The Mormon [literary figure of choice]

The Mormon Harry Potter. The Mormon Nancy Drew. The Mormon [Whatever].

After seeing the latest Nancy Drew movie (which was an amazingly excellent movie, BTW – I may post a review later just because I liked it so much) with my wife, I had a conversation with some members of my ward who were also there.

Some of them said something like this: “We need a Mormon Nancy Drew.” I hear sentiments like this all the time. The most common is “The Mormon Harry Potter.”

My initial response is: Huh?

We already have Nancy Drew and Harry Potter, and they work well in their respective universes. Why don’t we try and come up with something a little more original and uniquely Mormon rather than copy what’s been done before.

Still, the people persist: “It would be great to have a story about a Mormon kid who finds out he’s really a wizard and goes off to wizarding school.”

My response usually goes something like this:
I can buy into a fictional world that does not share my basic beliefs. That’s one of the major reasons to read fiction – to experience worlds that allow you to (as Orson Scott Card puts it) “live many lives” and experience worlds that rest upon different values than your own (even if the fiction is ostensibly set “in the real world”, unless – and sometimes even if – you are the author, there will be differences).

But once you make Mormonism central to the fictional world, to the plot, it seems that adding in such things as wizards, magic and spells that effectively take away people’s free will, you’ve left the “Mormon” part behind. I could see a Mormon character in Harry Potter and be fine with that – but if Potter himself were Mormon – well, then the only thing that would do is signal that Mormon theology is false in that world, and then we don’t really have a “Mormon Harry Potter” – we would just have a “Harry Potter who happened to have a tentative connection to Mormonism” or something.

Mormon fiction shouldn’t just flat out imitate popular other genres, it should provide a world where Mormon theology provides the basic metaphysics, and that’s just not possible in a world like Harry Potter’s. (Now, I could see a world where the Priesthood is the only way to ward off vampires, but that would be really stretching it).

As for a “Mormon Nancy Drew” – I could, perhaps, see something like that, though I would prefer to see it described more as a “Mormon girl detective” and make her more uniquely LDS, rather than just steal the Drew template.

Anyway, these are half-formed thoughts that I could easily write 30 pages on in order to clarify and strengthen my points. But I’m more interested in starting a conversation on this, so: What think y’all about “the Mormon [literary figure of choice].”

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About Ivan W.

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was just shy of 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has five kids and four stepkids.

26 thoughts on “The Mormon [literary figure of choice]

  1. Ivan,
    Several movie-makers have tried that, and it doesn’t seem commercially viable yet. Ignoring campy “The RM” and “The Home Teachers”, even the Hollywood/Disney-produced high production value “The Other Side of Heaven” went in the hole so badly that they need to sell 500,000 more DVD’s just to break even.

    The next two “high production values” Mormon movies, which were the two installments of “The Work and the Glory”, also went in the hole, badly.

    Another artistically acclaimed movie with an ostensibly Mormon character was “Saints and Soldiers”. It never made an impact beyond the small film-festival circuit.

    I’ve bought several copies of each of the Mormon movies, both the good ones and the stinkers, so as to have loaner copies, and also to support the filmmakers.

    But the “Mormon novel” writers haven’t seemed to break out beyond the Deseret Bookstore market. And the “Mormon movie” makers have pretty much given up.

    The most famous Mormon writer I’m aware of, Orson Scott Card, also avoids mention of Mormon-dom in his novels. Or so I’ve heard, as I’ve never read any of his works. I’ve never gotten beyond Asimov, Heinlein and a couple other classic SF writers in that genre. Though I understand Card sometimes weaves Mormon themes in them, but such that only LDS readers would notice.

    In any business-driven artistic venture such as books or movies, you either need an established market, or a deep-pockets investor (or publishing house) to gamble on the writer.

    After the “Book of Mormon Movie” fiasco, and the failure of “The Work and the Glory” 1 and 2, and “States of Grace” at the box office, you’re just not going to get any more big single investors in Mormon movies.

