This past week, Richard Corliss compiled a list for Time called “10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons in Pop Culture.” Making the list, of course, were the new Broadway musical The Book of Mormon and the recently completed HBO series Big Love. Almost absent from the list, however, were any pop culture depictions of Mormons by Mormon (The only Mormon-made depictions were Neil LaBute’s Bash: Latterday Plays and, oddly enough, Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-day Comedy). So, in a spirit of good Mormo-centric fun, I have compiled a list (for better or worse) of 10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons by Mormons in Mormon Pop Culture.
1. Added Upon (1898)
Even though Nephi Anderson’s classic piece of Mormon Home Literature is not as well-known as it used to be, it still manages to attract the occasional reader. Often cited as an inspiration for Saturday’s Warrior, the novel follows its characters from their beginnings in the “First Estate” (pre-mortal life), through their “Second Estate” (Earth life), and into their “Third Estate” (afterlife). While it isn’t Henry James, Added Upon remains a readable novel. It has plenty of melodrama, chaste romance, and didacticism. And, with part of it taking place in Norway, it anticipates the transnational direction of some contemporary Mormon fiction.
Officially called America’s Witness for Christ, the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, New York has been a summer-time staple for Mormon vacationers since 1937. While the outdoor pageant has undergone several revisions since its depression-era beginnings–most notably in 1987 when Orson Scott Card revamped the script, the pageant’s central testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Jesus Christ remains unchanged.
Today, the pageant boasts a large cast, cool special effects, and epic cheesiness. It’s not great drama, but it is a lot of good family fun. Too bad all the anti-Mormons have to make entering and leaving the venue such a crappy experience. Last year, when I attended the pageant with my family, an anti-Mormon with a megaphone told me that Mormon men need to get rid of their bras and panties, quit talking about emotions and feelings, and be real men. That, at least, made me smile.
Okay, technically, Johnny Lingo doesn’t have any Mormons in it, and Johnny and gang (sans Mr. Harris) aren’t exactly what we would call “modest,” but no one can deny its place in Mormon pop culture. More than forty years after its production, Seminary students and their parents can still quote it nearly word for word. Not only has it spawned, among other things, t-shirts, hot chocolate mugs, and a full-length remake (that shamelessly hawks Tahitian Noni juice), but it has also made it possible to call your girlfriend or wife an “eight cow woman” without being socked in the jaw. And, even if Johnny and Mahana aren’t Mormons, their story of love, respect, and inner-beauty has shaped the Mormon experience like no other pastiche Polynesian has since.
A kind of Mormon response to the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, Lex de Azevedo’s 1973 musical follows a Mormon family from their pre-mortal life in heaven to their mortal lives in twentieth century suburbia. While the musical was initially only a stage-only affair, a 1989 direct-to-video production popularized it for the Mormon masses. I still remember the first time I watched Saturday’s Warrior. I was ten years old, and it was the first time I had ever seen the church paired with such things as red sports cars, permed hair, and hot-pink spandex. (It was also the first time I had heard the h-word dropped in a church movie. Believe me when I say I was shocked, SHOCKED!) Recently, playwright Mahonri Stewart has made a case for Saturday’s Warrior‘s important place in Mormon culture, and I’m sure he’s not alone in his opinion. For better or worse, Saturday’s Warrior will continue to have a place in the Mormon imagination. Chances are, we’ll still be watching it well into the life to come–where, I assume, we’ll all be rocking those fancy pastel clothes. Hey, Flinders!
Jack Weyland took Mormon melodrama to a new level with Charly, a novel about a free-spirited non-Mormon woman (Charly) and the Mormon man (Sam) who falls in love with her, baptizes her, and (after some really serious complications) marries her. It’s your typical boy-meet-girl-opposites-attract-have-a-box-of-tissues-handy kind of story, with a semi-tragic ending deliberately pilfered (I’ve heard) from 1970’s Love Story (SPOILER: Charly gets sick and dies). In 2002, the novel was updated and turned into an okay feature film starring Heather Beers and the guy from The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (sans the tan-in-the-can skin). Of course, I’ve never read the novel (really…I haven’t…I swear…), so I can’t say how they compare. All I know is that it’s been making Mormons cry for going on thirty-one years.
