2004 Mormon literature year in review
2004 was a solid year for Mormon fiction. Three short story collections and six juvenile novels of note by Mormon authors were published by national presses, an impressive number. The volume of works published by Mormon presses continued to grow, moving into a wider range of genres, and the percentage of real clunkers allowed to slip through seems to have gone down.
Of the three nationally published short story collections, by Darrell Spencer, Brian Evenson, and Neil LaBute, only one story in the Evenson collection includes specifically Mormon characters or themes. Spencer’s Bring Your Legs With You, his fourth collection of stories, is a linked narrative about a retired boxer living inLas Vegas. It won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, chosen by Michael Chabon. Chabon said of the collection, “Spencer possesses a remarkable ear for the cadence of everyday speech, as his characters circle and spar and contend with one another in the clinch of family and marriage, friendship and enmity.” Several reviewers, on the other hand, found the work too talky and inert for their tastes.
Brian Evenson and Neil LaBute, both of whom have openly discussed their estrangement from the Church over the last year, produced collections filled with dark situations and twisted characters. I found Evenson’s fifth collection of far-beyond-Poe stories, The Wavering Knife, to be the better written and more disturbing of the two. His stories are often both bleak and hilarious at the same time—the humor does not lessen the creepiness, but it helps keep the stories from falling into a dark monotony. Several of the stories are told from the point of view of eccentric fundamentalist Christians, including one story, “The Prophet,” about a sociopathic “Mormon” who digs up and attempts to reanimate the body of a deceased church prophet.
LaBute, known primarily for his plays and movies, is less successful in his first book-length work of prose, Seconds of Pleasure. I agree with the reviewer from Publisher’s Weekly, who wrote, “LaBute is a master at crafting shocking situations and nasty characters, but this ungenerous view of the human heart can make for a dark and brutal read . . . Sharp dialogue and grim imagination aside, LaBute’s microfictions rarely delve below the surface to offer insight into the nature of the human condition; the collection as a whole feels a little sadistic, the act of reading it a kind of complicated masochism.”
On a more positive note, and certainly of greater interest to most Mormon readers, is the crop of excellent young adult novels by Mormon authors that appeared in 2004. Perhaps the best of the group was Shannon Hale’s fantasy novel Emma Burning. Hale writes in a clean, eloquent style, and shows a flair for creating rich characters. The central plot device, Enna’s discovery of magical process of controlling fire, serves as a powerful engine to the plot. Hale’s descriptions of Enna’s slide from careful experimentation to outright addiction are very finely crafted and realistic. The novel received almost universally positive reviews, and won the 2004 AML Young Adult Fiction prize.
Another major achievement is Martine Bates Leavitt’s Heck, Superhero, a comedy-drama about 13-year old boy who finds himself living on the streets. Heck, Superhero appeared on several year-end young adult best books lists, including the Kirkus Review’s Editor’s Choice list, which stated, “In an excruciating balancing act, Leavitt looks deep inside the mind of a homeless boy determined to save his mother and himself through his good deeds, and she manages to get readers breathing again by making them laugh. Hauntingly original.”
Other young adult and middle school novels of note include Mette Ivie Harrison’s Mira, Mirror (School Library Journal: “This exciting, dark fantasy that examines the bonds of sisterly love will keep readers engrossed form beginning to end”), Randall Wright’s Hunchback (School Library Journal: “This gripping novel, infused with a deep sense of medieval time and place, touches on timeless themes of brotherly love, trust, and finding oneself”), Michael O. Tunnell’s take on the Aladdin’s lamp story, titled Wishing Moon (winner of the Utah Book Award in the Children’s and Youth category; Booklist: “The tale skips peachiness and goes for rich characterizations and a strong, suspenseful plot worthy of the Arabian Nights”), and Janette Rallison’s comic Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Free Throws (School Library Journal: “This is light entertainment, short on characterization but full of myriad awkward moments in romance”).
