Subtlety in Storytelling: Red Dawn?

The National Review goes near apoplectic over a remake of B-movie quasipolitical thriller Red Dawn that excludes China, the remake’s originally included villain, substituting North Korea.

[Red Dawn] was an overwrought action flick/melodrama, to be sure, but it was also a cultural marker: the age of détente was over, and the age of Reagan had arrived in full.

Hahahaha. Really? Anyways, moving along:

By contrast, the long-stalled remake has become a sick joke. To wit: MGM has taken the extraordinary step of digitally scrubbing the film of all references to Red China as the invading villains — substituting dialogue, removing images of Chinese flags and insignia etc. — because “potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower.” All without the PRC even uttering a single word of protest.

I’m less concerned with this appalling attempt at right-wing literary criticism than interested in what it says about the use of analogies, parables, and allegories in storytelling. NRO expects that the allegory absolutely must hit you over the head, or fail. This all seems contrary to the legacy of George Orwell, who wrote two of the most blistering anti-Stalin novels without ever using the word “Russia” or the name “Stalin.” 1984 lacks none of its moral force for being set in Orwell’s positively democratic home country of England, nor does Animal Farm suffer for taking place on, uh, a farm.

To the contrary, the more notable purely “conservative” allegories make no real attempt to mask message with story, assuming the reader must feel led to be led. On concluding the first of the Chronicles of Narnia, you’d have to be, well, reading a different book to not realize, “oh, the Lion is Christ.” From the sacrifice scene, the hook is clearly in your mouth, and you can’t help but feel it. Same (but worse) goes for Atlas Shrugged, which actually does devolve into a lecture by the end. Maybe it was never intended to be read as pure fiction… but I wonder if that wouldn’t have been a superior delivery mechanism.

Better the story that lets the reader draw his own conclusions, with the lesson, by allegory or otherwise, lurking in the background. Huck Finn‘s commentary on the American South and race relations generally hits harder for not trying. Roddenberry’s liberal utopia in Star Trek: the Next Generation unfolds seamlessly over the course of the show’s run without Picard, like Galt, setting out the author’s moral theory, point by point. Plutarch, who does state the moral lesson he wants you to draw, manages art by at least hiding the lesson in history.

This is preferable for the reader, per Tolkien:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presences. I much prefer history, true or feigned. … I think many confuse “applicability” with “allegory”; but the one resides to the freedom of the reader, and the other in the proposed domination of the author.

And more effective, even, if the author’s goal is to teach a lesson. If the reader can draw his own conclusions, they’re all the stronger for it (think Inception).

Similarly, if the new Red Dawn is intended to be a rallying cry against global communism, surely the viewer can be trusted to jump from “North Korea” to its more dangerous neighbor. And if he can’t, is the fictional exercise really worth the effort?

I have to close by disputing the premise. Did anyone actually walk away from Red Dawn with the urgent feeling of, “oh, Jesus, someone’s got to stop Russia”? Am I alone in thinking that was just… not the point? Similarly, one can conclude Fallout 3, an acclaimed roleplaying game set in Washington, D.C. 150 years after its nuclear devastation at the hands of a resurgent Chinese Empire, without feeling any hostility to China as it exists today. On the other hand, you do walk away from it with some strong feelings on mutated scorpions, and on nuclear war (“War? War never changes.”). Clear fiction, when not intended to carry a particular message, rarely does.

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6 comments

  1. I’d say removing any mention of China in post-production is pretty distressing. It’s a totally different situation from setting out from the beginning to make an updated version with modern players.

    But if this is a political issue, it is a Republican issue, because it is a business issue. Who is the NRO criticizing here?

  2. “I have to close by disputing the premise. Did anyone actually walk away from Red Dawn with the urgent feeling of, “oh, Jesus, someone’s got to stop Russia”?”

    Um…yeah. I know you’re too young but when that movie came out we were all scared of the USSR. I can’t tell you how many times I watched Red Dawn at sleepovers during the 80s and how many pre-teenage conversations revolved around where we would hide, what we would take with us, how we would fight the Commies, etc.

    This was part of a larger fear of the Cold War that also fueled movies like Rambo, Rocky IV, Invasion USA, etc, etc. I had a pediatrician that was very involved with the anti-nuclear movement and wore a button proclaiming as much whenever I was getting a check-up. We still did disaster drills in school and I had friends whose parents maintained fallout shelters. My point is, yeah, in the 80s that stuff mattered.

    And I’ll just point out the obvious which is that an action movie isn’t really supposed to be about subtlety.

    1. Yeah, and it was even worse here in Europe – we had the Soviets just next door, after all. So a Red Dawn scenario could actually realistically have happened here.

      It wasn’t something you thought about every day, of course, but it was always sort of there as a latent, background thing. We had shelter drills and civil defense exercises and the lot, too. In particular, I remember the air raid siren tests. Every single Wednesday at noon sharp.

      1. We had the air raid siren tests too – same time. I would be sitting in class and there was always a split second where you wondered if this was the real one.

        1. Yep, we had the Nuclear Duck and Cover drills too – Baton Rouge was something like 11th on the supposed target list due to all the chemical plants and oil refineries. Of course, hiding under a steel and wood desk or in the halls wouldn’t really have done us much good – if the blast hadn’t gotten us, the firestorm likely would have.

          That aside, why would Hollywood choose to self- censor in post-production for something the Right is worried about? Aren’t all entertainment industry types Lefty Communist Pinkos?

          1. I would remind our host that with regards to the Cold War the 1980s felt more like this video than like 2011:

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