“Brothers and sisters, listen to me…” Mormons got their swag on in the late eighties when The Walter and Hays Band released the “Mormon Rap” as a cassette tape single. Set against a beat you can almost pop and lock to, the rap–and we’ll use that term loosely–is about as hip and funky as you would expect a Mormon rap to be. Still, despite it’s high dorkiness rating–yea, perhaps because of it!–Mormons continue to dig the “Mormon Rap” and its story of a “righteous dude” who can’t get enough of church. Why? Maybe it’s all the quirky references to Mormon culture. Maybe it’s its deft use of the police whistle. Maybe its because the rap finally made the ghetto blaster safe for Mormonism. Who knows? All I can say is that I rediscovered my family’s copy of the “Mormon Rap” sometime in the mid-nineties and listened to it for a week. No lie, yo.
Along with President Benson’s call to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon came Christ Heimerdinger’s Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, a novel about three kids who end up in Nephite times after they get lost in a magic cave. As luck would have it, they drop in just in time to take part in one of the more dramatic sections in the Book of Mormon–the so-called “War Chapters”–which means readers are treated to cameos by Captain Moroni, Hagoth, and the javelin-throwing Teancum (the novel’s one certifiable ROCK STAR!). Tennis Shoes, needless to say, is good fun–even if it does make you feel a little guilty about watching E.T. (Read the book and you’ll know what I’m talking about.)
Before Harry Potter and Twilight came along, Mormons only had Gerald N. Lund’s nine volume The Work and the Glory to read. These novels, which follow the fictional Steed family as they make their way through every single significant event in the first seventeen years of church history, were a milestone in Mormon fiction. Not only did they sell well–generally, Mormon novels sell really, really badly–but they were also read well. By the end of the 1990s, The Work and the Glory lined the book shelves of Mormon homes across America. So what if they were a little corny! So what if the writing was a little stilted! On Sundays, the novels were referenced in talks. In testimony meetings, sobbing men testified of their power. At church historical sites across the country, elderly missionaries were swamped with questions about where the Steeds lived. They were a big deal. Big enough, at least, to be adapted into three major motion pictures. Too bad all Mormon novels can’t meet with that kind of success.
Richard Dutcher‘s God’s Army hit movie theaters in Utah while I was still on my mission in Brazil, so I wasn’t around to experience the hype first hand. Still, looking back, it seems like every other letter I received at the time made some sort of reference, good or bad, to God’s Army. When I got the chance to train a new American missionary, I made him describe the movie scene-by-scene for me. By the end of the week, “Let’s do some good” had become my new mantra. Eleven years later, God’s Army, along with its pseudo-sequel States of Grace, remains one of the most realistic depictions of Mormons on film. It has it’s flaws, of course, but its sincerity makes up for them. The same is true, in many ways, about Dutcher’s follow-up to God’s Army, Brigham City, which, in my opinion, is a better film. When I was a sophomore at BYU-Idaho, I was able to see Richard Dutcher speak at a University forum. His message to us, as I heard it, was to keep telling unique, Mormon stories. Sadly, though, Dutcher has stopped taking his own advice. Shortly after the release of States of Grace, he cut ties with Mormonism and Mormon cinema.
What does one say about The Singles Ward? Technically, its production value makes the 1977 BYU production The Phone Call look like a Scorsese picture. Dramatically, it’s not that great either. As a comedy, though, it works fairly well as long as it’s late at night and you get the jokes. It also helps if you’re in a singles ward yourself, or if you’ve been in one sometime since the late 1990s. Otherwise, this film about four single Mormon guys and three single Mormon girls comes across as…well…kind of dumb. But that hasn’t stopped Mormon singles from loving it. And why the fetch not? There’s no doubt that The Singles Ward is a lame movie, but it’s also a celebration of the most awkward time in a Mormon’s life–that agonizing limbo period between Seminary graduation and marriage. So, break out the red Kool-Aid and fire up the big screen for a singles movie night. If you’re lucky, you might end up holding hands with DeVerl.