    You’re only hope is to finance the next Mormon movie yourself, or raise capital from a zillion small time investors. You’d have to get every single active Mormon in the United States (3,000,000) to “invest” an average of $15 in stock, or get at least 1,000,000 Mormons to invest $45 each, UP FRONT, to get the $45 million needed for a minimum budget of a high-production-value movie, and have something left over to market it.

    I don’t think that’s gonna happen after the recent past history. I don’t think you could sign on that many members in a particular commercial project.

    You’d have a better chance at commissioning the writing of a good novel, and underwiting the publishing and advertising costs. That might be doable with a more manageable number of investors.

    Books and movies are businesses. Money drives them. What efforts and resources are you willing to invest, other than just typing on a keyboard?

  2. The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald comes to mind. It’s loosely based on Fitzgerald’s own childhood in turn-of-the-century Price, Utah. The interesting thing is that Fitzgerald’s family was part of the small Catholic minority in a mostly Mormon town. That outsider’s view can be a useful element, illuminating a Mormon society with a Gentile’s view of things. That perspective could also be used to understand the minority character’s world better by contrasting it with the majority culture around it.

    The Harry Potter books use this some. Harry Potter seems to be the only magic character who understands the non-magic world, and the magic world is constantly being explained to him, and therefore the reader, through him. Even though he hates his relatives’ house and loves Hogwarts, Potter is a creature from the non-magic world with whom we get to explore the fantasy landscape.

  3. Great post Ivan, LDS media is a real pet peeve of mine, so much of it is horrible, especially movies. The need for a Mormon Harry Potter, Mormon Nancy Drew or anything else mystifies me. Are we so unoriginal as a people that we can’t think of something new? People really want Nephi Potter and the Sorcerers Peepstone?

    I don’t need Mormon movies or Mormon literature, most of it I’ve seen and read is total crap, including everything Bookslinger mentioned except Other Side of Heaven. I’m more interested in people that can write or direct movies and books that have Mormon themes, Mormon values, maybe even occasional Mormon characters without becoming a piece of Mormon media.

    Books and movies are businesses. Money drives them. What efforts and resources are you willing to invest, other than just typing on a keyboard?

    You show me someone worth investing in, and I’ll give my $45. I haven’t seen anyone yet.

    I imagine a drama in which one of the characters is Mormon, but maybe never says it, a comedy that is funny, but not crude, and you may not know it’s directed by a member (of course those of us in the bloggernacle would know). You wouldn’t believe how many people have said to me something like “it’s good, for a LDS movie” or “it’s good, compared to most LDS junior-fiction”. Pretty sad standards. I would never give money to a venture like Bookslinger proposes, I’d consider it a monumental waste of money, even if it was just $15. Show me the next LDS Spielberg or Apatow and maybe I’d give my offering. Show me the next Card, actually better make that the Card that was writing in the 80’s and 90’s, his latest stuff doesn’t touch me in any way.

    Make me something that’s good, not just good enough to get loyal LDS readers and theater-goers to pay for it.

    The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald comes to mind. It’s loosely based on Fitzgerald’s own childhood in turn-of-the-century Price, Utah.

    This is a great example. A book that has good LDS characters, real characters, but isn’t a Mormon book. I loved these books as a kid, and am starting to read them to my daughter now. After looking for a few LDS kids books at the library, I was underwhelmed.

  4. I agree with the main sentiment of this post, but isn’t the same point true more broadly? IOW, isn’t any fictional representation of Mormonism going to be, definitionally, false? Any work, but especially fiction, is only going to present a few aspects of the whole, and it will only do so in accordance with the author’s single point of view. It isn’t just a Mormon Harry Potter that we should worry about, but a purportedly Mormon family in The Work and the Glory, as well.

    I’m reminded of the line from the Tao Te Ching to the effect that the Way that can be described is not the Way.

  5. Okay. Lots to respond to. Great comments.
    Bookslinger:
    The most famous Mormon writer I’m aware of, Orson Scott Card, also avoids mention of Mormon-dom in his novels. Or so I’ve heard, as I’ve never read any of his works.

