Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Commenting on my September blog, a good friend asked if in a future blog I would look at “applying lessons” from literature to the Climate Crisis. Reflecting on his comment, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that many of my blogs thus far, while focusing on dystopia and (post-)apocalypse as critical lenses through which we can better view the ills of our current day, have said little regarding fiction as medium for suggesting solutions. Put another way, the lessons I have considered from dystopian fiction have had a primarily negative character: many examples of “we shouldn’t do x” and comparably few “we should try y.”
To be clear, I don’t believe my friend meant to criticize, but he would have been justified had he meant to do so. Adopting a pessimistic attitude is easy, but it is far harder to imagine productive alternatives and to work toward their realization; however, productive alternatives are sorely needed if we are to stave off the worst effects of the Climate Crisis and to bring about a more just and equitable world. While there are indeed examples of fiction imagining such alternatives, most notably those works in the burgeoning genre of solarpunk, my research focuses nonetheless on that paradoxical side of the human imagination that employs our creative faculties to craft images of wanton destruction or authoritarian oppression. Given this fixation on such images, the didactic mode—which is to say the teachable aspect—of these dystopian works appears to be negative rather than positive. Put simply, dystopia and the post-apocalyptic seem to be inherently “glass-half-empty” genres.
Well, they seem to be, but are they? One need not look hard to find a peculiar kind of optimism in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, especially in films made since the turn of the twenty-first century. Consider some of the most popular and you will find that they all end on an optimistic or victorious note: the anti-zombie serum is delivered to the human resistance at the end of I Am Legend (2007); the heroic couple, whose love and determination have incited pride in the impoverished districts, outwit the Capital elite at the end of The Hunger Games (2012); water, unjustly hoarded by the former tyrant, is equitably distributed to the thirsty masses at the end of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Even the most bleak among them, such as Children of Men (2006) and The Road (2009), end with a protagonist’s sacrifice that a child might survive to “carry the fire” into the future. If there is a “lesson” common to all these examples, it is the same as that lesson found in children’s Saturday morning cartoons or many superhero films — When times are at their worst, look to the heroes and good shall conquer evil.
We should be skeptical of such a lesson. (I know, I know, I’m dwelling still a little longer in pessimism, but I promise this is all working toward a positive note.) Let us look again at I Am Legend, for when considered with both its theatrical ending and its lesser-known alternate ending, the film serves as an exemplary case study regarding the conflict between authorial intention (the “lesson” the creator intends to make) and audience expectation (the kind of “lesson” the audience expects to see).
If you have not seen I Am Legend or its alternate ending, I suggest you read this article for a quick summary. (If you do, however, get ready for some very annoying pop-ups.) For the busiest among you, here’s an even shorter TLDR: Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) is a scientist seeking to discover a cure for the disease that has turned most of humanity into zombies, and he pursues his goal by capturing some of these zombies and running fatal experiments on them in his lab. In the theatrical version, Neville eventually sacrifices himself to ensure his newly discovered anti-zombie serum can make it safely to an outpost of other human survivors; in the alternate version, Neville comes to realize that the zombies are actually far less mindless and far more communal than he originally believed, for the zombies attacking his hideout are doing so only to retrieve their kidnapped kin. (Watch the alternate ending here; it is really quite good and can be appreciated on its own.)
In the ending of the former, the zombies maintain their inherent monstrosity while Neville maintains his status as hero, and the “Legend” of the film’s title places Neville amongst the likes of Hercules and Superman; in the ending of the latter, Neville comes to realize that he is the murderous villain to this community of sympathetic beings, and the film’s title now connotes Neville’s affinity with legendary monsters such as Dracula. The alternate ending is, in fact, much closer to that of the 1954 novella on which the film is based: “Full circle. A new terror born in death, a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”
If there is a “lesson” to be taken from the ending of the theatrical version, it is only the shallow notion that (the apparently) good must conquer (those who appear) evil; the “lesson” of the alternate ending, by contrast, is that one must be willing to reevaluate their deeply held prejudices should new information challenge such prejudices. The latter is, I think, a far better lesson to learn, and I can only hope that most of you agree.
But there is a third, and even more significant, metatextual lesson to be learned here. (By “metatextual,” I mean the real-life circumstances surrounding the making and release of the film.) What is called the alternate ending is, in fact, the original ending intended for the film. The film’s director, Francis Lawrence, has admitted that the original ending was received poorly among test audiences, and as a result the ending was reshot to better match audience expectations. Such circumstances imply that the director’s intended “lesson” was at odds with the simple, “feel-good” lesson expected by the audience—so at odds, in fact, that the director compromised his artistic vision to ensure success amongst a wider audience. Taken as a whole, the metatextual “lesson” here is that, for many of us, our innermost notions of what is “good” and what is “evil” are so deeply entrenched that any deviation from the standard narrative is met with scorn and resistance. The hero must remain the hero and rise victorious; the villain must remain the villain and be defeated. How many of you might prefer it this way, I wonder…
Ok, but what now? What can we take from this to apply to the Climate Crisis? And where’s that “positive note” I promised? Well, since I’m already long over my intended word count, I too am going to take a page from Saturday-morning cartoons and end on a cliffhanger, so you’ll just have to wait until next month’s blog to find out.