If you don't think the world's weird, you're not paying attention.

Are Hollywood Movies (Mostly) Conservative?

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The image above is meant to represent the circle of life. It’s an image of a journey ending where it began. It’s an image of things staying the same. Hollywood movies work just like this because Hollywood movies are conservative.

Here’s the common story: we begin with a family, a town. Everything’s fine. Then along come the bad guys, or bad event. The hero’s task is to set things right again. The hero usually fights for survival or freedom, sometimes both. The story ends with things are returned to they way they were before the bad thing happened. That’s conservative: the status quo is maintained.

Star Wars? It’s about rebels fighting to restore the Republic, not create something that’s never existed before.

Robin Hood (pick your version)? Despite the apparent revolutionary aspects of the story, it’s really a fight to restore the rightful king, King Richard, to the throne. Once the former king is back in his castle, Robin Hood is ready to retire. Once again, all is right with the world.

Finding Nemo? Father and son are separated to start the story; father and son are reunited to end the story. We’re back where we started.

Red Dawn. Soviets invade the USA; patriots fight back and take back America!

The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy travels to Oz, but ends up back in Kansas, happy as a cucumber.

Around the World in 80 Days. Phileas Fogg and friends make a complete circuit around the Earth to end up where they started. This is the image of most films: going around in circles.

Sometimes things change so badly that nothing can restore them, and this is what revenge is for. Even though the loved ones cannot be brought back to life (usually), the hero’s revenge restores a sense of balance in the world.

Examples? There are many. Death Wish, Dirty Harry, or…

How about the new Conan the Barbarian: “The story boils down to Conan trying to avenge his father’s death while his adversary tries to magically resurrect his slain wife….” (Source.) I like the part about resurrecting the dead wife. It’s almost always about trying to get back something that’s been lost. The hero tries to return to the way things were, either literally, or through revenge. As if revenge can truly restore anything.

One more: Vertigo. Remember that one? It’s resurrection time again, and it’s not even a fantasy film! Too bad it doesn’t work out for Jimmy/Scotty.

The majority of Hollywood films do not like change. They tell stories about heroes who fight to restore things to the way they were before the Bad thing happened and change occurred. These films are about maintaining the status quo, about heroes who long for the return of the original status quo. The paradox is that these films show heroes who are active and in conflict, but this activity and conflict in almost always in the service of maintaining the world as it is. If they are fighting for change, it is a change that will return the world to what it was. And this world that they fight for is a world similar to our own world. Yes, there usually is some token change, but it’s usually minor and it comes off as a change that must be accepted by the hero as part of the maturation process and as part of the way the world just is.

Disney called it the circle of life.

UPDATE: 9/22/11

Dan Harmon’s circle that represents the eight steps of a story

As described in an article at Wired Magazine here, Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, uses a circle to represent the eight steps of a good story. It’s a variation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and Chris Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, both of which have been popular in screenwriting classes for many years. I could have used Harmon’s circle to illustrate the post above about the conservative structure of many Hollywood stories. However, Harmon’s 8th step is a bit problematic, especially when applied to something as conservative as the sitcom where characters and situation almost by definition cannot change from week to week. Harmon’s circle image suggests a lack of change, with the end reflecting the beginning. Yet, there’s step 8: “Having changed.” To represent change, a better image might be a spiral: everything still goes around and around, but the end does not simply link back up with the beginning because things have truly changed.

Spirals doodle by Community writer Megan Ganz. Click on it to see her tumblr.

So why did Harmon settle on the circle? Perhaps because, despite his step 8, he intuited that there is no true change in the typical Hollywood story.


Harmon’s last step is “Having Changed.” This requires us, the viewers, to forget that characters are not real and therefore cannot change. But what if we don’t forget? We must realize, of course, that it’s the author, Harmon himself, who is creating the change, indeed, forcing it on his characters. Does this mean that we, the viewers, are we the real targets of the “Having Changed” step? Is the story supposed to be a moral lesson for us? This makes entertainment something like sugar coated schooling. Is that why we watch these shows? Or do we just ignore the “Having Changed” and focus on something else? Of course, the lesson learned by the character is usually something simplistic that we are assumed to already know and therefore we are made to feel superior to the character who did not apparently know and therefore has to change. So: do we watch to feel superior for a brief moment?

UPDATE 1/15/12

In The Power of Film, Howard Suber says something similar to what I said above:

As tends to be true for all popular arts, the vast majority of films and their protagonists are inherently conservative.  (The Power of Film, p. 96.)

Villains often want to change society, but it is invariably for their personal benefit. Heroes either want to keep society the way it is or restore it to what it once was. In this sense, villains are inherently radical and heroes are inherently conservative. (The Power of Film, p. 395.)

In other words, radicals are the villains and conservatives the heroes in Hollywood movies. And by definition, the film’s sympathies lie with the hero. This does not exactly fit Conservatives’ image of Hollywood, does it?


Written by David Kilmer

August 20, 2011 at 1:30 am

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