I have sometimes contemplated what a Mormon movie that depicts how divine or angelic beings interact with mortals would look like. How would such a movie be different from Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel? There are a number of movies that follow or satirize a Catholic vision. Last year I watched Inception and found myself drawing parallels between the concepts presented there and my speculation on how inspiration from the Holy Ghost might be received and processed (or resisted) on a semi-conscious level.
In this essay, I will contrast The Adjustment Bureau to what a hypothetical Mormon movie that treats some of the same themes might look like. Some good background is provided in Eric Snider’s review. The Snide one remarks “The film wisely avoids specific talk of God or religion, speaking in terms that allow viewers to apply the ideas to their own beliefs, whatever they may be.”
The Adjustment Bureau has at least four discernable levels of hierarchy. At the top is the Chairman who makes plans for the benefit of mankind. At the bottom is the individual case worker that handles most of the day to day interventions with a person. He has a supervisor who sometimes consults with a council of experts on possible courses of actions. In between this supervisor and the Chairman is what I would call an arch-angel who possesses more knowledge about considerations that went into the Chairman’s plans and competence to carry out those plans.
It is unclear how a Mormon movie would depict a hierarchy of divine beings. It could follow a church model of home teachers, quorum presidents, etc or an ancestral one. There is Mormon folklore about guardian angels, hymns and scriptures about noble and great ones participating in divine councils, and accounts of angelic administrations. We don’t yet have a complete picture of how heavenly beings influence events on Earth. It is more common to attribute divine intercession more directly to members of the Godhead and cut out any middle man or angel. Although there is some notion of delegated authority in Mormonism, I think that some might find it troubling to deal with a bureaucracy that robotically acts into in accordance to a general policy or by rogue underlings acting on their own prerogative and more limited knowledge.
The difference between humans and angels
“Angels” in The Adjustment Bureau live a lot longer than mortals, have advanced models for predicting human behavior, wear special clothing and know techniques that allow for faster transportation to and fro parts of the mortal and divine realms, and place greater weight on rational (as opposed to emotional) decision making. They walk openly among humans disguised as such and do things like preventing phone reception, meddling with mental processes, and orchestrating events under the radar. On special occasions they manifest their true nature to humans, but require this to be kept secret. They can share some of their knowledge and power with humans.
In Mormonism, humans and angels are part of the same species albeit in different stages of progression. On rare occasions prophets become honorary members of the divine council (Amos 3:7) and granted special powers (Helaman 10:5–7). Prophets sometimes are told to keep angelic interactions secret and sometimes told to proclaim it energetically. Sometimes in Mormon tradition ordinary mortals entertain angels (or the Three Nephites) without recognizing them as such (Heb 13:2), at least not immediately.
The Adjustment Bureau views the Dark Ages somewhat like James Talmage does in The Great Apostasy. When the Chairman ceases to actively intervene in man’s affairs, civilization tends to decline. The Chairman withdraws when men clamor or rebel for more independence and the right to govern themselves. A Mormon movie could have some fun with themes of apostasy and restoration or situate bursts of angelic manifestations and revelations within the prosperity and pride cycle presented in the Book of Mormon.
Morality and Free Will
The agents in The Adjustment Bureau and perhaps the Chairman himself sometimes allow bad things to happen (some things are up to chance) or actually promote bad things happening. The former was explained, in part, as a lack of omnipotence. The latter is explained by the end justifying the means.
For most of the movie, The Adjustment Bureau makes a point that humans have the free will to make choices as long as those choices do not create a ripple or disturbance in the Chairman’s big plans. On important matters humans are manipulated into making choices that further the plan and hence only have the illusion of free will. However, a persistent individual can ultimately make choices contrary to that planned.
A Mormon movie would, of course, not try to get a PG-13 rating by throwing in a swear word and depicting pre-marital sex. It would not depict drug use and suicide as in accordance with a divine plan. A Mormon movie could conceivably celebrate a scenario where a couple sacrifice worldly ambitions to put their relationship and family first.
A Mormon movie would presumably draw from 2 Nephi 2 and have a competing entity, call it (say) the Temptation Bureau. The manipulative tactics that the Adjustment Bureau employs to destroy agency seems to me to be more in line with what a Mormon would expect from a Satan-led campaign. A Mormon movie would place a greater emphasis on prayer and invited divine intervention as a means of co-creating a plan for one’s life.
Despite not being a Mormon movie and ultimately punting on the nature of God, The Adjustment Bureau ends on an Open Theistic note that I find refreshing. I look forward to learning what others think about these and other themes in the movie.