The only religious-themed novel by a Mormon published by a national press was Kenny Kemp’s City on a Hill, the second in his Parables of the Carpenter trilogy, in which he creates imagines events in the young adulthood of Jesus. I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of the series, in which Kemp succeeded at creating an appealing inspirational book without resorting to cheap emotional fireworks. But while the writing style and characterizations in City on the Hill are top-notch, the story suffers from an overly complicated plot, which too often feels like a set-up for the next volume.
In other nationally published works, British best-selling author Anne Perry produced novels in both her Monk detective series, set in Victorian England, and her World War I series, as well as a short Christmas novel, all of which received fair to good reviews. Finally Natalie R. Collins, a writer with a Mormon heritage, produced the thriller Wives and Sisters, a bitter attack against Mormon patriarchal culture. The Salt Lake Tribune’s book reviewer Martin Naparasteck, one who has never been afraid to praise books critical of Mormons, panned it, commenting, “There isn’t a page in the novel that wouldn’t benefit from a generous dose of subtlety . . . Every bad thing that happens in the book is in some way connected to the LDS Church . . . This is an angry novel.”
Among the Mormon presses the rise number of literary works published each year continues to grow unabated, 116 in 2004, more than twice the number published in 2000. Covenant Communications remains the leader in number of titles published with 39, and Cedar Fort and Granite also published more novels than ever before, while Deseret stayed pat at 13 novels a year.
Number of literary works published in 2000-2004, by publisher
|Sounds of Zion||0||0||0||0||2||2|
Signature Books is known for producing only a few, high-quality literary works a year. In 2004 they published The Pictograph Murders, a first novel by P. G. (Patricia Gunter) Karamesines, and sure enough, it won the 2004 AML Award in the Novel. It is the story Alexandra McKelvey, an LDS convert who joins an archeological dig in the Utah desert, where she encounters both a murder and a connection to a mystical world. Jeff Needle gave the book a glowing review, commenting, “On the surface, The Pictograph Murders is a gripping and intricately plotted murder mystery. In fact, murder is in many ways secondary to the underlying story. The field of play is more than just the desert in which the story takes place–it is the totality of the human experience as reflected in the sometimes uncomfortable coexistence of history, science and myth. The primary digging is not done in the sand, but rather in the levels of consciousness that drive and inform us.”
Covenant Communications rejected the novel The Captain of Her Heart, by Anita Stansfield, the house’s best selling author in recent years, claiming that its description of an out-of-wedlock sexual relationship was inappropriate. Stansfield formed her own publishing company, Crosswalk Books, to publish the book and its sequels, none of which contain LDS characters. Despite the refusal of Deseret and Seagull Book Stores to stock The Captain of Her Heart, it was a best seller, and was a co-winner of the 2004 LDS Booksellers Association Fiction Award, an award that appears to be based on sales.
For at least the fifth year running, Covenant significantly increased the number of new literary works it published, reaching a level unprecedented in the Mormon book industry. It continues to publish mostly in its established niches of romance, adventure, and mystery novels, it has also moved into other genres, including middle grade juvenile, gothic romance, and comic novels. With Stansfield not publishing with the house in 2004, its best-selling author was Betsy Brannon Green, a prolific crafter of mysteries set in a fictional Georgia town. Covenant released two novels by her in the summer, Foul Play and Silenced. Another Covenant title which has received strong recommendations is Patricia Wiles’s supernatural adventure, My Mom’s a Mortician. It received the AML Middle Grade Literature Award, quite an achievement considering the strong competition from nationally published works. Robison E. Wells’ On Second Thought was praised for its quirky humor. Perhaps Covenant’s most favorably reviewed adult novel was Carol Thayne’s False Pretenses, about a semi-active hippie woman who is called as a Relief Society president, and her relationship with a woman trying to escape a fundamentalist sect. N. C. Allen’s historical novel One Nation under God, Sonia O’Brien’s adventure tale The Raging Sea, Lynn Gardner’s mystery Vanished, and Kerry Blair’s humorous mystery This Just In also received strong reviews.
