Island of Grace is the “Christian-ified” version of the film Rescued (one of Candlelight Media’s dual release films discussed in a previous post). While I wasn’t a huge fan of Rescued, I was curious about the differences and decided to re-watch both films to see what changes were worthy of note.
You may ask: why? Why spend time looking at differences between versions of an admittedly obscure film that wasn’t going to find a large audience in either LDS or “Christian” form?
I believe there are larger issues at play here. The marketing decision to create alternate versions of Rescued for different audiences raises questions about how LDS film fits within the genre of “Christian” film, if at all. Aren’t LDS films “Christian” films already? If not, how do the two approaches differ? Using Rescued and Island of Grace as a case study, I’ll look at some specific differences and then try to make some larger points about LDS filmmaking philosophy.
Rescued and Island of Grace are 95% the same, only with a few scenes and snippets of dialogue changed. My initial Rescued review still adequately covers the plot and the spiritual elements: Megan, Mark, and Chris are stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. Chris is the faithful LDS, Megan less so, and Mark has no particular beliefs. The focus of the film is the love triangle between the three, along with Chris’s encouragement of Megan to become more faithful in her church activity.
Some specific differences, along with commentary:
Rescued: Chris tells Megan he was impressed by how she read The Book of Mormon at lunch every day, which led directly to his conversion and baptism.
Island of Grace: “The Bible” is substituted for “The Book of Mormon”.
Not a surprising change, although this edit helps support the Evangelical belief that Mormons view the Book of Mormon as the “replacement” for the Bible, rather than a complement. Since this sequence doesn’t include any specific passages from either the Bible or the Book of Mormon, the LDS version could also have just used “The Bible” for consistency, right?
Rescued: At the airport, Chris catches Megan drinking coffee and gives her the LDS ‘stare of disapproval’.
Island of Grace: This scene is cut entirely.
However, that in itself is telling. If the original scene was detached from the core of the story and unnecessary in the non-LDS version, is it necessary in the LDS version? If Megan drinking coffee obviously has no connection to her spiritual journey for a Baptist or Presbyterian viewer, are we sure it has a connection to her LDS spiritual journey either?
A film that believes in obedience to the Word of Wisdom as a universal spiritual principle applicable to everyone (rather than just something that LDS need to follow because they’re LDS) should support that idea within its run-time. By doing so, perhaps those hypothetical Baptist or Presbyterian viewers who have never thought about coffee (or alcohol) from a spiritual perspective might start to after seeing the film. Dropping this scene in the “Christian” version implies it has little place or meaning within the LDS version either.
Rescued: Mark comments that his primary complaint about religion is that “God asks for too much time”.
Island of Grace: [Cut entirely]
Another edit that’s telling from an LDS standpoint. “God asks for too much time” is likely not even in the top 20 reasons a “non-believer” might object to traditional Christianity, which doesn’t require a lot of time commitment from even the faithful members. As before, there’s no follow-up dialogue in the LDS version to either support or refute Mark’s comment. As with the coffee, the absence of this scene in Island of Grace presents an indictment of that scene being included in the LDS version in the first place. Does God “ask for more time” from non-LDS Christians? Are there spiritual benefits for non-LDS to spending more time on church matters (even though they’ve already been “saved”)?
If the film wants to present that idea as a primary or secondary theme, it needs support. Most people would agree that an active, practicing Latter-Day Saint spends more time on “church stuff” than the average practicing Catholic or Protestant. Is that extra time valuable or unnecessary? Dropping the subject in the non-LDS version implies the latter.
Rescued: At the end, Megan says to Chris: “I may have opened your eyes to the gospel, but you showed me how to live it.”
Island of Grace: Megan says instead: “I may have opened your eyes to accepting Jesus Christ, but you showed me how much He really matters.”
In general, Island of Grace adds a handful of mentions of Jesus Christ by name to the screenplay, whereas Rescued had none. References to “joining the Church” become “accepting Christ” and so forth.
The obvious question: why wouldn’t the emphasis of the original be on Jesus Christ, with instances of His name occurring naturally? Imagine if an Evangelical reviewer saw both versions of the film and described to a friend what the differences were: “Oh, the Mormon version is the same story just with all the references to Jesus Christ removed.”
Read that sentence again. Is this supposed to convince other religions that Mormons are Christian?
Rescued’s Tagline: “She showed him the gospel. He showed her how to live it.”
Island of Grace’s Tagline: “Danger threatens them. Faith comforts them. Grace can save them.”
Noting that the DVD cover taglines are almost certainly NOT written by the director or the screen-writer, the Island of Grace tagline has no relationship with the content of the movie: the concept of “grace” is never mentioned and even the idea that faith has “comforted” Chris (or Megan) has no support. (Chris prays on his own in the film, but never talks about prayer bringing him peace or giving him a firm conviction that they will be saved from the island eventually.) Both versions of Rescued seem to miss the obvious spiritual parallel of being stranded on a island and needing outside assistance to be rescued, with being in sin and needing the help of Jesus Christ and the Atonement.
