Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven tells the story of the 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, by Dan and Ron Lafferty, Brenda’s brothers-in-law. The brothers had broken away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and began practicing a version of Mormon fundamentalism. They believed the murders were commanded by God in the form of divine revelation they received. Now, the book is adapted to a miniseries of the same name on Hulu.
Krakauer’s book, released in 2003, draws lines from early Mormon doctrine to the Laffertys’ religious beliefs and, ultimately, their justification for killing Brenda and Erica. This direct comparison and Krakauer’s line of questioning on faith and violence earned a strong detractor in the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a 2003 statement, then church media director Mike Otterson called it “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern Church.” Other reviews of the book saw it as more of a well-researched and tempered examination into how religious extremism can lead to violence.
Reaction to the miniseries is unlikely to be any less polarizing. At a screening of the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven at Broadway Cinemas in Salt Lake City on Monday, Andrew Garfield said he sees his character of Detective Jeb Pyre as a modern Mormon everyman, given a beautiful and sensitive portrayal, adding, “I can’t imagine anyone being upset by that aspect of the show, personally.”
“Oh, get ready,” warned Dustin Lance Black, the series creator, to laughter from the audience.
“I’m ready,” Garfield assured him.
Krakauer drew criticism for being an admitted non-believer, and the show’s Oscar-winning creator, Dustin Lance Black, has drawn scrutiny for being a former Mormon who cannot let go of his anger with the church. At the Monday screening, Black refuted the claim that he was angry. “It’s a different emotion than anger that I feel when I think about the Mormon faith,” says Black. Instead, he recalls his Mormon family being warm and loving and still feels that way toward them. Black insists one of his motivations, rather, is to bring curiosity to the faith, the past of which is shrouded in mystery by design, saying, “I believe it is time we let light in.”
And, when Black sees people getting defensive about the portrayals of Mormons, he asks a question that is voiced in episode five of the miniseries, “‘What kind of Mormons are you defending?’”
The Under the Banner of Heaven miniseries is a story of the many ways to identify and live as a Mormon. “This is a show about multiple Mormonisms,” says Lindsay Hansen Park at Monday’s Salt Lake City screening. She is the executive director of Sunstone and creator of the Year of Polygamy podcast and consulted on the series’ portrayals of Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism to “keep the show honest,” she says.
The FX miniseries dramatizes the conflicts and questions that arise when “multiple Mormonisms” meet.
We meet the Lafferty family in Utah when they still identified as mainstream Mormons. Albeit, they are much more strict than some other LDS families—in particular Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her LDS family in Kimberly, Idaho, who see the strict Lafferty patriarchal family structure as dated and regressive. Through this, we meet two men, both called to be LDS bishops, who have radically different approaches: Brenda’s father is kind and protective of his daughters, encouraging them to be independent and get a college education, and Ammon Lafferty (played to be truly intimidating by Christopher Heyerdahl) is the iron-fisted patriarch of the Lafferty clan who rules over his family with absolute authority and believes women should be completely submissive to their husbands and children to their fathers.
We meet Detective Jeb Pyre (pronounced py-ree), played by Garfield, another mainstream Mormon who struggles to reconcile his experience with a warm and loving broader “LDS family” with the experiences and practices of the Laffertys and early Mormons. It is Dan Lafferty’s (Wyatt Russell) obsession with adhering to the practices of the church of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that leads him away from the modern mainstream church, from which he was excommunicated, and to fundamentalism—a journey also taken by his brothers Ron (Sam Worthington), Robin (Seth Numrich) and Sam (Rory Culkin).
Yet, they all call themselves good Mormons.
The first episode of the series drops the viewer right into a small, predominantly white and LDS Utah town in the mid-80s, which is now the location of a brutal double murder. Andrew Garfield’s Jeb is a fictionalized detective (an amalgamation of real law enforcement officers who did not want to be depicted, according to the show’s creator) in charge of the murder investigation, along with his non-LDS, out-of-towner partner, Detective Bill Taba, played by Gil Birmingham. These give us our initial lenses through which to view the action: a good-standing Utah Mormon family man and a non-member, veteran investigator of Paiute heritage.
As the investigation unfolds, we get the perspectives of the Laffertys, like Allen, Brenda’s husband, and Brenda herself, who, as an outspoken, educated, independent and caring woman, finds herself at odds with some of the members of the Lafferty brood. These perspectives show many of the ways religion and faith guided their lives, from beautiful and loving to abusive and violent. The story of the Laffertys’ descent into extremism is intercut with scenes from early Mormon church history of Joseph Smith (Andrew Burnap) and Emma Hale (Tyner Rushing), his first of many wives, to illustrate how it inspired the evolution (or devolution) of the Lafferty brothers’ faith. Traditional 19th-century gender politics, the practice of polygamy, the institution of blood atonement, the authority of the priesthood, the holding of God’s law over the laws of the land and other current and former tenets of the religion all arise as possible crossroads for believers.
This creates an uncomfortable situation for Pyre as he is challenged in his knowledge of the religion he thought he knew and understood. In some ways, Pyre’s discomfort—played beautifully by Garfield—could mirror the sort of discomfort modern Latter-day Saint faithful might have viewing Under the Banner of Heaven. Before filming began, Garfield came to Utah on a research trip with Troy Williams of Equality Utah, a consultant on the series. Garfield met with former, current and “future former” members of the church as part of his research for the role.
On watching the series, Garfield says, “I understand there would be discomfort. As there should be. But, I hope we can have interesting conversations around this story, and keep the memory of Brenda Lafferty alive.”
The first episodes of the FX seven-part miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven premieres on Hulu on Thursday, April 28, 2022, with subsequent episodes streaming weekly.
FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven, the original limited series inspired by the true crime bestseller by Jon Krakauer, follows the events that led to the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby daughter in a suburb in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah. As Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) investigates events which transpired within the Lafferty family, he uncovers buried truths about the origins of the LDS religion and the violent consequences of unyielding faith. What Pyre, a devout Mormon, unearths leads him to question his own faith. The seven episode limited series also stars Sam Worthington, Denise Gough, Wyatt Russell, Billy Howle, Gil Birmingham, Adelaide Clemens, Rory Culkin, Seth Numrich, Chloe Pirrie and Sandra Seacat. Under the Banner of Heaven is created by Academy Award®-winner Dustin Lance Black, who also serves as showrunner and executive producer. Also serving as executive producers are Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Anna Culp for Imagine Television; Jason Bateman and Michael Costigan of Aggregate Films; David Mackenzie and Gillian Berrie. Under the Banner of Heaven is produced by FX Productions.