Last summer, I wrote a short story entitled Rat Island, set in a post-pandemic United States. In it, the rule of law and social order have broken down, with mobs roaming the streets of Los Angeles. A wealthy group of people stand on top of a skyscraper, waiting for the helicopter that will whisk them away, but the crowd storms the building, desperate to board. In the fall of 2020 my agent reported a surprising amount of interest from Hollywood in adapting my story for the screen—but this cooled off after the presidential election, when there appeared to be real danger of a coup, and came to a complete halt with the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. We were told that fiction had come too close to our truly frightening reality.
Creators have always pulled from history to explain the past as well as create apocalyptic visions of the future. But this moment seems particularly remarkable when you consider why so few creators have made shows and movies about the climate catastrophe. It’s the most dramatic development in our world, but it’s not just something that happened in the past. It’s still happening—and that might be the best explanation for why we struggle to translate it into art or entertainment.
The television series Occupied, based on a storyline I conceived in 2012, was about climate change and oil production, but its principal attraction for viewers was likely that it was about a Russian occupation of Norway—a story with clear echoes in the somewhat distant past, reminding viewers of the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. And of course, while a Russian occupation is no longer far-fetched in light of the Ukraine crisis, for Norwegians it still seems more thrilling than frightening. Climate change, however, is a grim reality we’re going to wake up to again tomorrow. It’s the kind of news story we “ought” to read, and yet it feels about as exciting as homework.
Crime writers often attribute the popularity of the genre to the fact that many readers are far removed from death and destruction, especially in a world that is—statistically speaking—experiencing diminishing levels of violence. But even during World War II, it has been reported that the most popular reading material in London air-raid shelters were crime novels. So I don’t think it’s quite true that the public shies away from difficult subjects while living through difficult times. However, it’s far easier to be entertained if there’s some distance, or the problem has been brought to some kind of conclusion in the real world.
For example, the most important and commercially successful films about the Vietnam war did not appear until the end of that 20-year war. Nor were many films made about the dangers of atomic warfare while the Cold War, with the attendant dangers of a nuclear war, was at its most intense. These fears were addressed instead by films that tickled the imagination, with giant insects transformed by radioactivity.
The disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 has been a recurring theme of film and television, starting with productions in the 1990s. But it was not until more than 30 years later, with the 2019 series Chernobyl, that audiences really paid attention. Why did a cerebral series about a disaster become essential viewing? In part because of our innate desire to make sense of chaos. Understanding events gives us the feeling that we can control them. The catharsis of tragedy, the cleansing of the human mind, can feel a little like a Finnish sauna, painful and good at the same time.
This is heightened even further if the cause and solution are about human beings: our motives, moral dilemmas, weaknesses, empathy, courage, and brilliance. We all want to believe we can change, that we can be better as individuals and create a better society. Fiction is a particularly effective tool because it takes imagination to understand why we have caused misery for ourselves and how we can find a way out of it. Seeing it through the eyes of a character who can make a difference helps us imagine we are capable of the same.
It’s not easy to pin down that cerebral and emotional sweet spot in an audience. But there are examples that show it’s perfectly possible to create commercial entertainment based on an ongoing crisis. I confess to fast-forwarding through several of David Attenborough’s brief but painful doomsday prophecies in his recent documentaries because I wanted to get to the more soothing, pleasant and uplifting parts. Fortunately, not everyone is as lily-livered as me. Indeed, several films were made on the theme of school shootings when this became a regular occurrence following the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999; films such as Zero Day (2003), Elephant (2003) and Bowling for Columbine (2002).
When good and also commercially successful film and television is produced that deal with themes such as racism, sexual exploitation, genocide, drug addiction, corruption and mental health problems, then why not stories based on the climate change crisis?
For instance, imagine a climate researcher whose education has been funded by her beloved father, who is running an oil company that has brought employment and prosperity to a once-poor community. She is trying to convince her father to join her fight for the climate when she is kidnapped. By who? Why? I don’t know yet, but it’s an example of the kind of fictional narrative that could mirror the problems and dilemmas of our real world.
In fiction, such stories can even have happy endings. Good fiction has shown that it has the power to inspire. Life can indeed imitate art.
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