"God's Army" is once again bringing the missionary experience to the masses -- but this time through a novel based on the movie, written by former BYU student Geoffrey Card, son of author Orson Scott Card.
"This book tells it like it is," Card said. "It's basically for anyone who's interested in what Mormon missionary life is really like."
Card, 23 from Greensboro, N.C., said he thinks other returned missionaries will enjoy the novel.
He said it will others them a chance to relive their own mission experiences.
Richard Dutcher, who wrote and starred in the film, said he is pleased with the adaptation.
"Novelizations aren't easy" Dutcher said in a news release. "He was able to expand the movie's plot and characterizations, but still remain faithful to the film."
Card said he was asked to adhere rigidly to the film's plot, so he used the extra space available in the novel to give added insight into the thought processes and feelings of the characters.
He said getting inside the characters' heads when writing was not difficult since he had returned just a year ago from his own Los Angeles-area mission.
"The thought processes of a missionary were still pretty well laid in my mind," Card said. "Sometimes I even had to tone down the lingo so other people would understand."
Card's fresh memory of missionary life is perhaps one of the reasons he was chosen to write the novel.
He initially made contact with Excel Entertainment Group, the distributor for both the film and the novel, to refer them to a review he had written of the film after watching it on opening night.
The company felt Card had a good take on the film, and when they began looking for someone to write the novel, he made the list.
After submitting a few sample scenes adapted from the film, Card said he got Dutcher's backing to do the novel, despite his lack of experience.
"I'm grateful that Richard was willing to give me a shot at doing what I really want for real," Card said.
Although this is his first novel, Card said that apart from briefly entertained childhood dreams of Paleontology and firefighting, a career in writing is what he has always envisioned for himself.
"I grew up in a writer's house, living a writer's life and loved it," he said. "It's nice to be able to create this life for myself."
At age four, he filled a three-ring binder full of short stories he'd written. His interest in the genre continued though high school.
During Card's freshman year at BYU he wrote his first feature-length screenplay. Since he was studying film the medium shift seemed a natural progression, he said.
Since then, Card has written seven feature length screenplays, and is now studying film at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., with a directing emphasis.
"God's Army" marked Card's first return to prose writing in about five years.
"At first I was scared because I knew it had been so long and I didn't know if I could do it," Card said. "But it turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. Prose is probably the medium that flows most naturally out of most writers."
Card said he relied heavily on his family for advice during the yearlong writing process, which involved about four months on the first draft plus two major rewrites.
He said his dad has had "a huge influence" on his writing.
As much as he admires his father's work, though, Geoffrey Card said he hopes to establish a career based on his own abilities and not on his dad's reputation.
"I'm going to be doing my own thing," he said. "I'll probably spend my life making movies, which is something my dad hasn't done yet."
The 200-page novel will be available in bookstores nationwide on Nov. 14.
THE SEARCH FOR A WRITER
After the initial success of God's Army at the box office, a novelization of the story seemed in order, but who could write it? Richard Dutcher began the search for a suitable author.
Geoffrey Card was put on the list of potential authors thanks to an article he had written and posted on the Internet.
"When I first heard about God's Army, I was serving in the Anaheim Mission. I came home in time to see it on opening night at the Academy Theater in Provo. I brought a bunch of mission friends with me, and we spent the whole time cracking mission jokes and high-five-ing each other on the back row. If you went to that showing, I'm sure you remember us.
"I went home really excited. I couldn't stop talking about it. Within days I had written a review of the movie and posted it at www.nauvoo.com. For fun, I sent the URL to the folks at Zion Films, thinking it would amuse then to read yet another positive review.
"What I got back was an invitation from Dean Hale to send in a writing sample. They were looking for someone to novelize the film, and they liked my take on the story. Of course, I hadn't actually written any prose since high school -- all my recent work was in screenplay format -- so I went to see the movie again, adapted a few of the scenes from memory, and sent them in.
