A. O. Scott, who moonlights as a book critic, had some impressive things to say this weekend about summer movies. (1) Basically he says movie studios are writing their own narrative about what kinds of movies are considered successful, and using that narrative to justify making a bunch of mediocre-but-highly-marketable films—films like Transformers 2, G-Force, and the new Harry Potter movie. If these movies earn big at the box office, it’s mostly because audiences are eager to scratch their “summer movie” itch; the movies aren’t really that good, and few people are genuinely excited about them afterward. But the studios use the huge revenues as an excuse to keep on making more of the same. Does this sound familiar? He might as well be talking about book publishers, novels, and the predictable literary fare that fills so many bestseller lists.
As Dan said last week (2), the story of the Holocaust is such a familiar template for fiction that we have all but inoculated ourselves against it. Other categories of books—like the quietly intense psychological portrait of an ordinary American, or the armchair tourism of a love story set in a tragic, far-off land—seem to dominate what we think of as literary fiction. The Kite Runner is our Transformers 2. It has all the ingredients that made previous books hugely successful, and you don’t have to read it very closely to feel like you’ve just had a familiar, gratifying experience. Literary fiction is not just a shelf in the bookstore; it’s a description of the stories themselves. Likewise, the summer movie is not just a medium; it’s a particular kind of story, a rollicking adventure that makes you slap your knee and spill your popcorn.
Are we morons for getting pigeonholed by books like The Kite Runner, Bridge of Sighs, and The Kindly Ones? Or do book marketers take advantage of our predictable buying habits and feed us the same stories over and over?
Scott, in his article, describes this “festival of the known” as a “program of mass infantilization.” Movie audiences are encouraged to watch childish films the way a child consumes candy. Book publishers, on the other hand, want to make their readers feel intelligent and worldly—think of the adjectives that recur on book jackets, like “searing,” “insightful,” and “magnificent.” But this flattery is just another type of infantilization. If you’re a movie studio or a book publisher, it’s a lot easier to acquire and promote your product if you have conditioned the consumers to respond to a single type of story.
The all-out infantilization of audiences has been crossing over between movies and books. On October 16, Warner Brothers will release Where the Wild Things Are, a movie for grown-ups based on a book for children. (3) The screenplay is by Dave Eggers, who has been accused of infantilizing literature. (4) Doesn’t it make you long for someone like John Hughes, who made movies about teenagers for teenagers? Hughes learned how to speak his specific audience’s language, instead of talking so plainly that everyone could hear.