic scene development or character arcs. The seeds for these things are there, but strict adaptation results in story issues — the characters of Laman and Lemuel jolt back and forth from repentant to murmuring with whiplash speed and no explanation because Nephi never tells us what was going on in their heads; the plot feels terribly episodic, with little cohesion or dramatic tension between the various set pieces, because that is how Nephi told it; the dialogue bounces disconcertingly between King James and modern English.

The only solution to the last might be to go all one way or all the other, at least when non-divine characters are speaking (Not that God speaks in King James English, but I think it’s an effective dramatic tool). But the other difficulties, I think, ask us to consider a larger issue — how much artistic license and interpretation are we ready for when our art seeks to portray events from the sacred history of Mormonism? There was some hue and cry over Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series, which turned the Book of Mormon into science fiction. Would Mormons embrace a Book of Mormon Movie that took the sort of artistic liberties that, say, The Ten Commandments (all hail Edward G. Robinson) or Prince of Egypt (with all of the sibling rivalry issues) did? Would we buy the sons of Mosiah splitting up because of a fictional love triangle causing rivalry between Ammon and Himni?


  1. Katie P. says:

    “Would we buy the sons of Mosiah splitting up because of a fictional love triangle causing rivalry between Ammon and Himni?”

    That could be a really great story. I hope someone does tell it.

    The Book of Mormon is absolutely filled with untold stories, for instance, Abish’s story, or the reason the first Ammon refused to baptize the people of Alma when he found them.

    I think we might still be a little sensitive to accusations that it is all made up. Elaboration and decoration happen to stories that are either unassailable or whose outlines have passed into moldable myth. The people and events of the Book of Mormon may not have become either enough for members to be completely comfortable with elaboration. I’d still love to see it done, just like I loved the Homecoming series.

  2. I’ve never thought of us depicting our art accurately. I believe Joseph had a vision but we don’t artistically depict his different reports of the vision. Nor do we show exactly how he translated the BoM. No top hat in any of the art I’ve seen. And most of our art is based on stories reported by Joseph Smith that aren’t always coherent when mixed with other stories. I think most of our art shows our imagination (ie we kinda make up stuff) but it’s to evidence how faithful we are to the story of our group consciousness.

    Because of that, I think Mormons might get a little miffed if one were to take artistic license to BoM stories. Not because they wouldn’t be entirely plausible or (gasp!) interesting, but because they don’t fit into the way we currently tell things.

    But I’m all for it. Let’s make the goodies (Nephi etc) a little more bad and the baddies a little more good.

  3. I wasn’t paying attention at the time (I don’t even know when it was released), so I couldn’t recollect anything about how the Homecoming series was recieved. Was there really a hue and cry over it?

  4. CCA Christensen attempted accuracy in his panorama artwork because it was part of a mobile exhibit that was meant to be educational about Church history — a vague equivalent to narrative stained glass in European cathedrals. He toured it throughout Deseret, teaching the youth about the sacrifices made by their own blood in the midwest and the persecution they suffered at the hands of creedal Christians and their expulsion from the United States. Thus, it is understandable that he would want to try to be historically accurate if possible. (Though I don’t see brandy and a pistol in JS’s hands.) If Latter-day Saints really are overly interested in emphasizing accurate depictions in their artwork, as this post suggests, perhaps it is attributable in part to Christensen’s efforts.

  5. Steve H says:

    This phenomenon is wider than us. I’ve taught a course in the Bible as Literature, and one of the assignments asks students to examine a piece of art that depicts a story from the bible. They have to note what assumptions the work makes, what it adds or emphasizes, and what its reading of the story is. The ones who have the hardest time are the religious students. The more literalist, of course, the worse off they are, but most aren’t any more so than most of us. They find art that means something to them, and a good percentage of the papers come back saying something like, “This is just a retelling of the story,” or “It sticks to the story.” Looking at the art, I can, perhaps, because of my traiing and my different religious background, see that it isn’t anything like a plain retelling. I think, in fact, that there is no such thing. I am a literary critic by trade, and subscribe to what the new critics called the heresy of the paraphrase. The only way to truly stick to the Book of Mormon story, or any other story, is to pass out copies of the book. Anything else requires a change of medium, at least a change of words, and that requires decisions that affect how we view the story. While I saw that the Book of Mormon Movie folks were looking to “just follow the story,” I thought it came off as a play for authority (you can’t say we’re wrong, because we just said what the book said), when, as far as I could tell, the movie was sort of like what if a bunch of people from Utah Valley went through a bunch of things sort of like Bok of Mormon people, complete with church ball. It seemed, as far as I could tell, to naturalize these cultural inserts by way of a conscious effort to appear to be “sticking to the story.” I’m not saying any of this was done intentionally, just that when we make art, the cultural assumptions are going to be there. If we own that, we create reflective art. If we try to deny it, we just end up passing off our local cultural aberrations through ties to religious themes. My favorite story that hasn’t been told, however, is actually a bible story: Ehud. The scene where he tells Eglon he has a message from God for him and then stabs him till the haft goes in would be intense, but the rest of Ehud’s life would be an artistic creation. All we have is hints of the situation at the time.

  6. I know users have not been kindly rating the first Book of Mormon movie, giving it a 3.3 out of 10. (not as bad as Gigli, but still….). I guess I am not looking forward to much in Mormon Cinema that relates specifically to our religion or scripture. It seems stories about regular folk, such as Napoleon Dynamite are better examples of the talent in Mormon filmmaking.

    I’d love to see stories fleshed out from the Book of Mormon, (in fact, I feel inspired on occasion to write some screenplays myself on some stories), but I am wary about the quality of the filmmaking.

  7. “Would we buy the sons of Mosiah splitting up because of a fictional love triangle causing rivalry between Ammon and Himni?”

    Nice post, Matt, and good question. My initial response is to remind us that “we” make up millions of different people and we will respond in different ways. I don’t think the Mormon audience is quite as uniform as we often take it to be.

    But generally speaking, I think we would be accepting of more than we would think. We understand movies and books and we have been sufficiently accustomed to historical fiction that we realize that an artistic endeavor must make creative choices. I’ve read a few different narrative versions of the Book of Mormon, and they inevitably make major creative decisions. In fact, there are two different series of books out right now that encapsulate just the story of 1 and 2 Nephi. In some cases, very little of the novels’ content is directly from the Book of Mormon at all. So yeah, I think we’re fairly comfortable with the concept of creative license.

    What I think we’re not comfortable with, however, is a tone that is disrespectful of The Book of Mormon or even our traditional reading of it. I think we’ll understand and accept character flaws in the prophets, but a story that attempts to demonize Nephi or say, Captain Moroni, isn’t going to fly.


  1. […] …is the seed of the Church.”  Everybody knows that line.  Tertullian wrote it in the third century. Well, maybe not everyone.  It seems to be popular in a very wide range of religious communities.  I don’t know if I’d ever seen a Mormon quote it, though, until now.  Matt at By Common Consent has a post on Mormon art.  He mentions this painting: […]

  2. […] The strange state of Mormon art has recently been discussed here by Matt. Sometimes, to please our spiritual aesthetics, we have to go beyond the borders of the kingdom. I would like to start a new “religious art” series here at BCC. Please share your favourite religious art (it doesn’t have to be Mormon) in the comments with a link to the picture, a description of the piece, and an explanation as to why you like it. I will then post them from time to time. […]

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