"The rest of the story I only got secondhand. Apparently, they narrowed it down to a few applicants, all of them really good writers, and Richard decided that my style was the one he thought would most accurately portray his vision of the film. I feel really lucky to have been chosen, and I have a lot of respect for the other writers who were up for the job."
ADAPTING FROM THE FILM...
Card was faced with the unique challenge of creating a novel from a screenplay, something that rarely occurs in literature. Hollywood produces a myriad of films every year based on successful novels, but the number of novels based on original films each year can probably be counted on one hand.
"My biggest challenge was to preserve the pace while expanding the story," Card says of his unique situation. "Movies, by nature, are much shorter than novels, which is one of their strengths. They are incredibly economical. One of the first lessons a good screenwriter learns is to cut out every single unnecessary detail, no matter how much you love it.
"A screenplay isn't really a story," Card continues. "It's the skeleton of a story, waiting for a hundred people with money and equipment to get together and decide how to finish it.
"The actual God's Army story is really, really short. It contains upwards of six or seven major subplots, but most of them don't get any more than two or three scenes to themselves. Adapted coldly and directly, it would make about an eighty-page novel. But that is a good thing. It means that the audience is never bored. It means they stay riveted to their chairs from the first scene to the last. But it also means that the novelizer will be chained to his office chair for weeks, figuring out how to fill in the gaps.
"The last thing I wanted to do was screw up the pacing and rhythm that Richard had established. I could have filled every page with purple prose going on and on about exactly how red Elder Dalton's tie was that morning. That would have generated a thick stack of paper high enough to rival anything by Robert Jordan. But it would have completely smothered Richard's story.
"Instead, I chose to spend the extra pages afforded by the novel genre tinkering around in the character' heads. While the film God's Army follows Elder Allen very closely for the vast majority of the film, I took the chance to get inside Elder Kinegar, Elder Dalton, President Beecroft, and nearly everyone else, writing their motives and perspectives and internal battles as they try to serve the Lord the best they can. I wove their thoughts in with the action, so the pace rarely stops, yet hopefully the story goes a little deeper and stretches a little further than it could on the screen."
IN THE FAMILY...
Growing up in the home of an award-winning, best-selling author made its impact on young Card. "Storytelling was always a part of our childhood, growing up in a writer's house. I actually think that we had kind of an unfair advantage, actually. Most budding artists I know grow up in environments where the arts are not considered a 'legitimate' sort of career. Their families are confused by their inordinate fascination with 'hobbies' like writing, painting and singing. In my house, it was the opposite. I think my parents would have been confused or frightened if I'd gone into business or law."
Card started writing at a very young age, compiling his first collection of stories when he was just four. "I wouldn't exactly submit then to publishers," says Card, "but at the time I was really proud of them."
Now, as published authors, father and son have even more in common than genetics and a passion for words. Geoffrey Card's novelization of God's Army will hit bookstores about the same time as his dad's latest novel, Rebekah.
Surprisingly, neither has yet read the other's work.
"My father hasn't read the novelization yet," says Geoff Card. "Nor have I read Rebekah, the book he just finished. I think it's going to be fun after our joint signing at Deseret Book for my dad and I to sit down in our newfound spare time and actually read the novels that we've been complaining to each other about for all these months."
THE WRITING PROCESS...
Card found plenty of help in the writing process from his family, even if not directly from his father. "After the first draft, it was my mother who gave me my most valuable initial criticism. She's been doing the same thing for my dad for twenty-five years, so I figured she was a good person to turn to.
"Then, after the second draft, I handed it off to my sister Emily, who did an incredible job of weeding out my inconsistent characters and all kinds of silly mistakes that I never could have found on my own. Emily is an excellent writer, and her work is a lot more poetic and personal than mine, so she is truly an invaluable resource when I'm trying to figure out why my stuff doesn't go over as well as I had intended."
And of course, Card found some help from the creator of God's Army, Richard Dutcher.
