Guest Post: Movies on the Book of Mormon: Finally Got Some Things Right?

The Millennial Star is pleased to present the following guest post from Chris Heimerdinger. Chris is the author of the well know “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites” adventure series of books. He’s written a total of sixteen adult and young adult novels and has released a film, Passage to Zarahemla in October 2007.

Chris has five children and presently lives in Draper, UT.

Passage to Zarahemla has been the project of my life for the past three years. And doggone it—I’m proud of it! Sure, sure. There’s flaws. But I think we finally got some things right. And some of these are cinematic firsts.

Firstly, we finally got the ethnic thing right. Or at least we got it closer. I firmly believe there will come a day when paintings, illustrations, and movies featuring elements of the Book of Mormon wherein Europeans (oh, let’s just call ‘em white dudes) are featured as Nephites and Lamanites, will be a subject of some ridicule. And it won’t just be a “politically correct” thing. It will be because blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nephites and Lamanites are just not accurate. Even if you subscribe to the idea that Nephites should appear Jewish (since they, uh, came from Jerusalem), they would still look very different from actors in many of our Church movies.

Now, this doesn’t mean Passage to Zarahemla is perfect on that score. If you look very closely you might find one or two Caucasian Gadiantons in the group scenes. But my goal from the beginning was that the casting of these roles should be overwhelmingly dominated by Native Americans, Polynesians, and Hispanics. Now, I confess, even this strategy could be found lacking. Ask any Native American and they can tell you that there are distinctive physical differences even from one tribe to another. And they would certainly rebuff any suggestion that they look like Polynesians. But at least in this film, I’d like to think we got closer. Perhaps much closer than we’ve ever gotten before.

Secondly, Passage to Zarahemla is the first Book of Mormon story that films within the confines of actual Book of Mormon territory. Or to be more specific, we filmed in Costa Rica. Not Hawaii. Not Park City. Okay, now I better back up a bit. Quite honestly, most LDS scholars would proclaim that Costa Rica is just south of the Nephite and Lamanite heartlands. But again, we’re so much closer than the vision of any other Book of Mormon filmmaker. Yeah, yeah. I know there are still some who want to put Nephite territory in the region of the Great Lakes. They may be a dying breed, but they do die hard. Nevertheless, we filmed in Costa Rica because there appears to be a much better chance that the descendants of Lehi actually resided on this ground.

I know some are thinking…but wasn’t your “time portal” was in Leeds, Utah? Yeah, but if you pay attention to the book (the movie doesn’t really get into this) it also says that the time portal in those woods near the home of Aunt Corinne and Uncle Drew is not just a rift in time, but a rift in location. And hey, Passage is a fantasy movie after all. So don’t look too closely if want an accurate portrayal of a Book of Mormon event. In the end, it’s only fiction. But it’s a story whose intention from the beginning was to celebrate the scripture. Not prove the Book of Mormon. Not argue the case to Baptists and Catholics. Just…celebrate the fact that it is. And quite honestly, I feel that kind of unapologetic approach is more powerful anyway.

If nothing else, in years to come, I will be gratified enough if Passage to Zarahemla earns the distinction of being the first Book of Mormon story that sincerely tried to get a few of these formerly overlooked attributes right.

Chris Heimerdinger

20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Movies on the Book of Mormon: Finally Got Some Things Right?

  1. Chris, I look forward to this movie. My kids have read several of your books, and we enjoy them. Thanks for all your work.

  2. I thought the movie was nice. I think it could have used a better musical score, however.

    I definitely agree that the movie falls into the fantasy category (bordering on sci-fi) as opposed to historical fiction, and as such shouldn’t necessarily be regarded in factual, historical, or scholastic terms. While Polynesian Nephites/Gadiantons and Costa Rica scenery were nice, I’m not sure if they contributed anything critical to the basic fantasy narrative – i.e. it looked like it was filmed in Utah to me, which is where the story said it took place.

    Loved your books!

  3. Thanks for your comments. I frequently get arbitrary opinions on various aspects of the movie, like “I thought your wardrobe was hokey” or, as is the case with the most recent post, “I didn’t like your musical score.” I actually have far more communications telling me that they LOVED the musical score of Sam Cardon. And the nine songs that I wrote for the movie are also very well received. There have been hundreds of downloads for the three songs which is offered free to customers of the DVD.