Deseret Book’s approach to publishing, focusing on a few well known authors, is significantly different from that of Covenant, its chief competitor. Its two most popular and professional authors, Orson Scott Card and Dean Hughes, both released penultimate volumes in their respective series of historical fiction. Deseret News reviewer Lindsie Taylor wrote of Rachel and Leah, “Card expertly crafts the relationships between each (wife) and Jacob . . . they become real people, with real problems facing real consequences. Believable dialogue helps the story move along, and readers get a true sense of life in a nomadic, biblical society.” Publishers Weekly said of Dean Hughes’ 1970s-era novel Take Me Home, “As always, Hughes offers a balanced perspective on one of American history’s most turbulent eras, and weaves in his characters’ Mormon beliefs without excessive moralizing. Although the writing occasionally tells—rather than shows—the action, the characters ring true and the story is engrossing.” Hughes also produced the poignantly comic novel Midway to Heaven for Deseret, which the reviewer for Booklist called a “pleasant, readable story aimed at older women”.
Another author making a name for herself at Deseret is Sharon Downing Jarvis. Her Fairhaven Chronicles series, modeled on Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, are set inAlabama, and tell the story of a very human bishop and his quirky congregation. Richard Cracroft has said, “No one else has captured so well the life of an LDS bishop.”
Deseret also published Jack Welyand’s Adam’s Story, a second sequel to his best-selling Charley. It was a co-winner of the LDS Booksellers Association Fiction Award. Larry Barkdull’s Cold Train Coming sold well, it was a gentle, sentimental coming of age story.
Cedar Fort published 26 novels in 2004, twice as many as Deseret. It also acquired Horizon, which had been a minor presence in the LDS publishing world for the last few years. Cedar Fort remains well behind the two more established publishing houses in terms of sales and marketing. Its bestselling novel for 2004 was Rachael Nunes’ In Your Place, a story of pre-existence promises kept on earth. Cedar Fort also published Amber Esplin’s debut novel, Leaving Eden, a supernatural mystery which won an honorable mention award in the AML novel category. Josi Kilpack’s Tempest Tossed was a positively reviewed story of prescription drug abuse and a troubled marriage.
Jannette Rallison released two novels in 2004 under her pen-name Susan St. James, which she uses for books specifically for the LDS market. Jennie Hansen highly recommended one, Time Riders, published by Cedar Fort, saying, “St. James keeps the pace fast, the action exciting, danger front and center, and the reader guessing.” She also produced a comic novel, What the Doctor Ordered, published by Deseret Book.
Granite published eight literary works in 2004, much more than its usual total. The standout product was clearly Tristi Pinkston’s Strength to Endure, the story of a girl caught in the Holocaust. Jeff Needle strongly praised it, saying, “Pinkston is a very good writer . . . her writing is intended not just to inform the reader, but to inspire with amazing tales of faith and courage.” Jennie Hansen in Meridian Magazine commented, “It is one of those rare and startling books that portrays heartbreaking violence and pain while leaving the reader refreshed and filled with hope.”
Mapletree completed its first full year of operation, publishing two novels, including Gordon Ryan’s political thriller A Question of Consequence. Jeff Needle said, “It holds nothing back in its depiction of the human condition, and the extent to which even Latter-day Saints will go to achieve their less-than-honest aims . . . it introduces truly multi-dimensional characters.” Booklist selected it as a book “outstanding in its genre,” said it was “deeply felt, unpredictable, and smart about municipal politics.”
