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?