After mining his religious upbringing for the HBO series Big Love, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is focusing on a much darker Mormon family story. Through FX on Hulu, Black is adapting Jon Krakauer’s true-crime bestseller Under the Banner of Heaven, which recounts two brothers’ murder of their sister-in-law and her toddler.
Ron Lafferty and Dan Lafferty killed 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty, the wife of their brother, Allen, on July 24, 1984, by slitting her throat, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Dan then killed Brenda’s 15-month-old daughter, Erica.
As the newspaper reports, Ron was a self-proclaimed prophet whose extreme fundamentalist views got him excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and led to the breakdown of his marriage. Ron blamed his divorce on four individuals — including Brenda, a devout LDS member who denied Ron’s prophethood, and Erica, whom he believed “would grow up to be just as despicable as her mother,” court documents attest.
The other two individuals at blame, in Ron’s mind, were a friend of his wife and the ex-couple’s ecclesiastical leader, the Tribune reported separately. Ron and Dan broke into the friend’s home after killing Brenda and Erica but found the house empty, and they skipped going to the leader’s home after missing a turn-off.
Several weeks later, the brothers were arrested in Reno, Nevada, and they were convicted of murder in 1985, with Ron receiving a death sentence and Dan ordered to life in prison. Ron was later re-tried — amid questions about the evaluation of his mental competency — but he was again convicted and given a death sentence in 1996.
Ron died of natural causes while behind bars in 2019. Dan, however, is still serving his life sentence.
FX ordered the TV adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven in June 2021, with Black as writer and Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie helming the first two episodes. Andrew Garfield, a recent Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for Tick, Tick… Boom, will play Detective Jeb Pyre in the series. Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People) will play Brenda, meanwhile, and Sam Worthington (Avatar) and Wyatt Russell (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) will play Ron and Dan, respectively.
Black was actually attached to the project 10 years ago, when Ron Howard was developing a film adaptation of Krakauer’s book. Howard remains executive producer of the TV series, along with Brian Grazer, Jason Bateman, and others.
FX’s synopsis of the series shows that the double murder is the jumping-off point for the story. “As Detective Jeb Pyre investigates events that transpired within the Lafferty family, he uncovers buried truths about the origins of the LDS religion and the violent consequences of unyielding faith,” the network teases. “What Pyre, a devout Mormon, unearths leads him to question his own faith.”
Filling out the cast are Denise Gough, Billy Howle, Gil Birmingham, Adelaide Clemens, Rory Culkin, Seth Numrich, Chloe Pirrie, and Sandra Seacat.
Garfield told The Hollywood Reporter this month that he was “obsessed” with Krakauer’s book long before he was No. 1 on the TV adaptation’s call sheet. “I found it to be so illuminating about a subject that I’m so fascinated in,” he added, “about how do men get to the place of doing terrible, evil things and justify it using God as a shield.”
Under the Banner of Heaven, Series Premiere, Thursday, April 28, Hulu