Chad and Tammy Daybell, authors and editors at Cedar Fort, left to form their own publishing house, Spring Creek, in 2004, and produced eight novels by the end of the year. American Book Publishing, an author participation publishing house, published seven novels by LDS authors. Two that stand out are poet Kevin Krogh’s The Willow Switch, about a boy who tries to overcome an abusive father, and Paris Anderson’s young adult novel The Sisters Kennington, a mix of pioneer adventure, Western tall tale, Indian myth, and fairy tale. Rick Walton commented, “Anderson has a knack for unusual, mystical plots, where reality and fantasy intertwine freely.”
One final Mormon novel of note is Harold K. Moon’s self-published The Leah Shadow. It is the first novel by Moon, a poet and former BYU professor of Spanish Literature. Richard Cracroft sang its praises in BYU Magazine. “Unquestionably, this novel is among the best and most satisfying treatments of plural marriage—or monogamous marriage, for that matter—that we have. Happily, this is not an agenda-ridden novel. Instead, The Leah Shadow, set in the 1880s, is the tender, engrossing, human story of the shadow cast over the well-established and happy marriage by . . . a mid-life plural marriage. . . . This remarkably well-written and often-exciting tale of faithful Latter-day Saints, of the rugged Utah and Chihuahua lands, and of a Javert-like U.S. marshal, makes for excellent reading and for one of the best LDS novels I’ve enjoyed.”
The three LDS journals which consistently publish LDS short fiction, Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum, ran 20 stories in 2004, a fair number considering Irreantum only published two issues due to a pause in publication during a switch in editing teams. Chris Bigelow, the co-founder of the journal, resigned his position as managing editor at the beginning of the year and Laraine Wilkins, a scholar of German literature and Mormon studies, was named as the new managing editor. Of those stories, I was most impressed by Heather Marx’s “Brother Singh” (Irreantum #6.2, Oct. 2004), a story about a Sikh convert to Mormonism who falls in love with a less active Mormon woman. It is an excellent tale, skillfully illustrating the disruption a conversion can cause to both one’s family and to oneself.
Several speculative fiction short stories by Mormon authors were also published in national journals or anthologies in 2004. Eric James Stone had a story, “In Memory” in Writers of the Future, Vol. XX, the latest in the annual series anthologizing new award-winning authors. Publisher’s Weekly called it one of the standout stories of the collection. Madeline Baker, Virginia Ellen Baker, Orson Scott Card, Angie Lofthouse, and Julia West also had speculative fiction stories in national publications.
And in a final note, Gerald Grimmett, a Western author and poet of Mormon heritage, died in January, 2005, the only fatality of the flooding in Washington County. He had authored two well-reviewed novels about polygamy in southern Utahand Arizona, The Ferry Woman and The Wives of Short Creek.
Mormon theater in 2004 saw the continuing development of a corps of skilled young playwrights from Utah Valley universities, successful productions by their teachers and other more mature theatrical creators both inside and outside of Utah, a flurry of successful spoofs on Mormon culture for Salt Lake audiences, and (in the widest sense of Mormon theater) Neil LaBute’s prolific and disturbing work at the centers of the English speaking theatrical world in New York and London.
BYU and UVSC have trained and provided performance space for several young playwrights in the last decade. Several have recently moved on to success in the broader theatrical world. Lyricist and book writer Nathan Christensen, a former BYU theater student, achieved great success in 2004 with his musical Broadcast, which he wrote with composer Scott Murphy as their Masters of Fine Art thesis at NYU. Broadcast follows the history of radio, from its beginnings as wireless telegraph up to the dawn of television. Broadcast was named one of three winners of the 2005 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre, presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The winners of the awards were chosen by a jury under the chairmanship of Stephen Sondheim, and former recipients of the awards include Maury Yeston (Nine), Jonathan Larson (Rent), and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Lucky Stiff). The play also won the 2004 Jonathan Larson award for musical theatre, and the 2005 Daryl Roth Award. As a result Playwrights Horizons will sponsor a showcase performance of the musical.