The use of “grace” in the title and tagline appears to be just a marketing ploy for Christian viewers through an attractive “buzzword”, even though it’s not reflected in the content. The Rescued tagline (coming directly from dialogue within the film) seems to be the more honest version.
Interestingly, even dialogue that doesn’t change between versions can have alternate interpretations depending on the differing contexts. At the end, Megan seeks to reconcile with Chris and tells him “I was doing all the wrong things” and needed him to tell her so. What exactly were “the wrong things”?
The LDS version places its emphasis on obedience to outward commandments — attending church and avoiding coffee. With the coffee element cut (and the church attendance downplayed) a new theme comes to the fore in Island of Grace: being open about one’s faith with others. Megan hides her beliefs and church involvement from her co-workers, thinking it will hurt her popularity and chances for company advancement. Chris encourages her to be more steadfast about her beliefs among her co-workers, just as she once was with him. The LDS version emphasizes Megan’s spirituality (so to speak) as an individual and her shortcomings in obedience, while the alternate version emphasizes her relationships with others as an open Christian — an area where the removal of some unnecessary LDS subtext actually improves Island of Grace by focusing the theme.
Well, almost… Unfortunately, Island of Grace‘s narrower focus doesn’t make sense when removed from an LDS context. In the traditional Christian view, Megan has accepted Christ and is already “saved”; whether she attends church meetings or tells her co-workers about her beliefs is irrelevant. The subtext of Chris encouraging her to be open with her beliefs is in relation to others: as Chris was once converted after seeing how Megan lived her Christian beliefs, so she should still be living her religion so their other non-Christian co-workers can be “saved” as well.
However, one of those non-Christian co-workers (Mark) happens to be on the island with them and yet Mark’s spirituality (or even an attempt to answer Mark’s religious questions) is nowhere on the film’s radar. I would have to believe a non-LDS Christian filmmaker who approached this same story would have made Mark’s conversion the focus of the plot, not Megan’s.
LDS / Christian Filmmaking: Why This Matters
What can we learn from the Rescued / Island of Grace experience about LDS and Christian filmmaking?
The fact that any LDS filmmaker would feel the need to create a “Christian” version of any LDS film when LDS films are ostensibly supposed to be Christian to begin with sends entirely the wrong message. The existence of Island of Grace (let alone the use of fake names and the complete absence of references to “Jesus Christ” in one version but not the other) basically confirms what the hardcore Evangelical community has always believed about Mormons != Christians. Shouldn’t LDS films stand on their own as “Christian” films without needing any changes whatsoever? If not, why not?
(Imagine if LDS missionaries were given “Christian-ified” versions of the Book of Mormon with doctrinal elements altered to conform to more mainstream Evangelical Biblical interpretations. Even if that proved to be more effective in attracting Evangelical converts, wouldn’t this be an admission that the Church didn’t think the Book of Mormon was “Christian” enough on its own? What would those converts think when they learned about the *real* Book of Mormon and wondered why the alternate version existed in the first place?)
One common Evangelical stereotype of Mormons is that everything Mormon-related — whether Sunday services, books, commercials, or feature films — is designed to entice and ensnare non-Mormons into our ‘trap’. Ironically — as anyone with actual LDS experience can attest — reality is the opposite: LDS culture is frequently so insular that non-LDS have difficulty understanding what’s going on, even when they are trying.
While progress has been made in recent years (nixing self-indulgent missionary farewells, for example), sacrament talks during church services all too frequently are centered around Church policies and programs rather than gospel principles, such that non-members attending the meetings can’t penetrate the terminology or find the link (if there is one) to salvation and personal spirituality. (A good check: during the next few sacrament meetings, ask yourself “If I was a non-member and I was attending church for the first time, would this talk mean anything to me?” )
Many LDS films fall into this same pattern: instead of creating a message with LDS themes and principles accessible and meaningful to non-LDS, LDS films tend to be just as insular. Why is it important that Rowe — the returned missionary from Return With Honor — convince his mother to join the Church? Why is it important that the missionaries in One Man’s Treasure find the investigator family at the end? Even films like the most recent Joseph Smith movie seem to be written where only long-time members will know enough of the historical background to follow what’s going on, even though the Joseph Smith story sounds like it should have been an ideal introduction point for non-LDS to enter the LDS world.
It’s true that many Evangelical Christians will reject LDS film blindly for being “LDS” film whether it presents an authentically Christian message or not. (See this thread and the comments following it as a common example.) However, many non-LDS are less militant about accepting Mormons (and Mormon film) as good-faith Christians and would provide not only a larger potential audience, but “witnesses” within their own religious communities of LDS film’s Christian bonafides.
But of course that only works if LDS film is accessible enough to begin with for those non-LDS viewers to understand. Candlelight Media obviously recognizes the larger potential audience, but changing the content to attract “Christian” viewers is an admission that the original film doesn’t stand on its own as “Christian”, which is a problem when even those more open-minded Christian viewers can find out about the existence of the original film and legitimately ask, “why?”. If LDS film is, in fact, sharing meaningful and authentic Christian messages, then we should have the faith to let those messages stand on their own, even if the number of non-LDS who find the film are few. (No different than the LDS approach to missionary work. Let the message speak for itself, and let those that will hear, hear.) If LDS film is NOT sharing meaningful and authentic Christian messages then something is wrong, and we might question the filmmakers’ approach to the material to begin with.