"Richard was actually very hands-off on the project. Admirably so. I'm not sure if I could step back and let someone else have at my story the way he did for me. There were a few points where we initially disagreed, but once Richard explained where he was coming from, his story choices made perfect sense and flowed well with what I had already written. I would definitely work with him again if the opportunity arose."
For Card, the most challenging part of the writing process is sitting alone in a room while he organizes the creative thoughts swimming through his head.
"Most writers I know are introverts, and I envy them. I thrive on interaction with other people, and the hardest thing in the world for me is shutting myself away in a cave to write. That's why I'm attending film school now, and spending every spare moment working on student projects. I need to have a career that allows me to interact with other human beings on a near-constant basis.
Card's own mission experiences in Anaheim also significantly shaped his interpretation of the story and the characters. He served in the Anaheim Mission from 1997 to 1999, about the same time as God's Army was being filmed in Los Angeles.
"My old companions are probably going to recognize anecdotes from my mission and raise their eyebrows, wondering if I based any characters on them. So here's the official word. The characters are themselves. I based them on Richard's screenplay and on my own memories of myself as a missionary.
"If you asked me to adapt God's Army today, I couldn't do it nearly as well because I've been home for more than two years. But when I wrote the original manuscript, I was still very much the recently-returned elder. I spoke the lingo, I had the schedule memorized, and I could still teach the discussions from memory. The story is primarily an exploration of mission life. It's a milieu.
"I was able to use a lot of anecdotes from my mission. It was kind of fun, planting little details that only Anaheim missionaries who served with me would recognize. A mission house called the Batcave. A painted-up bike named Legion. A missionary who gets a free car and has to give it back. A Polynesian missionary whaling on some thugs with a knife sticking out of his chest. Not all of it is completely true, but... well, you had to be there."
IN THE FUTURE...
Home from his mission two years, Card is attending Chapman University School of Film and Television where he writes feature-length screenplays and films amateur movies. Most of his work to date has been in screenplays and film.
"I didn't actually write anything I considered 'serious' until I was eighteen. By then, I had been making amateur movies for a couple of years, and had enrolled in BYU's film program (back before it became a 'media arts' program). I knew I wanted to make a feature film, but lacking several million dollars, my only option was to sit down and write one.
"My first script was a terrible post-apocalyptic action flick that hopefully will never be produced. But I learned a lot from the experience. Six scripts and one novel later, I'm a better writer for it.
"Incidentally, that's how I deal with the fact that no matter what, the work I did yesterday will always look sub-par to me today. I just focus on what I'm going to write tomorrow."
Geoffrey Card's father, Orson Scott Card, is one of the most famous science-fiction writers in the world. But few expected Geoff to follow in his dad's footsteps.
"Ever since I was 17 I was pretty sure I didn't want to write novels for a living," Card said in a phone interview from Orange, Calif., where he attends Chapman University School of Film and Television.
But after posting a review of "God's Army" on the Internet, Card was asked to write a novelization of the Richard Dutcher film.
"This opportunity came out of nowhere, so I jumped on it," Card said. "Actually, I intend to write movies. I'm studying to be a director. I've been making amateur movies with friends since I was 16. None of my screenplays have been produced yet, but I'm working on it."
Card was serving an LDS mission in Anaheim when "God's Army" was released. "When I got home, I went to the movie and sat with a lot of other former California missionaries. We kept high-fiving each other. Then afterward, I wrote a very positive review of the movie and posted it on the Internet at Nauvoo.com."
A representative from Excel Publications saw the review and called Card and asked if he would be interested in writing the novelization. Although the company considered several potential authors, they thought Card's style captured "the feel" they were after.
Card spent four months writing the first draft, then adjusted it and rewrote parts of it to conform to criticisms made by his editor at Excel. It took him a year to finish the product.
"I had only been home from my mission a year when I started writing, so my mission 'lingo' was fresh in my head. After the editor saw the first draft, I had to tone down that lingo, because it had to be acceptable to anybody. I was dating a non-Mormon at the time, and so I gave her chapters to read, and she gave me good feedback."