Another former BYU student, LeeAnne Hill Adams, won the prestigious David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award in 2004 for her play Archipelago, an experimental story of the Soviet Gulag, which was performed at BYU in 2003. As part of the award, the script was published by Dramatic Publishing.
UVSC student Mahonri Stewart’s debut 2003 work, Farewell to Eden, which was selected for the American College Theater Festival, will be published by Backstage Books in a collection of best plays from the festival. Stewart scored another success in 2004 with his Legends of Sleepy Hollow, produced at UVSC. Stewart adapted Washington Irving’s short story, and added new characters, themes, and ghostly subplots, based on other legends from the region. It won first place in the 2004 Ruth and Nathan Hale Comedy Playwriting Award, and the run was sold out and extended, ranking as their most successful play ever to run in the UVSC black box theater.
A group of Provo area theater students recently created their own theatrical series, the Provo Fringe Theater project. Two plays by BYU students which appeared as part of the project in 2004 were Leslie Hart Gunn’s A Raven in My View and Melissa Leilani Larson’s Martyrs’ Crossing. The only reviews I have seen of the plays are two ebullient songs of praise by Eric Samuelsen, their teacher. While he may be biased, Samuelsen has not been one to shy away from criticizing a friend’s work.
Gunn’s play is a post-modern tale of a modern, white-bread family adopting a forty-year old Edgar Allen Poe, and the chaos which results. According to Samuelsen, “It’s extremely funny, and of course quite macabre. But I love the ideas it explores. Leslie’s play is built on the premise that Poe’s work is not only valuable, but healthy, good, true. Poe’s work threatens Leslie’s humorously iconic Family only when Poe himself denies his own muse. When he tries to push away the dark mystery at the heart of his soul, then and only then does the situation spin out of control.”
Larson’s Martyr’s Crossing is a story of Joan of Arc, told from the point of view of two Saints who appeared to her. Samuelsen commented, “How is this Mormon? Not, as you might expect, by emphasizing the reality of revelation itself. Instead, Larson focuses on agency, on the difficulty of figuring out who God is and what He wants, and the way he lets us sort of muddle through. And the play suggests that this uncertainty extends to the Spirit world. Margaret and Catherine are specifically portrayed as heavenly messengers who have been given the responsibility of looking after Joan, but without specific instructions as to what that means . . . It’s the funniest Joan I’ve seen. It’s also about the most moving, because Joan also has agency.” In 2005 the play appeared at the University of Iowa, where Larson is currently pursuing her MFA, and in 2006 a revised version will be performed on a BYU main stage under a new title, Angels Unaware: A Story of Joan of Arc.
Eric Samuelsen did not premiere any new plays in 2004, although he did revise his 2002 play Peculiarities, a work which weaves together several story lines about Mormons and sexuality, for a four-performance run at theRoseWagnerPerformingArtsCenter.
While on the topic of BYU drama professors, Rodger Sorensen, recently named the Chair of the BYU Theater and Media Arts Department, brought his adaptation of John D. Fitzgerald’s Papa Married a Mormon to the BYU stage. Sorensen’s adaptation is a hybrid between a reader’s theater and a fully staged drama, using a sparse set, and actors playing multiple roles. Although I have seen no reviews of the play, Sorensen won an award from the Kennedy Center College American Theater Festival for his adaptation and direction.
Michael McLean continues to be a mainstay in Utah Valley theatres. The Provo Theatre Company produced runs of both his musical The Ark, written with Kevin Kelly, and a new stage version of the musical song cycle The Forgotten Carols, adapted by his son, Scott McLean. Both shows received strong reviews in the local papers. 2004 saw at least four other community theatre productions of The Ark and The Forgotten Carols in Western states. An Off-Broadway production of The Ark is scheduled for Fall 2005.