    Not totally true. The Folk of the Fringe is about a post-apocalyptic Utah run by Mormons, and there are mentions of Mormons in Ender’s Game (Ender’s mom was raised Mormon) – as well as the semi-autobiographical book Lost Boys, in which the main family is Mormon. Actually, Card is a good example of someone who does it right. He doesn’t write “Mormon Science Fiction” he writes really excellent science fiction that sometimes has Mormons in it.

    John Mansfield:
    I haven’t read those books in ages. I should go find some. The Great Brain was pretty cool, IIRC.

    jjohnsen:
    The need for a Mormon Harry Potter, Mormon Nancy Drew or anything else mystifies me. Are we so unoriginal as a people that we can’t think of something new?

    Well, I personally can *somewhat* understand the impulse. To draw from another example, one reason why I think Milestone comics (a comic company focused on Black characters) failed was because it tried to hard to do “the Black Superman.” One of the characters, Icon, was the Black Superman, right down to the basic origin, powers, etc. Nearly all their characters were identifiable as “The Black [Superhero of choice].” The only successful character to come out of that comics experiment was Static, who managed to get a mildly successful animated cartoon “Static Shock” – but he was really the only character who was really original and was something other than “the Black [some other usually White hero]“.

    I think the impulse for “the Mormon [whatever]” comes from the same one that any group has. They see something useful, powerful, important and want one of their own. Imitation is form of flattery.

    greenfrog:
    Only in the sense that all fiction is “false” in some way. But that seems to miss the point of why fiction is important. Perhaps we all need to read up on Tolkien’s ideas on sub-creation and fiction.

  6. Ivan,

    Perhaps I’m just obtuse, but it seems to me that no depiction of a faith is ever as true as the faith, whether intentionally fictional or not. To a Mormon, a Mormon Harry Potter only emphasizes the fictiousness of the story, it doesn’t change the nature of the fictious representation. As I understand your point, it is that because of a general ignorance about Mormonism, to a non-Mormon, the Mormon Harry Potter runs a double risk of misrepresenting Mormonism in the same way I previously identified, plus the additional potential confusion engendered by the audience’s incorrect assumptions about what parts are invented and what parts are legitimately Mormon.

    My point is that no part of a fictional work is legitimately Mormon. Mormonism is an experience and a way of being, not a list of ingredients.

  7. I haven’t read much from Orson Scott Card, but one I did pick up was Xenocide, his third Ender book. He had a sci-fi explanation of the sealing power in there that he had Hindus discover. There were a couple other concepts whose source was plainly discernible to an LDS reader, but which didn’t involve LDS characters. His fictional writing in that book provided a useful way to ponder some ideas that are important to Mormons, and which we think should be important to everyone. Mormon ideas are more important than Mormon characters, and the ideas can be presented without the characters.

  8. Some reactions:

    Mormon characters and/or themes are pervasive in OSC’s work. I would recommend The Worthing Saga in particular for its exploration of pain and agency.

    Leven Thumps isn’t (as far as I know) Mormon. Neither are the other young adult fantasy novels that Deseret Book is publishing/plans to publish through its Shadow Mountain imprint. Indeed, DB is very much trying to get these titles into the national market. Yes, they count on their Mormon market for some of their sales, but I think that the major impetus behind them was the realization that there are some very talented Mormon writers of fantasy and/or young adult fiction and so riding on the coattails of Harry Potter was one way for them to develop a national presence.

    I actually think a Mormon Nancy Drew would be great. The novels are totally formulaic anyway. They cry out for being set in some specific milieus/cultures that can inject some life and quirkiness into the formula.

    But in general, I agree with Ivan’s basic assertion that Mormon fiction “should provide a world where Mormon theology provides the basic metaphysics.”

  9. greenfrog:

    I guess I’m totally missing your point. Let me see if this helps:

    – Kenneth Burke said that fiction was “Equipment for living” – in other words, fiction is never just entertainment – whenever, whatever we read, we are training and outfitting our minds. Fiction helps us learn how to be, whether we think it does or not. So fiction is an experience, and not a list of ingredients as well.

    So, as OSC said, one of the main benefits of fiction is that we get to live in other lives, and experience worlds that don’t necessarily work the way we think the world works.

