Extreme Graphic Content! Deadpool vs. The Revenant

Let’s be honest. We probably all enjoy some stories or media that are not completely tame. Whether your taste is for moderate action violence, excessive blood and gore, or maybe some passionate moments that go further than some would be comfortable with, not everything we take in is 100% family friendly. Nor should it be, for as we get older and become more discerning we can hopefully come to appreciate books or movies that may have more mature content and themes without being negatively affected. But how far is too far? As readers, viewers, or writers, where do we draw the line when it comes to sensitive content or topics?

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Theatrical poster for Deadpool (2o16). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

This is a very complex question, and obviously there isn’t one simple blanket answer that works for everyone. But it’s a question that I want to explore today. And, in keeping with my last couple of posts, I’ll use the recent superhero blockbuster film Deadpool–rated R for excessive violence, strong language, and some nudity–as an example. I’ve seen a lot of controversy going around the internet about this movie. But as both a Christian and a comic book fan, I have friends in both camps and everywhere in between, some claiming “THIS MOVIE IS FILTHY AND NOBODY SHOULD SEE IT!” while others retort, “THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME AND EVERYONE SHOULD SEE IT!” So should you see Deadpool or shouldn’t you? And why?

First, a disclaimer. Being a Christian, my moral beliefs will naturally affect my perceptions of this movie to some extent, and not everyone may share my views. Still, I believe that the question of mature content in a story is not just a religious or moral issue, but often a question of good storytelling quality as well. Through studying English at a Christian university, I’ve had the opportunity to formulate my views on this topic fairly well, but I believe some of these principles I’m going to mention can be relevant to any audience of movies or stories, regardless of beliefs.

Anyway, I’m part of a Facebook group for Christians to discuss movies and pop culture, and Deadpool‘s release nearly started a civil war between two opposing camps. But someone there recently had a good question. They asked, basically, “is it hypocritical for some of us to be hating on Deadpool while still enjoying movies like The Revenant? Both have very graphic, violent, and mature content. Is it okay to support one but not the other? Where should we draw the line?” And here was my response:

“I have a certain philosophy that I use for almost all art/media/culture these days. Taking a lot of English and writing classes at a Christian college helped me a lot with this. My belief is this: in regards to content in movies, etc., WHAT is portrayed is not as important as HOW it is portrayed. There can be quite a bit of dark or violent content, but the way it’s portrayed or the overall message can be either positive or negative.
For example: The Revenant contains very many graphic scenes, but I think it does a decent job of showing the consequences of those things. It shows how violence, rape, etc. only lead to more hatred and brokenness. It portrays those things but does not glorify them; it shows them as ugly, which they are. And [SPOILER ALERT] the protagonist makes a positive climactic decision in the end, so I think that helped it to have a *slightly* more positive and uplifting tone and theme overall.
On the other hand, the Deadpool movie (at least, based on what it looks like from the trailers) contains lots of violence and sex, but tries to pass them off as fun and funny. It glorifies evil behaviors for cheap entertainment. It takes serious topics that should be treated with reverence and makes them into a joke. This is a major part of why I generally do not enjoy or support Deadpool (whether in comics or movies).
If it helps, ask yourself this question for almost any media you encounter. Think about not just the content being portrayed, but how the overall theme and tone portray it. Even the Bible contains some very graphic descriptions of violence and sex, but it doesn’t portray those things in a positive way. Those are my thoughts at least.”

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Theatrical poster for The Revenant (2015). Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

I have watched and enjoyed The Revenant, but admittedly have chosen not to watch Deadpool (at least not until maybe I can rent it on DVD). So I could be wrong about this movie. Maybe there is some deep purpose or relevant plot to it that I’ve missed out on so far. But, based on what I’ve seen and heard, it sure doesn’t seem that way. It seems like, “hey, let’s throw in a nude scene in a strip club just so we can put in more sex and give it an R rating! And don’t forget to make tasteless jokes against people while violently murdering them!” It uses violence, sex, and death not for well-crafted story or for thought-provoking discussion, but simply for cheap entertainment and laughs. And that’s why, both as a Christian and as a discerning consumer of media and culture, I can’t really give my approval to this movie.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Deadpool film seems to be like this. Because, as I’ve alluded to in my last few posts, the Deadpool comics are largely the same. With perhaps some exceptions depending on the writer and the direction of the story, they fill their pages with mature, sometimes disturbing content on sensitive topics, and write it all off as a joke and a cool action-y comic for the kids.

I’ve noticed this tendency in Deadpool a number of times, but one particular instance was more disturbing than the rest. In one story arc, Deadpool decided that he had nothing to live for and wanted to die. But due to his healing powers, death does not come easily for him. So we got three whole issues about Deadpool trying to trick the Hulk into killing him. In other words, Deadpool exploited someone else (with what could be considered a mental condition) in his attempt to commit suicide, and the whole thing was made to look like a fun, funny, action-packed jaunt between two brightly colored superheroes, complete with witty dialogue and everything. Were these comics more violent than normal ones? Did they have too much bad language or sexual content? No, not really. But they took some very serious topics that affect a lot of real people–mental illness and suicide–and tried to turn them into slapstick mindless entertainment. I had to consider after that story whether or not I was really comfortable still reading Deadpool. And, while I do still read his comics occasionally, sometimes I’m still not sure.

