SALT LAKE CITY — An old PBS documentary has been remade into a docudrama to present new information and bring the Joseph Smith story to life for viewers.
In cooperation with WETA, the flagship public broadcaster in Washington, D.C., co-directors Lee Groberg and Mark Goodman have taken the 1999 film "Joseph Smith: American Prophet" and created a version with dramatic scenes, new interviews with religious scholars and the latest research on Joseph's life.
The 86-minute film does keep the narrated voice of Academy Award-winning actor Gregory Peck as it chronicles the polarizing life of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Heidi S. Swinton, who wrote the original version, co-wrote the new version with Mitch Davis. The film will be shown on PBS channels around the country in October.
"This is not your Sunday School version of the story of Joseph Smith," Goodman told a packed theater audience at Jordan Commons last Friday. "Because it was done for PBS television, we have to be balanced. You will hear those who don't believe and you will hear those who do believe. We were careful to tell the story in a balanced, accurate and fair way."
Groberg, who directed the 2011 three-part series "Fires of Faith," said the idea to relaunch the film came more than a year ago. WETA agreed it was a good idea, but when the men looked in a vault the original 16-millimeter film, they couldn't find it.
"We figured an angel must have taken it because it forced us to redo the film," Groberg said with a grin.
The missing film gave the filmmakers the opportunity to add new elements in telling the story. In addition, citing journal entries and scholarly interviews, audiences will see dramatized scenes of Joseph translating the Book of Mormon by looking at a seer stone in a hat, being pulled out of his home at night to be tarred and feathered, shivering in the Liberty Jail, speaking to his wife about polygamy, and being martyred at Carthage Jail, among others.
"Joseph Smith’s Mormonism emerged as a new American religion during a time of spectacular religious fervor," Groberg said. "Perhaps no other time and place could have produced such a homegrown prophet and movement. His life and era offer a fascinating glimpse into a young nation coming to grips with its first freedom. We are thrilled to work with WETA, which has long been an important producer for public television stations, to bring this story to viewers around the country."
Actors John Foss and Anna Daines play the roles of Joseph and Emma Smith. The two had previously worked together for an LDS Church film that is shown at its Priesthood Restoration Site in Oakland Township, Pennsylvania.
"This film touches on a lot of things without diving too deep, but I think it presents an interesting case on Joseph Smith and is a good introduction for people who don’t really know a lot about him," said Foss, who played the role of Jesus Christ in the LDS Bible videos.
Among the historians and religious scholars interviewed for the film are author and Columbia University professor Richard L. Bushman; Joseph Smith Papers Editor Ronald K. Esplin; Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard University; Washington University's Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp; the late Robert V. Remini of the University of Illinois at Chicago; Messiah University's Richard T. Hughes; John G. Turner of George Mason University; and Richard E. Turley Jr., director of LDS Church Public Affairs and former assistant church historian and recorder.
"Do I personally believe? No. I have no evidence for that," Remini said in the film. "However, you can say, look what he did. Is one human capable of doing this without divine help and intervention?"
"Joseph Smith had a vision and some folks agreed with that vision, caught the vision, endorsed and worked for it," Esplin said in the film. "Others were repelled by it."
Two LDS apostles, Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, were also interviewed for the film. In 1979, Elder Oaks co-authored a book titled "Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith." Elder Ballard is a direct descendant of Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum Smith.
"He was a man without any political or administrative experience. He was a man without money. He struggled to support his family throughout his life. He was a man with no background to lead one to believe that he'd be able to found a church, establish a doctrinal foundation, assemble remarkable people to be leaders in that church, send missionaries to different corners of the earth and lead the church from one place to another under immense persecution," Elder Oaks said in the film.
"Our scholars we selected had some incredible things to say. With the benefit of 'Rough Stone Rolling' and the 'Joseph Smith Papers,' we have new scholarship that is very enlightening," Groberg said. "It's a real blessing to us to have access to that."
Turley thought the new version of the film was considerably better, he said.
"I think it’s a fine combination of dramatization and historical commentary by fine scholars," Turley said. "I think it’s a film that can be enjoyed by the broader public, but that also makes it a consistent effort to try to stay as close to the facts as it can. There is some dramatic license but it’s not unreasonable."
The production included more than 40 days of shooting, 70 cast members, 275 features, extras and background, along with 55 crew members. They compiled 34 hours of footage, including 12 hours of interviews, before condensing it down to 86 minutes, Goodman said.
Seated among the large crowd at the premiere were more than 10 general authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Elder Hugo E. Martinez of the Seventy and his wife. Elder Martinez, a fan of PBS, said he thought the film's balance and transparency give it added credibility.
"I really liked it," Elder Martinez said. "I think it’s accurate in the portrayal of the history as has been documented. ... It should be right for everybody to watch and gain their own understanding."
Viewers should check local listings for airtimes. KBYU will have the program on Sunday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m. (all times MT); Monday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 12, 1 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 4:30 p.m.