    However, if you’re going to make Mormonism central to your work, it really should be central to the fictional world as well. In other words, a Mormon Harry Potter is much different from a Harry Potter who happens to be Mormon. The first is a contradiction as a world based on/centered around Mormonism isn’t going to have Hogwarts, etc. In the second, though, Mormonism becomes a small coloring detail that is about as important as the color of his hair or what his hobbies are.

  10. The Mormon Harry Potter will probably be a bad book but I don’t understand why it would necessarily be unfaithful to Mormon theology. The magic in Harry Potter is essentially a kind of technology and Mormonism doesn’t object to technology.

    To the extent that spells can sometimes deprive people of their free will, I’d point out that our theology doesn’t require that people always and everywhere be able to exercise their free will. In the real world, people’s choices are often dictated by insanity, problems with brain chemistry and so on but this does not refute our belief in free will.

  11. Adam, that’s stretching it. In Potter, the magic is most definitely NOT a type of science. It reveals a dualistic world view (spirit is not matter, magic is different than science) rather than the monistic world view of Mormonism (all spirit is matter, etc.).

    As for the free will, there’s a big difference between insanity, and someone who has a wand pointed at them and then forced to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

    Potter’s metaphysics are not compatible with a Mormon worldview. Doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent books.

  12. “But in general, I agree with Ivan’s basic assertion that Mormon fiction “should provide a world where Mormon theology provides the basic metaphysics.”

    I agree too, actually. I have a post kicking around about which kinds of alternate history stories are compatible with Mormonism and which aren’t. I just don’t think that a Hogwarts is incompatible with Mormonism. Its possible that Rowling has some points on the meaning or purpose of the afterlife–or that her magic has symbolic functions–which are incompatible with the gospel, but I have yet to see any. Even if there were, imitators could still conjure up a Hogwarts-style story but simply have different symbols associated with the magic and a different afterlife lurking in the background.

  13. Can’t agree, Ivan Wolfe. Even Joseph S.’s description of spirit as a different, finer kind of matter recognizes some pretty important distinctions between spirit and ordinary or gross matter. And, frankly, Joseph S. never elaborated this concept and as far as I can tell no particular version of it has become normative for the Saints. I don’t see anything in Harry Potter about the relation of spirit to matter that I would disagree with.

    I don’t think there is a big difference between insanity and having a wand pointed at you, but it doesn’t really matter. Mormonism says that we have free will but it doesn’t say that we can’t be deceived or that our bodies can’t be acted on. The only real problem would be if people were held spiritually accountable for what they did under this sort of compulsion, but I don’t see that in the Potter series.

  14. Of course the hope* is that when Mormon writers are inspired by other models of fiction that the resources they draw upon and the worlds they construct are informed by Mormonism enough that this current discussion doesn’t matter and that the work is better as a result.

    Although….

    One of the things that I think would be interesting — and OSC sort of does this in the Alvin Maker series — is an attempt at a work that takes place in a different world that is not alternate history or science fiction i.e. one with a different metaphysics and physics, but that includes Mormonism as a recognizable non-dominant part of that world. I don’t know if anyone could pull it off, but it would be interesting.

    So far I have stuck to the relatively straightforward alternate history or science fiction modes.

    *I should say my hope, probably — except that I think that it is one that is shared by others

  15. I have yet to encounter any kind of literature or art with “Mormon” attached to it that was worth two cents.

    I think “Saints and Soldiers”, in which the word “Mormon” was never uttered but the perspective was there, was a much better model. Or would have been, had the movie had better production values, more historical accuracy, and hadn’t come perilously close to excusing the Malmedy Massacre.

    OSC is not a bad model, at least in the original Enders series.

    I think that, as soon as we attach the word “Mormon” to any work of literature, we destroy any possibility of it speaking to universal human experience. Which is what literature is supposed to do.

  16. Adam, sorry, but you sound like the fanboys who insist the Force from Star Wars is just like the priesthood. There is no way that Mormonism could be the one, true church in Harry Potter-land.