The process of writing the book was chaotic. "They didn't have a final script for the movie, so they put together a transcript, but it had inconsistencies. I was working largely from that, but I also spent a lot of time running back and forth from the room with the computer to the room with the TV, looking at the film. I had never had a serious deadline before. It was stressful."
Most of his own reading had been confined to science fiction and fantasy novels.
Some of Card's own experiences paralleled those in the movie -- both funny and religious. Card said he and his missionary companion once met two "street preachers who taught religion to recovering Satanists and drug addicts. We would teach them something and all of a sudden they would start teaching us. It was insane. One of them said, 'Elders, you may think this is weird, but if we're children of God and a squirrel has baby squirrels, then it's like we're baby Gods!' "
The preachers never joined the LDS Church.
"The most exciting thing to me was seeing people change their lives," said Card. "It's hard to really talk about. The few people who did not like 'God's Army' felt like intruders when the religious scenes played out, as if they were spying on something. In the novel, I found some short cuts around actually using prayers and blessings. You can't do that in a movie unless you have a really annoying voice-over."
Screenwriting, Card says, differs from novel writing in that it requires only "a skeleton of a story. It's distilled down to what happens and why, what people say and what they're doing. So you get a good sense of story structure writing for the screen."
Card said he has ambitions to go the "Quentin Tarantino route -- write a script, then direct it." He does not plan on carving out a Mormon niche the way Dutcher has done. "My faith is not divorced from my work, but most stories I would tell would be about other things."
Yet, he thinks doing the Mormon novel will help his visibility in his field. "I don't think there is so much prejudice against religious work that people will freak out. 'God's Army' (the film) was very well received in Los Angeles. So I see having a published book under my belt helping me get an agent and attention."
Card, who spent most of his youth in North Carolina, attended BYU for two years. He's unsure when he will finish film school because he keeps tackling screenplay projects. Currently, he is busy adapting two of his father's stories -- "Pathwatch" [sic] and "Dogwalker." He credits his father for teaching him how to write.
"My dad talks about storytelling and how it works all the time. He does a workshop called "One Thousand Ideas in an Hour" where he encourages his audience to build their own story. Good storytelling is asking the right questions and knowing when you have the right answers."
There's something funny about Utah. But you already know that.
So does Pat Bagley, political cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune and one who wields a mostly affectionate pen point at his favorite state's foibles. He shares his impressions in his latest stocking-stuffer-sized book of cartoons, Welcome to Utah!, from White Horse Books (paperback, $9.95). It opens showing a roadside sign: "Welcome to Utah*," with the footnote "*A wholly owned and operated subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." If that doesn't make you smile, it probably would be best for you to move on to, say, the cookbook aisle.
Bagley's pen cuts both ways: on one page, a "rogue Utahn" clutches the ankles of a German ski team member and cries out, "Please forgive our 3.2 beer"; on the next page, a man in a group of naked hot-tubbing skiers surrounded by liquor bottles remarks, " 'Repressive' doesn't even begin to describe this place."
And then there is the disappointed couple leaving a movie theater. On the marquee, the words "God's Navy," and the caption: "Sequels are never as good as the original."
Which brings us to another Utah phenomenon: God's Army, the book.
Geoffrey Card makes his literary debut with the novelization of Richard Dutcher's successful film about Mormon missionaries in California. Card has a good pedigree for the job: he himself was a Mormon missionary in California, and also is the son of best-selling Mormon writer Orson Scott Card, author of Ender's Game, among many other books.
Card opens the book with Elder Brandon Allen stepping off his Southwest flight in Los Angeles, with only "a bag of trail mix" in his stomach, and follows Allen's experiences going door to door through the City of Angels. There are funny scenes, like when a potential convert, when grasping the idea of spending eternity with his screaming spouse, decides "I really don't think I'm interested," and more subdued passages of unexpected loss.
The book, in paperback for $14.98, is the first in a planned series from Excel Entertainment Publishing, which this spring will include Burden of Faith and One Soul, based on other Dutcher characters.