While Utah audiences are well aware of Saturday’s Voyeur, the Salt Lake Acting Company’s annual skewering of Utah and Mormon culture, two new cultural lampoons appeared in Salt Lake Valley in 2004, neither of which were as mean-spirited as Voyeur, and both of which were successful enough to engender encore productions in 2005. Scott Holman’s My Big Fat Utah Wedding at the Desert Star Theater sold out its 10-week run, and the production was eventually moved to a new dinner theater for an indefinite run. Ivan Lincoln of the Deseret News named it 2004’s Best local professional or semi-professional drama/comedy. Also, Paul and Patrick Gibbs and their improv friends at the Off Broadway Theatre created MorMAN, the tale of a superhero Mormon. A reviewer at the Deseret News commented, “If you can take a joke, MorMAN is hilarious . . . It’s chock-full of dead-on one-liners that bring belly laughs at the expense of those who sing hymns to ward off evil and those who might pray on stage for the toy prop gun to fire . . . hilarious, and frankly, outrageous.”
Several Mormon-themed musicals and plays were produced by Utah colleges and community theaters in 2004. Tim Slover and James Arrington’s Wilford Woodruff: God’s Fisherman was performed at Dixie State College, and UVSC and SCERA sponsored a joint production of Slover’s Joyful Noise. The Little Brown Theatre in Springville presented the premiere of Bonnie Vernon’s temple-themed musical, Homesick For Heaven. The St. George Musical Theater honored its late founder Mark Ogden with a production of his musical Whatsoever: The Story of Abraham. The Hale Center Theater Orem presented one of Ruth and Nathan Hale’s earliest comedies, Lilacs in the Rain, based on Ruth’s experiences as a young woman about to leave on an LDS mission.
Outside of Utah, Tim Slover, a playwright who specializes in historical topics, turned to Alexander Hamilton for his latest work, Treasure, which played at the Fulton Opera House inLancaster,Pennsylvania. He sets the play in 1791, when an extramarital affair Hamilton had pursued is discovered. Hamilton and his wife publicly face the problem, rather than let his political enemies use the scandal to destroy the nation’s economic system. The Lancaster New Era called it a “lively and fascinating look atHamilton,” and named it one of the two best plays in theLancaster area for the year.
Orson Scott Card directed the premiere of Posing as People, which featured adaptations of three of his short stories, at The Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, California. The cast included LDS film star Kirby Heyborne, and Card’s daughter Emily Card, who also wrote one of the adaptations. The show received generally good reviews. Terry Morgan at Backstage.com wrote, “The one constant that underlies (Card’s) writing is a strong sense of moral complexity . . . Card directs the evening with unshowy finesse, keeping the comedic moments bubbling and giving the dramatic moments room to breathe . . . one of the most memorable plays this year.”
In New York City, Steven Fales’ one-man show, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, appeared in the summer at the New York International Fringe Festival, where it received an award for “Overall Excellence for Solo Show”. Fales has been performing versions of the play since 2000, and Tony-award winner Jack Hofsiss helped create a revised version, which was scheduled to appear Off-Broadway. Fales says he scrapped the production over his refusal to add a scene of full-frontal nudity, but his success at the Fringe Festival has reopened the possibility of a run. He also performed the piece in Salt Lake City in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Christy Karras in the Salt Lake Tribune said the show, “spares nothing . . . It occasionally verges, like many official church productions, into near-cheesy territory. But there are moments of true poignancy . . . Fales has crafted an absorbing tale that, in the end, is less about a gay Mormon than about the universal human search for belonging.”
Neil LaBute seems to be getting busier every year. He authored two major Off-Broadway productions, the American premiere of The Distance from Here, which first appeared in London in 2003, and the world premiere of the Fat Pig. The MCC Theatre, which produced both of these works, also presented an all-star cast reading of five one-act plays by LaBute, collectively named Autobahn, and LaBute also provided a one-act play, titled Union Square, for the TriBeCa Theater Festival.
