On Sunday night, the Lifetime Movie Channel broadcast the film “Amish Grace,” and, to judge by news stories and blog comments by those who were able to see it, it was controversial. When publicity about the movie surfaced weeks ago, the LMC defended its decision to produce a fictionalized account of the 2006 tragedy—a deranged killer murdered five girls in an Amish school in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then took his own life. LMC admitted that some of the aspects of the story were fictionalized. The point of the movie was to portray the supposed difficulties some of the Amish had in forgiving the killer and his family.
The three authors of the book Amish Grace, on which the movie was supposedly based, quickly distanced themselves from the production of the film. They did not cooperate with the producers or provide them with any information. They realized that it would have violated the trust of the Amish people if they had allowed their insights to be manipulated by the producers. The local Amish community resented the process of fictionalizing, for commercial exploitation, a very real tragedy that they experienced a little over three years ago.
The movie was shown anyway, and by Monday some of the comments on the Web—though not all—were running against it. Many people were aware of the controversy and condemned the channel for intruding into a sensitive subject. A sampling of comments from blogs and news stories suggests at least some of the aspects of the criticism—and praise.
The Toledo Blade ran a story ahead of the showing, on Saturday, which aired some of the controversy. The paper quoted the executive producer of the film, Larry A. Thompson, who blamed the media for taking earlier comments of the authors out of context. He said that he had talked with a representative of the publisher of the book on Thursday last week and had been told that the authors had only seen the brief trailer, not the movie itself.
“I have the utmost respect for these three theological scholars and they were very kind and upfront with us. The media want to dig deeper and find controversy when there really is no controversy,” Mr. Thompson said. He argued that the news media that were covering the story may prompt more people to watch it. “God works in mysterious ways,” he concluded.
Some of the people commenting on blog postings on Sunday night and Monday were enthusiastic about what they had seen. For instance, one blog post contained the comment, “I just got done watching it myself it was very good.” A commenter on another blog post wrote, “no you cannot forgive that [the murders], but they [the Amish] live in a strange community, the women anyway has [sic] no voice there, it is all about the men, the oldest men have the rules…..what a terrible lifestyle, I would get out of there as fast as I could, and many does …”
At least some of the reviews and comments, however, have been much more critical. One review compares the story as told by the movie to a sledgehammer—it shuns nuance “the way the Amish avoid using electricity.” The reviewer approves, at least in part, the sensitivity of the filming—viewers didn’t hear the gunshots nor did they see the tragedy unfold. But, typical Hollywood, “the Amish don’t just attend the funeral of the shooter but march over a hilltop like an Amish army…”
The film appeared, to that reviewer, as if it were made on the cheap. The beards on the Amish men looked fake, and the location did not appear to be Lancaster County—probably because it was filmed in California. The conclusion: it was “a paint-by-numbers cable movie whose telecast may well prove the wisdom of an electricity-free way of life.”
Another review was nearly as cranky. It quoted local opinions about the film. One Amish lady reportedly said, “we’re not happy. It’s not something we want to be a part of.” A midwife who is quite familiar with the people affected by the tragedy said that those families don’t like the idea of the producer making the movie. “It’s all anyone is talking about,” she said.
The authors of the book, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher, weighed in with an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last Thursday. They had only seen the trailer at that point, but they identified a number of key issues. They clarified the reality of Amish forgiveness. The families of the murdered children forgave the killer and his family immediately. Many visited his widow, his parents, and his parents-in-law within hours of the tragedy. None of them confronted the widow with a message of hatred, as the movie suggests. They didn’t struggle with feelings of forgiveness.
Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher argue that the film incorrectly portrayed the Amish as struggling to do the right thing, to overcome their anger and vengeful feelings, and to eventually see that forgiveness is the best course of action. The producer, the film stars, and the rest of us might well react to such a horrible event in that fashion. But the Amish did not. The reason, the authors argue, is that their entire community celebrates forgiveness. It is an essential fiber in the fabric of their peaceful society. Their forgiveness may have been difficult—the Amish families are of course quite human, and they were devastated by the murders of their daughters—but the fact that their whole society emphasizes forgiveness makes it a standard that is easier for individuals to accept and live by.
Kraybill and his co-authors include, in a recent paperback edition of their book, an interview with Terrie Roberts, the mother of the killer. She was so moved by the way the Amish people reached out to her and her husband immediately after the shooting that she has continued to visit with them.
The real story, the authors argue, would be just as touching as the movie version. It would be a film about a community that values forgiveness so much that scapegoating the family of the killer would be inconceivable.