    Your second comment, Bryce, is a little more unusual. I haven’t had anybody who looked at the Costa Rica footage mistake it for Utah, though I have had some wonder if it was Oregon or Washington. (The Costa Rica mountains look very similar to the mossy lichen-covered tree trunks and greenery of Oregon’s coastal forests.) Nevertheless “critical contributions” remain a matter of conjecture. Consider the obvious: This is only the second commerical feature film with elements of the Book of Mormon that has ever been produced. The first was “The Book of Mormon Movie.” I’ll leave the reader to his/her own opinion of that work. But it’s my hope that most viewers will deeply appreciate the fact that the Book of Mormon is finally being celebrated in this manner.

  4. Chris, thanks for commenting. Over the weekend, I found myself thinking about something that has bugged me these days: how do we know what the Nephites looked like in, say, 100 BC?

    My point is that everybody assumes that people 2100 years ago must look like the people who live in areas now. Mary must be a swarthy-looking Jewish person because that’s how people look who live in the Middle East today. Nephites must also have darker skin and hair, kind of like modern-day Latins. I can see the argument for making Lamanites darker based on the BoM, but what is the scientific evidence for making Nephites look like modern-day Mestizos? Do we really know what people who lived in Jerusalem and Central America looked like 2000-plus years ago?

  5. The Church has never issued an official statement on the geography of the Book of Mormon lands. Did the events in the Book of Mormon take place in: Central America, Mexico, South America, Great Lakes, New England? It is all speculation. No one knows. Like most people, I have my opinion on the subject and I vote for the New York state area, including where the Hill Cumorah is located. But again, it is conjecture, as is Costa Rica.

  6. Scott, good reminder. Personally, I lean toward the Mesoamerican theory, but you are right that many assumptions we have made about the BoM in the past have turned out to be wrong. Just think about the trouble we got into by the claim in the BoM that the Lamanites were the primary ancestors of today’s Indians, which of course the BoM never claims.

  7. I thought the songs and the music was EXCELLENT! and I hope CH will write a lot more. I have seen most of all the LDS films that have come out, considering the junk hollywood puts out I always look for uplifting materials to watch and I gotta say Chris’s film was a lot better than he said you can’t expect hollywood’s budget on this film but it was great with what he had to work with, better than most..Good grief ever seen beauty and the beast or that hideous Anxiously Engaged? give the man his props ;O)

  8. An opinon is arbitrary when it, in essence, comes out of the blue. Not based on any consensus or survey or any data gathering. Just one man’s opinion. Nothing wrong with that. That’s generally how we all do blogs. But since I have received very little criticism of the music in my film, I would consider a lone opinion to the contrary an arbitrary or one-sided opinion. I hope that’s the proper dictionary usage.

    The Book of Mormon may not claim that Indians are the direct descendants of the Lamanites, but the Doctrine and Covenants do make this claim. Remember the mission of Oliver Cowdery to Missouri? These Native Americans are definitely referred to as descendants of Lamanites. Again, we can interpret this too broadly. This does not necessarily mean that Eskimos are Lamanites. Nor does it mean that Crow or Shoshoni are Lamanites. Only that those Indians in the Mississipi Valley may have had Lamanite roots. Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to assume that the blood of the Lamanites flows in the veins of many Native American tribes.

    Keep in mind that the Book of Mormon offers many hints that the Nephites and Lamanites intermingled with the native peoples when they arrived. Heck, they were having civil wars within the first generation! If it was just Lehi’s descendants, wouldn’t that have been more accurately called a family feud? Also, recall that during the reign of Jacob, a brother of Nephi, an anti-Christ named Sharem came among them. No one seems to know the origin of Sherem. Yet we are still in the time period of first generation Nephites. Sherem, I believe, was not related to Lehi or Laman or anyone else on that boat. There are many, many more clues that indicate that Nephites and Lamanites intermingled. (And we know for a fact that Jaredites still populated the lands.) I believe the picture would be much clearer if Martin Harris hadn’t lost the first 116 pages of manuscript. This 116 pages would have covered Mormon’s condensed history of the Nephites all the way to the days of King Benjamin. Hey, maybe this will show up one day. In the meantime, we have scholarship and our natural intelligence to guide us. Hopefully those are always further enhanced by faith.

