Why Saying Movies Based On Tragedies Are Released "Too Soon" Is Total BS
When the film Stronger, based on the true story of a man who lost his legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, came out in September, with it came a slew of articles saying the film's release was "too soon" after the tragedy. A similar thing happened back in 2016, when another film based on the bombings, Patriot's Day, was released. Movies coming out only a few years after the deadly real-life events they're based on are often deeply condemned, and it's not limited to films about Boston. The finger-wagging is old as film itself — whenever a movie rooted in true-life horror hits the screen, protests that it's "too soon" to tackle the subject follow right behind. But in actuality, complaining that movies based on tragedy come out "too soon" is BS, and here's why.
For one thing, there's no actual set amount of time for what "too soon" signifies. The first "too soon" movie actually had the fastest turnaround time of any traumatic film; filmed in a week and released just 29 days after the Titanic's sinking, Saved From The Titanic used actual newsreel footage interspersed with dramatic scenarios. The film was even written by and starring one of the sinking's survivors, Dorothy Gibson, for whom working on the film was apparently cathartic.
There's the wildly unscientific South Park declaration that tragedy becomes funny after 22.3 years, and a couple papers examining how soon is "too soon" for jokes says about the same. Having done some research, it appears that the average "complaint index" for movies about tragedies spikes when a film is made just a few years after the event, like Zero Dark Thirty and In the Valley of Elah, rather than over 10 years after the tragedy occurred.
When it comes to what movies we cry "too soon" about, it's not all those based on tragedies, but just the ones about events, both big and minor, we feel strongly about. Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes In April, and Shooting Dogs all came out in 2004 and cover the Rwandan Genocide, the 1994 massacre of nearly one million people by the Hutu-led government (almost 20 percent of the country’s population), but although the films fell just within the 10 year "too soon" period, there was barely a whimper that they came out too quickly. And beyond reviews, there weren't many articles about the films' effect on the public at all, perhaps due to American audiences' lack of awareness about the events. The same goes for The Killing Fields, which came out only five years after millions were slaughtered in Cambodia by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, but received little outrage or even passionate reaction.
Meanwhile, there was public outcry over a 2015 episode of Scandal vaguely based on the life of Princess Diana, and complaints that the 2013 biopic Diana, made 17 years after the icon's death, still felt too sudden. And when the merest rumors of a Steve Jobs biopic came out in 2011, article after article asked if it was needed just yet, considering the Apple chief died only that year. It seems that media coverage of an event and the public's connection, more than actual human toll, is the largest factor in when we consider a film to be "too soon."
What's most interesting, though, is that there might not even be a reason for us to use that criticism. Some of the outrage over movies released quickly after tragedies stems from concern the films will re-traumatize victims, forcing them to relive the event again. But this doesn't actually have much basis. Many scientists believe that post-traumatic stress is caused by "failure of fear extinction," ie, that your fear doesn't diminish over time. One of the leading ways to cure it? "Extinction training" - repeated, controlled exposure to the source of fear in a safe, neutral environment. Sounds a lot like watching a movie might fit the bill.
Besides, humans have turned to violent, gruesome spectacle for centuries out of curiosity and fascination (think: rubbernecking at highway accidents), and true crime is one of the fastest-growing genres today, as shown by Making a Murderer, Who Killed JonBenet?, Foxcatcher and much more. With it comes to major tragedy, where we have already been exposed to morbid scenes via news and other media, it's just human nature to want to continue examining it to our own satisfaction.
Surprisingly, some of the people close to the tragedies have argued in favor of "too soon" movies. In a 2006 San Francisco Gate article, the widow of a United 93 pilot said she wished United 93's filmmakers had waited to make their 9/11-based movie, but only so they could utilize actual cockpit recordings from that day (the film came out so soon after the events, the recordings hadn't yet been made public). The article also notes that other victims' family members felt that general public had become "too complacent" about something that, for them, was extremely painful, and that they believed the visceral realism of a movie about 9/11 would be essential in reminding people of what was lost.
Even for people who truly feel upset when a movie comes out "too soon," they're likely not understand the reason why they feel that way. Their outrage is a misdirection from their real source of discomfort, which is related to the uncanny valley between an event's raw information and how it fits in the larger story we tell ourselves about the past. History's only created in hindsight, but it takes time to codify and assign meaning to events. Films that fall within this codifying period trigger that "too soon" feeling. A movie like Zero Dark Thirty, for instance, with an 18-month turnaround time on a massive amount of information, much of it not publicly released (and some directly from the CIA), creates its own history by deleting the uncanny valley completely.
That leads to another discomfort, easier to ignore — that history is a form of propaganda, a view of events with a distinct angle. We're still making WWII movies today, and we started during the war as propaganda for the war effort. And in a truly weird form of Hollywood myth-making-turned-reality, before the U.S. entered WWII, films like Ninotchka criticizing Nazi Germany also showed Communist Russia as totalitarian dullness, but as soon as we entered the war with Russia as allies, the country suddenly began being portrayed in films like Song Of Russia as full of hard-working, earnest comrades in the struggle for freedom. Some of these movies portrayed that a little too well for the post-war HUAC committee, in charge of rooting out Communist presences in the U.S., and several people involved with the film's production were called in for loyalty questioning.
It's uncomfortable to think of history as fluid, but the evolution of how events are presented is real and important. It shows we're still wrestling with what those events mean to us, and that meaning can change as time passes. Just look at how Vietnam-centric films went from Marine-Corps sponsored rescue adventure To The Shores of Hell, to pointedly critical soldier-returns horror Deathdream, both made while the war was still happening, but reflecting very different societal views.
Films place us in a world, and when that world is a fresh tragedy people are still processing, there's dissonance between the thoughts still forming and the concreteness of the story before us. This is compounded by the psychological need of simplifying complex events to reduce unbearable psychic pain, known as "splitting," which is also, surprise surprise, how Hollywood works with practically every story they deal with, based on real life or not. The nuances of reality and all its facets tend not to work on screen; even documentaries have an angle when presenting information. It's the nature of storytelling.
Occasionally, films attempt to sidestep this by refusing to offer explanation of any sort, such as Gus Van Sant's Elephant. An abstract, intentionally blank film with no drama or tension, it follows students around school and town in the days leading up to a school shooting. Clearly referencing, but never mentioning, the Columbine massacre, it avoids glorifying or judging the event but simply paints a picture of the situation for viewers to see.
For most movies, though, it's impossible to avoid taking an angle when it comes to real-life events, for better or for worse. And often, that angle doesn't sit well with us, or comes off as too sudden or unnecessary. But what matters is that we examine the reasons behind those feelings: Hollywood's flattening of nuanced stories, the fact that history isn't neutral and is a construct, and the role media plays in shaping history. So next time you find yourself watching a trailer and thinking, "That just happened! Too soon!", think of it as your brain's way of waving a red flag, and take a look at why you feel "too soon" instead.