According to reviewers, The Distance from Here is among the bleaker works from LaBute’s bleak canon, focusing on an extremely trashy group of American teenagers, whose bleak lives and hopelessness lead to animalistic behavior. Although it was nominated for a Drama Desk award for the best New York dramatic work of the season, most reviewers found the characters to be so base and simple-minded that the work lacked the ability to do much more than shock.
LaBute showed a somewhat warmer side for his next work, Fat Pig. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, who has heartily disliked the last five or six LaBute plays, gave the work a fairly good review. “Mr. LaBute presents a couple who experience real and reciprocal passion and affection. This being a play by Mr. LaBute, the relationship is of course doomed, doomed, doomed. But not for Shakespearean reasons of crossed stars or self-sacrifice. The built-in self-destruction device for Mr. LaBute’s lovers is the unavoidable problem that one of them is a man. . . . The play on one level yet another LaButean demonstration that men are paragons of bad faith and cowardice. Yet Fat Pig is also the most emotionally engaging and unsettling of Mr. LaBute’s plays since Bash . . . This is partly because Mr. LaBute lets his audience step over the boundaries of clinical observation to empathize with his protagonist. This means that as mechanically predetermined as the plot of Fat Pig might be, you still feel a pang of personal loss when the inevitable descends with a thud. Allowing theatergoers to experience that pang is a serious step forward for a playwright who has always been most comfortable with judgmental distance.”
Although this is primarily a review of playwriting, I would like to end by mentioning an acting success. Mireille Enos, a former BYU student, was nominated for a 2005 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play, for a Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
2003 was the annus horribilus of Mormon film, with six films with Mormon or near-Mormon themes, five of which were mediocre to terrible, and only one, Pride and Prejudice, rising to the “fairly good” level. Fortunately LDS film artists rose to the occasion in 2004, creating one national smash hit, and several quality works inside the Mormon film genre.
The biggest story of the year was the amazing success of Napoleon Dynamite, which was co-written and directed by BYU student Jared Hess. Hess made the movie for $400,000, and got it into the Sundance Film Festival, where it received a good deal of attention. The film was sold to Fox Searchlight, and became a national hit, making over $44 million at the box office. While the movie, set in Preston, Idaho, has no specific Mormon content, its silly but clean humor was embraced by young people both inside and out of Mormon society.
There were five movies made primarily for Mormon audiances in 2004. The most ambitious was The Work and the Glory, a film based on a popular series of historical novels revolving around Joseph Smith. Utah multi-millionaire Larry Miller financed the film, which was made for $7.4 million, directed by institutional LDS film maker Russ Holt, and distributed by Excel Entertainment. The film received moderately good reviews in the Utah newspapers, which praised the cinematography, most of the acting, and the overall professionalism, but criticized it for its lack of narrative dynamism. It made $3.4 million at the box office, less than half of the budget, and one million less than the only other big-budget Mormon movie, The Other Side of Heaven. That film’s $4.7 million in receipts appears to represent the revenue ceiling for Mormon films with little crossover potential. Miller greenlighted two sequels, however, which may show that the producers have high hopes that the movies can make up the financial shortfall in the home video market, and certainly reflects Miller’s willingness to take a loss on a project he cares about.
Two smaller scale movies by LDS directors that achieved financial and critical success were Saints and Soldiers and The Best Two Years. Saints and Soldiers was directed by Ryan Little, who had previously made Out of Step, and distributed by Excel. It followed a group of Allied soldiers in 1944 caught behind enemy lines after a massacre of prisoners. The creators attempted to walk a fine line towards crossover appeal, never mentioning the Church by name, but giving enough clues about one character to inform Mormon audiances that he was LDS. They then took the film to a slew of festivals, winning thirteen Best Picture awards as well as the AML Award for Film. It also was nominated for two prestigious Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature. It received very good reviews in Utah newspapers, but mixed reviews in national publications, many of which mentioned the film’s over-reliance on war film clichés. Made with a $900,000 budget, it did successful business at the box office, earning over $1.3 million. Although it was released nationally, most of its business appears to have come from Mormon audiances.