For readers and viewers of stories, being able to discern the message behind the content–the “how” and “why” instead of just the “what”–is essential to understanding both the purpose and quality of the work. But consider this principle as creative writers, too. Including mature content or serious themes in your work is not wrong, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. What messages will you take into your mind by what you read, watch, and listen to? And what messages will you send out to the world by what you write?

 

Fiction as Theology Part 3: Communicating Your Message

51E0ZN6GHKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc).  You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).

Victor_Hugo_by_Étienne_Carjat_1876_-_fullOf course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne,  Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*

quote-art-for-art-s-sake-is-an-empty-phrase-art-for-the-sake-of-the-true-art-for-the-sake-of-the-good-george-sand-310004However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**

 

*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.

**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).

What Happens When I Don’t Have Anything Left to Say

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockThere are any number of causes behind writer’s block. Perhaps you haven’t really thought through a scene, or perhaps you’re characters just aren’t cooperating and you don’t know why. Perhaps there’s some underdeveloped foundational area of research or creative work that you need to spend more time on, or perhaps you’re just stumped about how to get your characters from A to C without going through B (where B is some undesirable element of story or characterization). These are all legitimate reasons to struggle, and these are all things that many writers struggle with. Creativity is hard work, and sometimes it just takes effort to get through the block. However, there is a more pernicious cause of writer’s block, and even more grievously, or plain bad writing: a lack of message.

We’ve all read books that were shallow. They fill the shelves of your local book store and your local library. They have flat characters, uninteresting story lines, and seemingly meaningless plot twists. The only purpose for which they exist is to sell copies, make people money, and maybe give you some mild entertainment for a few hours. I call this bad writing because even though it can be formally excellent, it is devoid of substance. It’s like a five-star Filet Mignon that turns out to be made of tofu, or like eating cheetos… for anyone who doesn’t know, I hate cheetos. Sometimes you really want mindless drivel, just like sometimes you really want tofu or fake-cheese powder. However, no one in their right mind would call tofu steak, cheetos nourishing, or shallow fiction great literature.

guard2However, I think that its worth asking where such bad writing comes from in the first place, and I am convinced that it comes from the same place as one of the main causes of writer’s block. When you have something that is worth saying, have done your research, worked out the details of your world, understand your characters, and planned out your story, the actually writing part tends to come fairly easily. Its usually when one of these is missing that writer’s block sets in. That being said, I think the the most important of these is the first: having something that is worth saying. When my fiction has a purpose, when I am trying to express something that is meaningful to me, it tends to be much better. Even fiction that is not exceptional formally can be very enjoyable and captivating when it has a clear purpose: when its alive. A good example of this is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land. Both of these are wonderful novels that do not excel formally. In Starship Troopers Heinlein tends to use his characters as mouthpieces, and some of the characters are under-developed. In Stranger in a Strange Land the characters as a whole tend to be under-developed and at times it is difficult to follow the course of the story. However, in both novels his message is clear. The same criticisms can apply to much of Ayn Rand’s work, and yet Atlas Shrugged is still selling copies more than thirty years after her death.

So, the question is: what do we do when we’ve said what we wanted to say? I think that there are three major options:

Streets-of-Blood-cover1) Write Bad Fiction: as I said above, there’s a place for it. Sometimes I want to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but sometimes I want to read Never Deal with a Dragon or Streets of Blood (I’ve been on a Shadowrun kick lately). I don’t expect the later to live up to the high standard set by the former. In fact, I don’t expect much from them at all except a few hours entertainment in a setting that I love. So, I think that there is a legitimate choice here, though I certainly hope that writing bad fiction won’t be a permanent choice.

2) Do Something Else: the vast majority of my favorite writers didn’t spend their entire lives writing. Some of them didn’t even spend most of their lives writing. David Eddings was a soldier, a purchaser for Boeing, and a college lecturer as well as a writer. Isaac Asimov was a soldier and a Biochemist as well as a writer. Frank Herbert was a journalist for much of his life. Robert Heinlein was a sailor, a miner, and a failed politician as well as a writer. And Steven Erikson is an anthropologist and archaeologist. So, if you don’t have something that’s worth saying, its perfectly valid to go and do something else for a while. Maybe you’ll return to writing, hopefully you’ll bring back a lot of experiences that will make your stories that much better. Maybe you won’t, but you’ll contribute to the world in some other way. However, for many of the greats writing has been something that they did along with life, not the center and goal of their life.

3) Find A New Message: you might actually do this by doing something else for a while. However, if the best writing has a purpose and a point, and if you’ve made yours already then maybe the best thing to do is to find something else that’s worth saying. Of course, you could just make the same point over and over again, there are plenty of authors writing both fiction and non-fiction who do this, but that can get tedious after a while. However, you are in the midst of an entire world worth of possibilities, ideas, arguments, and beliefs. Find one to support (hopefully a good one, I’m not encouraging you to go out and write something glorifying and defending slavery or mass murder), and write something that does so in a meaningful, interesting way. Don’t be random about this, but find something that you actually believe in, and that you actually know something about.

So, this is my advice for when you don’t have anything left to say. I’ve been majoring on the second for the last year (of course, between work, school, and relationship I haven’t really had time for writing fiction), and if I get into a Ph.D. program I might be focusing on the second one for a while longer. However, what you decide to do is up to you.