    It is correct that the Church has made no official stand on Book of Mormon lands, but so many General Authorities have been on tours down there, including Pres. Hinckley and his wife, that it’s obvious that most would lean toward Central America as Nephite and Lamanite territory. Howard W. Hunter, a strong proponant of BYU’s New World Archeological Foundation, made many specific statements wherein he referred to Native Americans from that region to be descendants of Lehi. The most “authoritative” statement I suppose comes from Joseph Smith in an editorial that he wrote for the LDS periodical “Times and Seasons” in 1842, wherein he compared Stephen’s books and drawings on ruins in Central America as having potential correlation with the Book of Mormon. So even Joseph Smith was speculating, and did not seek or report any specific revelation on the matter.

    I do feel that all of my research into Book of Mormon geography has created in me an overwhelming appreciation of the sacred volume, and afforded me much highly in-depth study. I doubt I would have done this if some revelation had “held my hand” and pointed out precise locations. It’s a natural inclination for the saints to wonder where these events took place. I think the Lord keeping us somewhat in the dark regarding the exact location of Zarahemla may be deliberate. It encourages us delve more deeply into the scriptures and glean much more from the doctrinal or spiritual message than we otherwise might.

    Thanks for all your comments.

  9. Who’s trying? we are all trying as LDS members to teach people that you do not need a “place” to prove the BOM is real..People can’t seem to understand that when given too much “specific” information about something you are no longer working on faith and your Agency is lost.

    If you believe in the BOM with only your prayers and the Holy Ghost then you believe in it with faith and with your full agency..Anti’s do not get that.

    so when you say:

    “I think the Lord keeping us somewhat in the dark regarding the exact location of Zarahemla may be deliberate. It encourages us delve more deeply into the scriptures and glean much more from the doctrinal or spiritual message than we otherwise might”

    The anti’s wont believe a word of it and will call it a cop out.

  10. Denice:

    If the antis give you trouble, ask them to show you even one shred of widely-accepted physical proof of Jesus’s existence, or Peter’s, or Paul’s.

    Or the Buddha’s, for that matter.

    For people of faith proof of one’s belief’s doesn’t come from the ground.

    If it did, we’d all be practicing the religions of the Summerians or Egyptians.

  11. Thanks Paul..They don’t have a problem believing Jesus existed because it is in the bible and according to them all of our answers to our problems can be found in the bible period..the BOM according to some is just something written to fools others…ya know it came out of old joe’s head. Now at least the athiest do not believe anything.. bible nor bom..because they want proof of everything..oh my you should hear some of the athiest chant, well if there is a GOD why should he punish me just because I don’t believe in him..what kind of GOD is that? He gives me no proof he exists and then punishes me for not believing. (shakes head) I love Chri’s “how can you live after the savior and not believe in him” I am not sure if that is word for word but you know wha I mean and I agree.

  12. Hi Denice:

    Of course you’re right. The mainstream Christians all have the benefit of unquestioning belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

    But it wasn’t always so.

    Beginning with Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1798-1801, when he took dozens of scholars with him, and which culminated in the finding and translation of the Rosetta Stone, believing Christians streamed into the Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East looking for proof in the ground of the Old and New Testaments.

    What they found rocked the Christian faithful in the middle 1800s. Instead of archeological proof they found that a bunch of Biblical stories seemed to have their foundations in the older Middle Eastern cultures; the Deluge, for instance.

    Around the same time, Darwin published his theory on natural selection and between the two tectonic shifts, thinking Christians of the day were in a quandary about what to think about the Bible.

    Where their descendents of today landed was that the proof of the truth of the Bible was in the book itself and in the living of its precepts.

    It’s the same with us Mormons. The truth of the Book of Mormon isn’t likely to be found in Central or South American archeological digs; it’s in the Book itself.

    My view is that the Book of Mormon doesn’t have any problems that a few hundred more years won’t solve.

    That’s not to say that mainstream Christians of the year 2208 will believe in the BoM and the Restored Gospel. Only that they won’t have the energy to oppose it and the 100s of millions who do believe it.

  13. I hope time also does away with this whole “dark skin” does not matter how many times you tell people that there were dark skin members who received the priesthood before 1978 they don’t believe it..the keep quoting BY’s Journal’s speech about “flat nose & dark skin” like it was doctrine.. but they never quote BY’s other words about whites been cursed for keeping slaves unless they repent..they just read what they want to gets so tiring trying to explain it to Non-members, Members who have left the church and Members in the church who are dark skin but still struggle with it and they don’t want their kids around it..Seriously this whole “the BOM is racist” is getting old.

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