Does this mean movies from LDS filmmakers should be avoiding all unique LDS content for accessibility purposes? Not at all. LDS content is the most unique element that LDS filmmakers have to offer, and presenting strange cultures and new settings is, in fact, one of the strengths of film in the first place. The point is filmmakers need to consider how that LDS content is presented, especially from the non-member perspective. Those glimpses into unfamiliar worlds need to be written and directed so that neophyte viewers can understand the world and the motivations of the movie characters better, without being impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t already a part of the community.
“LDS” and “Christian” filmmaking doesn’t need to be an ‘either/or’. Amy and Shawn Kenney (for example) are LDS filmmakers who seek to create positive, spiritual films that are generally applicable to LDS and non-LDS Christians alike. They seem to be the perfect bridge between “LDS” and “Christian” film, but take note of Shawn Kenney’s quote from the article:
The difference between a Mormon film and a Christian film is that one is geared to an LDS audience, usually with subject matter or references that are uniquely LDS, while a Christian film is faith based, it is inspirational, not necessarily denominational. A Christian film may appeal to those of many different religions and backgrounds, whereas a Mormon film may not be completely understood by those without some Mormon background.
Who says that LDS film *can’t* also be “faith-based”, “inspirational”, and “appeal to those of many different religions and backgrounds” while coincidentally featuring LDS characters and philosophy? Why does there need to be a clear demarcation between “Mormon film” and “Christian film” in the first place, such that LDS filmmakers like the Kenney’s feel the need to choose one side or the other? LDS filmmakers should not need to avoid all specific LDS doctrine and terminologies altogether to make a “Christian” film, but just ask the question: is my film crafted to make the story and message understandable to all audiences regardless of religious background?
LDS Film: Preaching to the Choir?
One last point: Sean Means, film critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, has commented on why locally released LDS films haven’t tended to be very good:
Microscopic budgets and amateur production values occasionally played a part – though that didn’t explain it. (Lack of resources doesn’t keep a great many great movies to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival every year.) No, the main reason is that too many Mormon filmmakers are more concerned about being Mormons than being filmmakers – and promoting the faith takes precedence over telling a compelling story.
Taking Means’ comment a step further: I’m not sure LDS filmmakers are being successful ‘promoting the faith’ either, in the sense that the LDS content in films is often taken for granted without support or defense. Are LDS films persuasively presenting LDS principles to LDS audiences (let alone non-LDS ones), or are they simply “preaching to the choir” — providing a message that has no impact on anyone who didn’t walk into the theater sharing the filmmakers’ religious assumptions?
Why is Megan drinking coffee in Rescued significant even to an LDS viewer? What if there are LDS members (and there are) who identify more with Megan than Chris, feeling that obedience to minor commandments and the major LDS time commitments don’t have a direct connection with spirituality (as their absence in the “Christian” version implies)? Why does Lisa — the main character in Once Upon A Summer — quit her job and let her husband work outside the home, and why is that decision the “correct” one? Why is it important that Aaron’s 23-year-old daughter get married in the temple in One Good Man even though it excludes her fiance’s non-LDS parents from attending the ceremony?
If any LDS has questions about these principles (or seeks for a helpful example to defend those principles to friends and family), they won’t be able to point to the above films, all of which present those decisions without discussion or analysis. “Promoting the faith” can also mean defending LDS principles to LDS themselves. Movies are designed for entertainment, sure, but are also tools of communication. A film does not have to be specifically created to “change people’s minds” on a matter, but history contains many significant films that were effective in “changing people’s minds” regardless. LDS film can also be a tool to introduce and explain LDS doctrine and philosophy within real-life scenarios that viewers can identify with, even if they are not in the “choir”. LDS film shouldn’t be just a medium that LDS audiences depend on only for passable entertainment without profanity, sex, or violence that doesn’t do anything more than confirm things they already believed.
Rescued was obviously not created (nor should it be judged) to be the epitome and primary representative for LDS film as a genre. There are other films that serve as better examples of what LDS film can accomplish. The alternate versions of Rescued, however, do form a good case study in looking at Christian and LDS filmmaking in general and how to approach it. As part of developing messages and themes accessible for non-Mormons, LDS film should ask some basic questions: what is the purpose of LDS film? What is the audience? What are the common struggles and benefits that being LDS bring, and how can we portray them accurately and effectively onscreen? What basic message can non-LDS learn here that would help them better understand LDS philosophy and religious thought (even if they disagree themselves)? Does this film present a “Christian message” — an introduction / reinforcement of gospel principles and teachings of Jesus Christ that viewers of any church could respond to? Are LDS doctrine and cultural interpretations supported or just assumed?
In short, wouldn’t the ideal future of LDS film be where an “Island of Grace” version never exists? Can LDS film reach a point where each film stands on its own, inside and outside the Church, without needing tweaks to be considered “Christian”?