Saints and Soldiers reminded me of the recent Band of Brothers series in terms of the cinematography and tone, which is remarkable considering the much smaller budget. Both show young soldiers in the European front in a heroic light, without being overly romantic. Neither tried to pass along any great message, they just tried to portray in a straightforward way the terrible sacrifices made by a generation of men. The script was unremarkable, but the directing and acting were supurb. I left the theater deeply moved by the story I saw, and amazed at the skill of the filmmakers.
The Best Two Years was written and directed by Scott Anderson, and distributed by Halestorm. Anderson based it on his 1981 musical stage play about four American missionaries in Holland. It received good reviews both inside and outside of Utah. I agree with Eric Snider’s review when he commented, “I like all four characters, even in their less well-scripted moments, because of the chemistry among them. They really capture the camaraderie of missionaries, the rivalries and disagreements that are underscored by love . . . He also deserves credit for elegantly mixing comedy with drama, often within the same scene.” I was amazed that a director with apparently very litte film experience did such a capable job. In particular he elicited strong performances out of two actors who were not nearly as good in previous Halestorm comedies. The film was made on a budget of $400,000, and earned almost $1.2 million at the box office, the best budget-to-box office ratio of any Mormon-themed film since God’s Army.
Two other LDS films, both released by Halestorm, did poorly critically and financially. The director Kurt Hale’s in-house production team came out with their third comedy in three years, The Home Teachers. It received almost universally negative reviews, some of the worst ever for a Mormon film. Halestorm also distributed Baptists at our Barbeque, which was based on a comic novel by Robert Farrell Smith, and directed by Christian Vuissa. Vuissa, a recent BYU film school graduate who had previously directed two award-winning short dramas, attempted comedy for the first time with Baptists, and it appears that the genre is not his forte—it also received a drubbing from critics. One said it was “so insubstantial you may forget you saw it by the time you reach the theater parking lot.” Both The Home Teachers and Baptists at our Barbeque were made with budgets around $500,000, and both failed to recoup the investment, earning less than $200,000 at the box office.
On a completely different note, C. Jay Cox wrote and directed Latter Days, a story of a romance between a male Mormon missionary and a promiscuous gay man in Los Angeles. Cox is a successful Hollywood screenwriter and former member of the Church who himself served as a missionary, before eventually coming out and leaving the Church. Latter Days, his directorial debut, received fair to poor reviews. Many reviewers criticized the film for its sitcom-style structure and predictable development. Roger Ebert wrote, “You get to the point where you realize everyone in this movie has been ordered off the shelf from the Stock Characters Store, and none of them wandered in from real life.” It came close to recovering its budget of $850,000 at the box office.
Television star Rick Schroder, who joined the Church recently, wrote and directed his first film, Black Cloud. It told the story of a young Navajo man training to join the US Olympic team, dealing with racism, family issues, and alcoholism. It won an award for Best Picture at the Phoenix Film Festival, but achieved only a very brief regional release.
Mormon film students saw some success with works submitted to film festivals. Perhaps most notable was BYU film student Kohl Glass’s short film, The Promethean. A contemporary retelling of the story of Prometheus, who is killed every night, but then wakes up again the next day. It won the Audience award at BYU Final Cut, Best Short at the 4th LDS Film Festival, and Best Student Short at the Cinequest Film Festival. Kohl is currently teaching film at Mesa Community College. Craig Van Dyke, another BYU student, led a group of fellow students in the creation of an animated short, Lemmings, which won the prestigious The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation award for most outstanding college television talent, usually called the “Student Emmy”. Finally David Weidner, a graduate of the UC Irvine film school, as well as a former professional soccer player, wrote and directed his debut feature film, The Spirithunter. A supernatural thriller, it told the story of a recently deceased man who tries to discover the circumstances of his death in the afterlife. It played at two film festivals, and has been released on DVD.