Columbine, Hollywood, and the National Obsession That Never Ends

Thirteen years and a hundred school shootings later, why is Hollywood still obsessed with this one?

The entire sorry spectacle unfolded on national television that afternoon. News copters caught images of hundreds of cops standing around outside, seemingly helpless; throngs of terrified students fleeing with their hands in the air; a sign in a window, announcing that teacher Dave Sanders, shot while trying to shepherd students to safety, was bleeding to death in a science classroom. (He died before medical aid could be safely escorted to him.) No other school shooting had ever attracted such a massive live audience before — and new procedures adopted by police across the country in the wake of Columbine, designed to deal swiftly with an active shooter situation, make a repeat of such a prolonged siege unlikely.

The blundering continued long after the siege ended. Fearing civil suits, school and law enforcement officials lawyered up, releasing little information about the killers and even lying about a prior police investigation of Eric Harris for making threats and detonating pipe bombs. Determined to explain the "why" of the shootings, journalists fashioned motives out of rumors, cranking out stories about Harris and Klebold being persecuted goths, or members of the Trench Coat Mafia, or put-upon nerds looking for payback against bullying jocks.

The truth trickled out gradually. Under pressure from victims' families, the Jeffco Sheriff's Office grudgingly released some of its investigative files, while fighting for years to suppress some of the most embarrassing documents — as well as the writings and videos of the killers, claiming they would provoke copycat shootings. (The basement tapes, though viewed by some reporters and Columbine families, are still officially under wraps.) The stonewall made the materials seem far more interesting than they actually were, helping to perpetuate a mystique about Columbine that endures to this day.

Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings.
Mark Manger
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings.
In Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture - and broke all box-office records for a documentary film.
In Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore took aim at America's gun culture - and broke all box-office records for a documentary film.

The media mythology quickly became fodder for film and television dramas — everything from high-minded indie features to episodes of Law & Order, Cold Case, One Tree Hill and even American Horror Story. The feature films tend to fall into two camps. They either focus on the killers as some inexplicable evil force, or on the aftermath of a school shooting, in which survivors search for solace and explanations. The latest entry is Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, the artiest and darkest shooter film since Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003). Like Van Sant, Ramsay doesn't offer much accounting for the Bad Seed who decides to practice his archery on his classmates. (Even Kevin, who survives the attack, doesn't have much in the way of motive to offer: "I thought I knew," he says.) The movie is visually striking, with a fragmented, flashback-heavy structure. But it's a bleak business trying to figure out if Kevin is just born bad or a product of rotten mothering by Tilda Swinton's empathy-deprived character. By the end of the film, audiences may be wearing the same look of stunned stupefaction Swinton carries throughout the proceedings.

So far, Kevin hasn't stirred any noticeable outrage among Columbine alums. None of the other filmmakers' interpretations generated much controversy, either. But then, none of them claimed to be the "real story" of Columbine.


The petition opposing Lifetime's miniseries was started by a Las Vegas stage hand named Michael Berry. A 2001 graduate of Columbine, Berry was sitting in his guitar class in the school auditorium when two students ran in and said there were guys with guns running around. As the shots and explosions drew nearer, Berry's teachers locked the doors. Later, a janitor showed the class a safe way out of the school. They ran to a nearby park, where other students milled about in a general panic.

After the initial shock, some students and parents pressed for things to "return to normal" as soon as possible. Berry found that a difficult move. In his senior year, his English class went to see a production of Hamlet set in the 1920s. "The director didn't tell my teacher that at the end of it, the lights go out and guns start firing," he recalls. "A lot of my class had a real hard time with that."

Berry says he doesn't have a problem with Cullen's book, which he hasn't read. But he believes an effort to dramatize the "actual events" of Columbine will do more harm than good. "I still have a few tics and triggers," he says. "Showing someone a video of this — it's way more potent content than reading a book. This is psychologically intense material. It's just toxic. I just don't understand what is going to be added to the conversation."

Cullen is well aware of the range of objections to the miniseries. He read through comment after comment in the online petition, trying to understand his critics' perspective, but finally gave it up. "It was demoralizing," he says. "A lot of them were calling me a horrible person."

It stung, he says, that people think the project is just about money, as if anything dealing with Columbine is a guaranteed blockbuster. He spent the better part of 10 years researching his book and challenging the core myths about the attack — for example, that Harris and Klebold were out to kill jocks — but most major publishers weren't interested. Even after the book won rave reviews, major studios passed on the idea of a feature-film adaptation.

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3 comments
SungFeee
SungFeee

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HornKirsten14
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