  17. I think my last post sounded snarkier than it should.

    Basically, magic is incompatible with the Mormon world view. There’s the priesthood, and unless it’s a “sufficiently advanced science” a la Clarke(which it is not in Potterville – it’s people pointing wands and saying funny words, which is clearly not a science at all), magic is not going to be from God.

    Now, I could see “Mormonism as a recognizable non-dominant part of that world” as Morris said – I’m sure Mormons likely exist in Potter-burbia, but to have all that goes on compatible with a monistic metaphysics where Mormonism is the one true church and the only true way and all that, it’s not possible.

    Which is why your reasonings sound as convincing as those people who argue the force and the priesthood are the same thing.

  18. I don’t think the Force is the same as the priesthood, but I could envision something like the Force existing and Mormonism not thereby being falsified.

    I don’t understand why Mormonism cannot be true if people are able to achieve certain effects by saying certain words. I think we’re talking past each other.

  19. I read the Dune trilogy long before I saw the Dune movie. It took Dino De Laurentis and a big budget to do it justice, and even then there was so much left out. And even still, a lot of hard-core fans of the Dune novels would say that the movie didn’t come close. But I think the big budget and the A-list actors came close to creating the feelings I had while reading the novels.

    I think the Book of Mormon has enough material for several epic movies if the stories were filled back in with what Mormon edited out. In other words, we’d need the “large plates” themselves in order to do it justice.

    One of the complaints of Rogers’ BoM movie was that the filler material he created to flesh out the story didn’t match with what some members had mentally put in there. But it did match quite a bit with what I have mentally envisioned between the lines.

    Some day, Spencer Kimball’s dream of commercial movies based on the BoM will come true. So far, there have been false steps and baby steps.

    One of the baby-steps is the recently-released-on-DVD “The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd”, which had previously been shown only in the Joseph Smith Theater and I think some of the temple visitor centers. You can buy it for $4.50 shipped, at ldscatalog.com.

    Admittedly, it’s a teaching and proselyting movie, not intended for entertainment. But I think it shows that LDS film-makers are making progress.

  20. I don’t think that the Lord’s miraculous power should be likened unto or portrayed as magic. But I think it might be proper to discuss or portray it with a sense of awe and wonder that may be akin to the sense of awe and wonder we feel when we read or view fantasy/science-fiction material. Reverence and respect is always called for when discussing or dramatically portraying the Lord’s power in words or film. But I believe that sometimes a sense of amazement is too.

    Several passages in the Doctrine and Covenants say “Marvel not that…” But we also sing “I stand all amazed…” etc.

  21. Adam:

    We may be talking past each other. There may be some nuance lost in the shortness of blog comments or the lack of face to face.

    But since I signed up for Team Greenwood, you know I’m still on your side, even if we disagree on this point. ;-)

  22. Team Greenwood promotes an internal atmosphere of frank and free-ranging disagreement. You’re good, Ivan Wolfe.

  23. But there was a Mormon version of Nancy Drew: Ann Terry’s 1981 “The Secret of the Diamond Fireside” featured a 14-year-old heroine who sleuthed her way around the east side of Provo keeping an eye on suspicious foreigners and hunting for a diamond the size of a golf ball that was lost while being passed around at a youth fireside. Unintentionally laughable, the book had a short run as a teen paperback. The diamond, disappointingly, turned up in the baby’s jammies when our girl detective was doing laundry, so the suspicious foreigners were absolved in the end.

  24. Well, as I said above there’s a difference (in my mind, at least, if in no one else’s) between a “Mormon Nancy Drew” and a “Mormon girl detective”

    But that book sounds … interesting, I guess.

  25. I would like to add that I think Stephenie Meyer’s vampire books, and at least one of her upcoming non-vampire ones, are Mormon in the themes. They often deal with sin, immortality, forgiveness, family, temptation, etc. Nothing about that is particular to Mormonism, but the combinations and approaches are identifiable to a Mormon view. And they are successful. We don’t need more Mormon characters as much as better writing. Once we have better writing, then we can bring Mormons into the stories that are not “stock-with-label” characters.

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