Joseph Banks is on another type of mission in A Distant Prayer: Miracles of the 49th Combat Mission (Covenant Books, $17.95). Banks, born and raised in Salt Lake City, had only one more mission to fly in World War II when his B-17 was shot down over Germany. He was the only survivor and spent nine months as a prisoner of war before making his escape. His actions twice earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, according to his book, which he wrote with Jerry Borrowman.
Banks tells his story in a straight-forward manner, with frequent reference to his Mormon faith and praise for the lost members of his crew and those with whom he escaped from the P.O.W. camp (his description of finding some kohlrabies to eat after several days on the run is particularly vivid).
Banks now lives in Florida with his wife, Afton.
Another book, based on both wings and prayers, tells stories from the popular television series "Touched by an Angel," which is filmed in Utah. Executive producer Martha Williamson, head writer for the series, turns 20 episodes of the show into short stories for In the Words of Angels (from Fireside Books, paperback, $12). Readers can find hope and inspiration in the pages, while also counting how many different ways Williamson describes the soft or strange golden light or glow that emanates or shines from the angels when they reveal themselves. Look for Andrew, Monica and Tess on the cover.
SPRINGVILLE -- A novel based on the movie "God's Army" has just been released, and The Read Leaf bookstore is throwing a party to help launch it.
Author Geoffrey Card will be at the store, at 164 S. Main St., Springville, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Then at 7:30, Greg Simpson, who has several songs on the "God's Army" soundtrack, will perform. "God's Army" screenwriter and director Richard Dutcher is also planning to drop by sometime during the evening.
Geoffrey Card, son of Orson Scott Card, grew up on Greensboro, N.C. He served an LDS mission in Southern California -- which is where "God's Army" takes place -- and is now a student at Chapman University School of Film and Television in Orange, Calif.
Greg Simpson has been writing and performing professionally since he was 18. In 1999, the Faith Centered Music Association recognized Simpson's talent with two Pearl Award nominations: Male Recording Artist of the Year and Contemporary Christian Song of the Year ("Throw You a Line"). Simpson has balanced his love of guitars with a commitment to home and family. He and his wife Angie have three sons and a baby girl.
Before discussing the book, Martindale makes some interesting observations, pointing out that Geoffrey Card is the son of Orson Scott Card, who wrote a revolutionary type of novelization -- collaborating with James Cameron on The Abyss. Card greatly expanded upon the concept of film novelization and wrote what really is a film novel, not just a novelization. Card's The Abyss is an excellent novel in its own right, not simply a reformatting of the script. Card worked closely with Cameron and was able to see nearly all the footage from the film before finishing the novel. None of which really has much to do with God's Army (movie or book).
Anyway, Martindale basically comes to the conclusion that he doesn't care for the standard film novelization as a format, because it adds little to the movie, and filters everything through a third party's perspective. He says that Geoffrey Card did a fine job, given the limitations of the format, but what he would really like to see is a novel written by Geoffrey Card from the ground up. He points out that this might not happen, however, because Geoffrey Card is a filmmaker. "We may have to wait for his first feature film to find out what he can do on his own. And wouldn't that be icing on the cake of our spacetime nexus. A groundbreaking LDS film by Geoffrey Card--novelization by Richard Dutcher."
Martindale also manages to include Mad Max, the U.S.S. Enterprise (from "Star Trek") and Ender's Game in his article. Because Martindale goes off on so many tangents, and ends up with speculative musings about what Card and Dutcher might do in the future, this piece can be read partly as a book review, partly as a stream-of-consciousness essay, and partly as a science fiction story.
All in all, I rate "Pod People from a Spacetime Nexus" an "Emerald" on my fictional gem-based scale for reviewing book reviews. Because this is, after all, a review of D. Michael Martindale's review of Geoffrey Card's novelization of Richard Dutcher's remake of Hayao Miyazaki's "Majo no takkyubin."