Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ron Howard & Brian Grazer adapt Mormon murder mystery in 'Under the Banner of Heaven'

By Sarah Sluis

Jon Krakauer is one stellar author. His nonfiction books combine gripping tales of adventure and tragedy with well-researched background information that offers incredible insight about the environment and history of his characters. They've also become movie fodder. 2007's Into the Wild, about a young man Under-the-banner-of-heaven who lived a vagabond life before dying in Alaska, was nominated for two Oscars. Into Thin Air, the more successful book, has a less successful life on film. ABC turned it into a 1997 TV movie, but the movie was more of a cultural catalyst. Programs like Discovery Channel's "Everest: Beyond the Limit" mine the same content as Krakauer's book. Now the production team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have set their sights on a film version of Krakauer's 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven. But it won't be an easy book to adapt.

Under the Banner of Heaven is both an incredibly readable history of the Mormon religion as well as the story of two fundamentalist Mormon brothers who killed their younger brother's wife and infant daughter. Among Mormons (though not an official part of current, mainstream LDS religion), there is a principle called blood atonement which mandates that blood must be spilled in order to atone for certain crimes. The men believed that the brutal killing was commanded by God and would serve as atonement for the wife's "sin." Her crime? The brothers maintained that young wife's influence led the elder brother's wife to leave him when he wanted to take a second wife.

The obvious choice is for the adaptation to drop the history altogether and focus on the murder. However, in the wake of the success of the Broadway play The Book of Mormon, I wouldn't be surprised if the producing duo had something else in mind. At the very least, they will need to provide context for the principle of blood atonement.

Dustin Lance Black has been tapped to pen the screenplay, and he just might be the perfect man for the job. Professionally, his expertise is in biographical films, including Milk and the upcoming J. Edgar. He also grew up Mormon, giving him a uniquely personal insight into Mormonism's religious culture. It's no wonder that he was a writer/co-producer/director on the HBO series "Big Love."

I look forward to seeing Under the Banner of Heaven on the big screen. "Big Love" has a soap opera take on polygamy, but I hope Black turns this tale as dark as he can--I'm thinking Boys Don't Cry and Zodiac, not Fargo.

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