“When is someone going to make a really great movie about Ellen White?” It’s not as if people haven’t tried over the years, and not just in films. There have been plays written and performed. One person shows. There is an Ellen White impersonator to greet visitors at Elmshaven. There is even an official Ellen White twitter account, tweeting 140 characters’ worth of daily inspiration with nearly 10,000 followers.
In terms of influential spiritual leaders who have left a powerful and enduring legacy, she is in a rather exclusive group. Add gender to your search criteria, and she virtually stands alone. So, why is it seemingly so difficult to create a narrative approach that is both compelling and entertaining, a screenplay that honors yet humanizes such an iconic figure? I have come to believe it is almost purely a matter of scope.
“Arcs” are an important term d’art in film. They are the literary scaffolding screenwriters use to tell stories. Character arcs. Action arcs. An arc is not a geometric term. It is a unit of narrative distance. The distance it takes to move a character from youth to age, from innocence to experience, naïveté to wisdom, riches to ruin. Every major character in a film has an arc. Every plot—or subplot—has an arc. You can graph them. There is even computer software that will help screenwriters plot them out so they span just the right amount of narrative real estate.
At first blush, one could only assume that a story as sweeping and dramatic as Ellen White’s life would have an arc the size of the St. Louis arch. But, ironically, therein lies the problem. It’s not that her story isn’t big enough. The problem is, in many ways, just the opposite. She has become mythologized in a way that has diminished the scale of her humanity, and indie feature films are all about humanity.
Of the half dozen or so Ellen White scripts, treatments and synopses I’ve seen over the years, not to mention ideas and plot points jotted on the back of church bulletins and Marie Callender’s napkins, they all tended to have one thing in common. They tended to deal with major chunks of her life, beginning at the beginning. Along the way, they trafficked heavily in little girls hit in the face with rocks, bulky Bibles held at arm’s length for hours, visions and angels and distraught Yankee farmers sitting on their rooftops waiting for something that never happened. They were the stuff of the Biography Channel. The narrative was linear. The characters flat.
Putting it bluntly, the chances of that kind of approach generating even a ripple of interest in the independent feature film market is discouragingly remote. A linear, pedantic, message-driven narrative about an idealized, spiritual matriarch is about as appealing to the indie film community as reaching for the third rail. It is regarded, at best, as wantonly self-serving and, at worst, as propaganda.
Ironically, the challenge with a filmic treatment of a story like Ellen White’s is one of contraction rather expansion. Of limiting rather than expanding the arc.
I have recently finished a film adaption based on The Pink Lady, Sally Denton’s best-selling biography of Helen Gahagan Douglas, who ran against Richard Nixon in 1950 for the United States Senate. Douglas was a famous actress, married to a famous actor. She was an opera singer. A politician. An activist. A wife and mother. Friend and confidant to the Roosevelts. Celebrated. Reviled. And, ultimately, destroyed politically. Here was another powerful, influential woman with a sweeping character arc. And, yet, the part of the story I chose to tell encompassed barely more than a year of her life. A mere 18 months. Yet, in that 18 months the purest view of her humanity was revealed. What remained was residue at the bottom of the crucible.
It is a similar approach, I would argue, that one should use in telling the story of Ellen White. By limiting the scope of Ellen White’s story, we can meet her fully inhabited rather than in the process of becoming. We can see her wrestling against flesh and blood, a far more rewarding cinematic experience than wrestling against powers and principalities. A simple viewing of A Man for All Seasons is compelling enough evidence of that.
Recently, I also had the opportunity to work on a film about Edward Fudge, a small-town Southern preacher who was hired to research the Biblical origins of hell. What he discovered was surprising to him and untenable to his flock, and it came with a price. He was ostracized, threatened and demonized. It cost him his pulpit. It nearly cost him his marriage.
The resulting film, Hell and Mr. Fudge, which won the highest award in the “Christian theatrical feature film” category at the 2012 WorldFest Houston International Film Festival, is irrefutable proof to me that the power of films to move us is directly proportionate to the film’s ability to portray a character’s most vulnerable humanity.
Are there those moments in Ellen White’s life that could provide 120-minutes of captivating cinema? Yes. I can think of several. Moments where spiritual destiny comes hard against self-doubt. Moments where the very future of a fledging world church hangs in the balance. Maybe it involves a catastrophic fire. Maybe it involves betrayal. A weariness of the battle waged. A wish for a simpler life.
But, oh yes, make no mistake. There are some great moments.
—Donald Davenport is a screenwriter, novelist and La Sierra University graduate. He and his wife live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Read a Spectrum interview with Davenport about his film Hell and Mr. Fudge here.