New book tries to identify Latter-day Saint-appropriate films

Napoleon Dynamite cast

Napoleon Dynamite cast. Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Trying too hard to tease morals out of great films is a bit like attempting to describe an unseen comic strip in words or explaining why a joke is funny. Perhaps it can be done, but it almost always comes off as quite awkward.

Utah-based marriage and family therapist and movie critic, Jonathan Decker‘s new book 250 Great Movies for Latter-day Families (Cedar Fort) suffers from just that awkwardness.

Early on, Decker notes that morally-good films aren’t the same as ones with artistic merit. “[W]hat makes something ‘good’ is not simply whether or not it is ‘clean,’ but also whether it brings us closer to Christ,” he writes. “In seeking out media, we Latter-day Saints often look for what is absent (sex, nudity, profanity, violence, and so on) and make our decisions that way. While this is important, we may not look enough at what is present in the media we choose.”

Films shouldn’t only be inoffensive, but should also uplift the soul or else they are “the equivalent of cotton candy; it’s not terribly bad for you, but it’s not very good either,” he adds.

But in Decker’s search for films that affirm religious ideals, and portray men and women of faith as heroes, rather than falling prey to the trend of depicting them as “idiots, hypocrites, and fanatics,” he arrives at some estimations that are akin to explaining the punchline.

A message to discuss about 101 Dalmatians, for example, comes from Ecclesiastes 4: 9–12, “There is strength in numbers, unity, and teamwork,” he writes, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, like Genesis 1:10, 21–22 before it, instructs, “The oceans and the wonders therein are creations of God.” Mary Poppins, incidentally, has “accidental alcohol consumption.”

And Robin Hood teaches “That which is wrong under one circumstance may be, and often is, right under another,” as Joseph Smith put it, as documented in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, edited by Dean C. Jessee.

Decker’s book, as is to be expected given his audience, is heavy on films that pay particular attention to the Mormon faith, but the work is to be praised for not only hawking the 1999 PBs film American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith, but also the much more difficult Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.

Recommending that viewers learn from Beauty and the Beast to see beyond one’s outward appearance and consider their heart (1 Samuel 16:7) and from Casablanca to remain faithful is innocent enough, even if it is the epitome of a safe interpretation of a film.

And if Napoleon Dynamite, which was directed by two Brigham Young University alumni and stars a third, gets extra treatment, that’s also predictable, even if it comes with a caveat: “Though it may take multiple viewings to settle into the film’s unique rhythm (there’s almost no driving force to the plot), those who do will find it oddly endearing and ridiculously funny.”

The book’s treatment of Fiddler on the Roof, which it calls a “masterpiece of a musical finds a family of Russian Jews in the early 1900s dealing with social upheaval, persecutions, and challenges to their faith and traditions,” is a bit more surprising.

“It is natural and right for children to leave their parents and build a life with their spouses (Genesis 2:24),” according to Decker. “We can, and should, speak with the Lord as intimately as we would with a friend (exodus 33:11). We ought not cast out those who stray from the faith (3 Nephi 18:29–32).”

Not casting out those who stray from the faith is one thing, but recommending a film to the faithful that celebrates the straying from the faith is another altogether. If one examines the Nephi citation, as well, the passage in question from Fiddler takes on additional significance.

Tevye comes in his own way to accept his daughter Chava’s marriage to Fyedka, a Christian, which is anathema to his faith, particularly amidst Christian persecution of Jews leading up to their banishment. The Nephi quote advises that the religious not banish the unbeliever, but instead “ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; and if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood.”

Chava becoming Christian, then, might be quite in line with the Nephi quote after all.

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