Though it might seem counterintuitive, the current global pandemic of the novel coronavirus has only served to whet that appetite. Since the news began breaking in January, 2011′s “Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s strikingly realistic portrayal of the modern world scrambling to contain the fictional virus MEV-1, broke into the top 10 movie rentals on iTunes. “Outbreak,” a 1995 film that was inspired in part by the AIDS epidemic, soared to the ninth most streamed item on Netflix. References to Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” and Max Brooks’s “World War Z,” which have all also been adapted for the screen, have proliferated on social media.
In a time of real crisis, many of us are spending our time watching fake crises. But why? And does it help?
“I think in the early stages of any crisis, there is curiosity” that leads people to consume (or re-consume) these types of stories, Brooks told The Washington Post. Like many others, one of the first things he did when news of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, began breaking out of China was watch “Contagion.”
That doesn’t surprise Robert Schenkkan, who adapted “The Andromeda Strain” for television in 2008. “By recasting our experience in real life within the confines of a story, it is easier to absorb and explore the ‘what if’ notion of such an event in a way one is less able to do while sitting in your living room and wondering if you should go outside and buy toilet paper from the grocery store,” he said. “Framing it within a story with a beginning, a middle and an end gives a kind of confinement that makes it more accessible.” Since the movie ends, it gives people the feeling that the real crisis will.
“In uncertain times, I think people are trying to get a handle on what to expect and how bad can things get,” said Tracey McNamara, a pathology professor at Western University of Health Sciences who worked as a scientific consultant on “Contagion.” Some, she surmised, might be looking to fiction for answers. And Soderbergh’s movie “rings true now, because it showed how quickly a virus can spread.”
Much of the film, in fact, rings true. Rebecca Katz, a doctor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, said “Contagion” contains “scenes where it doesn’t feel like a movie anymore … [such as] the dynamics of figuring out when to sound the alarm when people aren’t ready. That’s very real.”
And these kind of films can act as cautionary tales. In one scene in “Contagion,” for example, a scientist sits in a coffee shop and realizes how many ways the virus can be transmitted. “People need to realize the things they don’t even think about doing, like running to Starbucks or grabbing something off a grocery shelf, might help spread the disease,” Katz said. “Dealing with that is going to require changes in our behavior, so the movie is quite helpful for showing just how communicable diseases can be.”
But be careful not to let certain tropes in these fictional movies cause unwarranted anxiety, she warned. While they may contain useful lessons, they “are not documentaries.”
“These movies show a complete breakdown of society. And I really do not anticipate that we’re going to see major disruptions in the food supply or the water supply or electricity. That’s purely for Hollywood,” Katz said. “Covid is bad. Covid is going to have major implications for a lot of things in our life coming up very soon, if not already. But we’re not at a case fatality rate of 20 percent like ‘Contagion’ was.”
Mick Garris, who directed the 1994 television miniseries adaptation of King’s novel “The Stand,” agreed that it’s important to keep in mind how much more deadly these fictional diseases are than the ones we’re actually battling. While “The Stand” “is about an incredibly fast-spreading, international outbreak of a flu-like disease,” Garris was quick to point out the superflu’s absurdity. In both the book and miniseries, “99 percent of the world’s population succumbs to the virus,” he wrote via email. “It pretty much wipes out humanity. Big difference [from coronavirus]. Call it hope.”
What is real, Garris said, is humanity’s reaction to the threat: the “panic-buying, the greed, the disregard for fellow man.” Contained in these stories are all the reasons not to act that way — “an old lesson, but one worth learning over again.”
Part of the reason Brooks wrote “World War Z” — a more realistic imagining of what would happen during a zombie apocalypse sparked by a virus — was to explore what might happen if humans don’t heed warning signs. “I would get this constant pushback by people saying to me, ‘Your book wouldn’t happen because we wouldn’t get blindsided, because now we all sort of know about zombies because of fiction.’’ He would tell them, “Well, people in New Orleans knew about water before Hurricane Katrina.”
Schenkkan stressed that “how we use the information we are given is at least as important as the information we are given. Science does its job. It gives us the tools to manage a crisis like this, but they’re just tools. It’s up to us to employ them.”
Robert Roy Pool hopes his 1995 film “Outbreak,” which he penned with Laurence Dworet, a screenwriter and doctor, also helps convince people to use those tools, and to be selfless. Unlike “World War Z” or “Contagion,” his story (and the Ebola-esque virus at its center) isn’t global. It’s mostly confined to the small, fictional town of Cedar Creek, Calif., which allowed the film to focus more heavily on its main characters.
Pool said the “somewhat unrealistic premise” of a disease that doesn’t escape into the greater world allowed them to craft a film in which the audience has an “emotional reaction” to even the mere threat that, say, the characters of Renee Russo or Dustin Hoffman might die of the disease.
“For most people, everything is going to be okay,” Pool said of the coronavirus. “But we need to stop spreading it to others.” He hopes fans streaming his movie on Netflix will connect with the characters and then consider other people in the real world and do their part as a result, that it gives them hope. “I feel like our movie reassures them to some extent, because it’s this over-the-top, worst-case scenario … but they win, they beat the virus.”
As creators of fiction, it can be naturally be a bit confusing that folks self-quarantining in their homes might be turning to their work for answers during a very real pandemic.
“The attention to something fictional but similar to a crisis we are suffering now is humbling, because we are talking about real people getting ill, and some of them losing their lives,” Garris said. “We just wanted to make a meaningful, entertaining miniseries.”
Brooks, meanwhile, wishes the conversation about his book would feel a whole lot more absurd right now than it does.
“I wish people could have looked back on ‘World War Z’ and laughed at it, rather than taking it seriously,” he said. But there’s hope.
“This is not an asteroid headed for Earth. Godzilla isn’t coming out of the ocean. We don’t need an ‘Independence Day’-type of magic bullet,” Brooks said. “We all just need to do our part and we can knock this thing out.”