Warning: Plot spoilers follow.
Tonight my girlfriend and I attended an advance screening of the forthcoming movie, Emma Smith: My Story. It was, to say the least, better than we had expected. I’m not a film critic, so I cannot critique the movie based on editing, music, camera angles, or even dialogue. However, none of these more aesthetic characteristics stuck out as being “bad” to me, despite being told before hand that the movie was still very rough. If I came into this movie with little historical background on Emma Smith’s life, I would probably have enjoyed the show with no complaints.
As I noted in my post describing the trailer, it’s obvious that the Church has had a hand in the making of Emma Smith: My Story. The same actors, sets, costumes, and even some outtakes are identical in both this film and Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. Even if the Church did not provide direct funding for this feature, the donation of these items no doubt saved Candlelight Media Group a great deal of money. The film was produced by the Joseph and Emma Smith Historical Society, an organization that is dedicated to collecting and preserving historical and family materials that are not in the possession of either the LDS Church or the Community of Christ.
The film is retrospective, portraying Emma during the 1860s narrating to her adult adopted daughter Julia the story of Emma’s life with Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. It should be noted that Emma seems more real in this movie than her character in Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. In the previous movie, Emma was portrayed as always being well-groomed, with perfect hair regardless of her circumstances. In Emma Smith: My Story, Emma is shown as actually sweating and being dirty. This sense of of being an actual person well supports the central theme of the movie—Emma’s search for strength through trials such as losing children and the Church’s early persecutions. It is apparent that Julia has had a hard life, and is therefore learning from Emma what it means to be strong and faithful.
As should be expected in a commercial film, there were several mistakes in chronology and fact. However, of much more interest to me was how the filmmakers dealt with Emma’s struggles with Joseph’s polygamy, her falling out with Brigham Young, her marriage to Lewis C. Bidamon, and her involvement with her son Joseph Smith III and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
To my surprise, polygamy was not ignored, but received one comment near the end of the movie. Julia asks her mother how she dealt with the revelation on polygamy (D&C 132). Emma admits to having struggled with it, but concludes that it was of God and even testifies of it. The focus is on the revelation itself, and there is no specific reference to Joseph’s actual plural wives. This, of course, is highly strange, considering the fact that Emma denied until the day of her death that her first husband practiced polygamy, so to have her testifying of the document that justified the practice of plural marriage is, to say the least, historical implausible. The studio promises that in the DVD extras, there will be a discussion of Emma’s struggles with polygamy.
The movie contained a single reference to Emma’s decision not to follow Brigham Young. “It is true that Brigham Young and I have not always seen eye to eye, but when it came to Joseph, we agreed.” That’s it. There’s no discussion of her disputes with Young following Joseph’s death in 1844 or her efforts during subsequent decades to argue that Young was the author of the practice of polygamy as well as an usurper of authority. Likewise I believe that the DVD extras will treat these struggles.
Emma’s marriage to Lewis C. Bidamon is referenced briefly at the beginning of the movie. Although the script writers acknowledged that she was happy with him, the emphasis is that Bidamon could not replace Joseph. Bidamon is portrayed as a drunkard and an adulterer, while Emma is shown as being forgiving and loving and even taking in and caring for the illegitimate son that was the fruit of her husband’s infidelity.
Joseph Smith III is portrayed only as a child. There is no mention of the younger Joseph’s acceptance of leadership of the Reorganized Church in 1860 or Emma’s role in the debates and battles between the Josephites and the Brighamites during the nineteenth century.
I realize that no movie can convey everything in a person’s life. But I find it instructive to examine what was included and what was not. The burden of the narrative lies squarely on Emma’s life with Joseph Smith, hence my titling this review Emma Smith: A Really Great Catch. If this movie had been made thirty years ago, it likely would have reflected the politics of memory that has played out historically between the Mountain Saints and the Prairie Saints. But there is no attempt to favor either the Brighamite claims to authority or the Josephite narrative, which I believe reflects recent changes in the relationship between the two churches.
Overall, I enjoyed the show. I found myself inspired by Emma Smith’s life and the strength that the filmmakers convey. As an added treat, we sat behind venerated historian Larry C. Porter and his wife. I look forward to the film’s release in spring 2008.