Despite the battering that the film Austenland took with critics (33% at Rotten Tomatoes), my wife Anne and I were determined to go out last week and support the film. Unfortunately, it was a limited release so it wasn’t playing ANYWHERE in Arizona, not even Phoenix (What? Not a single showing in the producer Stephenie Meyer’s and the star Kerri Russel’s home state?! They both hail from Mesa!). So, alas, we weren’t able to catch it, despite a frantic search on the internet for it. If we catch the whiff that the box office warrants a wider release, however, Anne and I will be there, with red vines and a tub of popcorn ready in our laps.
Yet my reason goes far beyond the fact that I laughed myself silly through the Hesses’ Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre (my sense of humor is quirky, to say the least); am a big fan of Shannon Hale’s novels (especially her young adult fantasy novels like Goose Girl and Enna Burning); I think Keri Russell is an adorable and uber talented actress (I was particularly impressed with her performance in Waitress); and, although not a Twi-hard, I did actually enjoy Stephenie Meyer’s much admired/much maligned stories about glistening vampires. Ironically, as a guy’s night out, one of my best friends Nate Drew and I went to see one of the Twilight films together… without our wives. Don’t judge us. And I’m actually a big Jane Austen fan. Persuasion is my #2 favorite novel, just barely behind C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, and just barely ahead of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (I also just finished writing a stage adaptation of Sense and Sensibility). I had seven sisters who brain washed me into the cult of Austen, so despite my Y chromosone, I was a goner.
So I probably would have gone to see this film anyway. But my main reasons for wanting to see the film are three fold:
1) I briefly met Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer at an Artists Retreat, and although I’m hardly intimate with either of them (I doubt either of them would really remember me), I was super impressed with both of them. Hale was a woman of sunshine, humor, and warmth, and Meyer was a woman of grace, humility and kindness.
2) It’s a rare thing to see a film that is produced by, directed by, and starring women. Even many rom-coms are directed and produced by men. In a testosterone laden industry, I’m always very happy to find the welcome diversity of a woman’s touch in Hollywood.
3) And, finally, Meyers, Hess, and Hale are all, like me, Mormon. Heck, even Keri Russel has Mormon roots, having been raised LDS in a Mormon hub like Mesa, AZ until she was 15 years old.
Now I know that last one, especially, may seem clannish, but to see so many Mormons involved in major positions on a mainstream Hollywood film, it’s heartening to an aspiring Mormon screenwriter like me. Those Mormons who try to pursue arts and entertainment professionally are often warned about the “worldliness” of Hollywood and about how you’ll have to compromise your religious beliefs if you try to break into the entertainment industry.
Despite the surprisingly long list of entertainers who have Mormon roots, so many that have opted for the Hollywood path have left the Church. Amy Adams, Ryan Gosling, Aaron Eckhart, Katherine Hegl, Neil LaBute, Eliza Dushku, Richard Dutcher… they all were Mormons at some point in their lives but, due to different circumstances involving their personal experiences, or the experiences of their families when they were young, they left the faith. Despite the fact that many of them, like Amy Adams and Katherine Hegl, still talk very positively about the Church and the good they feel they gained from it, yet the warning about the supposed “Babylonian” life styles of the rich and famous seems to have precedence when you look at the track record of the Church’s inability to retain its entertainers (the Osmonds aside, of course).
Yet Mormons like the very successful women behind this film give me hope of the compatibility of people of faith with the people of entertainment. And they are not alone. The screenwriters behind both of the Despicable Me films are Mormon. Despicable Me 2 was just announced as the most successful Universal film… ever. The major film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is coming up in November. Despite the controversy surrounding the film and Card, it is one of the most anticipated and publicized films for the Holiday movie season. And with Stephenie Meyer’s already powerful success as a film producer with the film adaptations of her Twilight novels, there are already a lot of Mormon authors, actors, and filmmakers who are forging new possibilities for Mormon entertainers and artists. The perceived success barrier against Mormons is much thinner than once assumed. That wall, in fact, seems to have already been demolished and hopefully there will yet be many Mormons who take advantage of the opportunity to cross to the other side and make bridges between Hollywood and Zion.
So, yeah, I’m cheering on this film to succeed. The creators behind it are uber talented and stellar individuals, while the possibilities that follow for Mormons in film and the arts that movies like this present paints a brighter picture than has been represented in the past.