Monday, November 2, 2009

Exploring the Holy in Hollywood

by Menreet Kaur

Hollywood, for many years, has been criticized for promoting an ideology of American cultural values including around religion. If not explicitly religious films, ideas and themes based mainly on Christian ideas and ideals are constantly perpetuated. With the global spread of the film industry, and the concentration of ownership among a small range of companies such as Time Warner and Walt Disney, I will discuss and analyse the effect of this ideological frame on local values, particularly around religion.

The theoretical framework guiding this essay surrounds the Frankfurt school’s notion of the “culture industry” and Baudrillard’s theory of “simulacra and simulation”. It will explore how popular culture has become a significant agent of social control through the discourse that it produces. I will then deconstruct Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia to illustrate the embedded Christian values present in the films, together with its characters blatant relationship with supernatural themes.

According to the Frankfurt School, the culture industry generates “undialectical” and “one-dimensional” mass culture that is produced and distributed by the hegemonically dominant. This produces undesirable traits amongst audiences such as passivity, naivety and dependence and mindless obedience to the constructs of what culture manufacturers. This commodification of culture allows audiences an avenue to escape from the doldrums of life and keep them pacified and relaxed. (Adorno & Horkheimer, cited in Louw, 2001, p.96-97) They argued that institutionalized meaning-making agents, such as the media, is a “powerful and corrupting force in society” and this stems from the agenda-setting logic which curtails the range of information made available to audiences, thus effectively distorting the facts. (Adorno & Horkheimer, cited in Louw, 2001, p.39).

Similarly in a religious context, Smith (2001) contends that when a motion picture is produced in Hollywood, “technicolour scenery, special effects, celebrity actors, spiced-up scripts and other big screen production values” may divert attention away from serious reflection of movies with religious themes. (p.191) Hjavard (2008) argues that “through the process of “mediatisation”, religion is increasingly being subsumed under the logic of the media” and that it has taken a primary social function role in providing moral and spiritual guidance to the community as compared to institutionalized religions. (p.9) This comes at a time as Grace (2009) highlights where “the rise of the religious right in US domestic politics and the increased influence of evangelical Christianity on almost every aspect of the American public life” has propelled the rise of interest in films on religious topics.

Hegemonic groups will produce discourses which advance and confirm their interest to a saturation point where it becomes from a Frankfurt School perspective, “frozen and virtually unchallengeable because once naturalized, they become opaque ‘givens’ which do not seem to be the temporal creation of any hegemonic group” (Louw, 2001, p.114).

Hollywood’s power and the proliferation of Americanized values and ideals on a global platform can be attributed to a tiny number of companies dominating global film production. Time-Warner, the world’s largest media conglomerate in 1989 entered history’s largest merger with AOL (America Online) and EMI music corporation in 2000 in a deal worth more than $350 billion. Walt Disney is also part of the new elite, giving these two companies hegemonic dominance over the rest of the industry. (Branston, 2000, p.53) Miller, Govil, McMurria, Maxwell & Wang (2005) highlights Time Warner’s benchmark specifications for globalisation for the rest of Hollywood: horizontal expansion to enter new markets worldwide, vertical expansion to work with independent producers, and partnership with foreign investors to spread risks and increase capitalisation. (p.110)

In the book Global Hollywood 2, Miller et al. (2005) state that “audiences are mostly watching fiction conceived, made and owned by Hollywood. It symbolises an invitation to replication and domination, an invitation both desired and disavowed.” (p.1) A statement of its desire can be demonstrated with worldwide box office hits such as the Harry Potter series and The Chronicles of Narnia series grossing at US$5, 379, 031, 983 and US$1, 157, 623, 868 respectively. (IMDb, 2009)

However as Miller et al. (2005) claims, pro-imperialist critics believe that America has lost its own culture with its pursuit of global markets. Hollywood has “aestheticised its localness out of existence” and has become a “benignly universal product” by relocating shooting sites overseas or employing un-American celebrities to achieve “golden mean” average so that it can be applied to the global population. (p.5) Therefore, as Smith (2001) contends, it is extremely important for Hollywood to remain sensitive to the plethora of religious expectations when making a religious film.

Now that I have established the ideological framework of the media and its effect on religion and religious groups, I will illustrate with practical examples the subliminal Christian themes present in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and C.S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series and discuss the backlash that it faced despite this, from the conservative Christian groups.

Before we begin to deconstruct the content of the films, it is important to note that there is an intricate relationship between the creator, work, viewer and worldview. Johnston (2006) highlights that any film is a product of human creativity thus containing the worldview of the moviemaker. Authors J.K Rowling and C.S Lewis both belong to the Christian faith and have admitted on several occasions that Christian morals and values do come to play in their novels. (Adler 2007; Jacobs 2005) Some Christian theologians congratulate these authors for bringing Biblical concepts such as salvation, justice, evil and grace closer to today’s generation by engaging with popular culture. (Johnston & Colorad 2005; Nykanen 2003; Neal 2002; Killinger 2004)

Once the film hits theatres however, it is up to the interpretation of the viewer to fit it according or draw theological connections to their own worldview. (Johnston, 2006, p.156-157)

In Harry Potter, Johnston (2005) illustrates central Christian themes surrounding the fight of good versus evil, the act of self-sacrifice for a higher good and for others and the power of sacrificial love. This can be displayed through Potter’s duel with Voldemort, his constant suffering while easing the suffering for others and how Potter’s mother “took the curse on herself and died in his place.” (p.6-7) This left Harry with the lightning bolt scar on his forehead which did not only serve as a reminder of his mother’s love, but was what saved him from the battle with Voldemort in the fourth book. According to Johnston, this is meant to represent the cross for Christians, “as a reminder of the battle Christ fought and won”. (p.7)

From the outset, it is evident that in Harry Potter’s world, magic and spells take centre stage at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This has caused conservative Christians to decry the series as “portals to the New Age, Wicca and diabolical magic”. (Ostling, 2003, p.3) Members of the Harvest Assembly of God church and Christ Community Church in America organized book burning sessions both declaring that the Potter books were an “abomination to god”. (Robinson, 2002) While Possamai (2005) noted how the Canterbury Cathedral refused a Warner Brothers contract to film at its location citing the occult themes may be offensive to some of its followers. (p.146)

In The Chronicles of Narnia, Fulton (2008) describes the strong Christological symbolism in Aslan, the Lion who is meant to embody the spirit of God and his quest through the seven book series of “creation, death, resurrection and judgement”. (p.557) The story of the creation in the Bible can be paralleled though the scene of when Aslan walks through Narnia, he creates life through uttering these words, “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” The act of self-sacrifice, when Jesus died for the sins of others is clearly illustrated when Aslan sacrifices his innocent self instead of Edmund when the White Witch wanted him to be killed. Like Jesus, Aslan is resurrected back to life much to the surprise of the witch. (Nykanen, 2003, p.16)
Similar to Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia possesses elements of magic and fantasy.

However, unlike Rowling, Lewis made his affiliation with Christianity obvious from the start and much of his writing, even prior to Narnia has been tied to Christianity in some manner. (Whitehead, 2006, p.4) This could be a possible reason why his work has not been thoroughly flamed by conservative Christian groups as compared to Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Ostling (2003) looks at the magical elements in Rowling’s and Lewis’s book from a technological perspective, stating that it is simply instrumental in telling the story and not a reflection of real occult practices. A path, he suggests is to not look at it from “harmless fiction down into the occult, rather a gateway, via an avowedly secular fantasy, upward into true Christian spirituality”. (p.5)

The concept of “simulacra and simulation” hails from French philosopher, Baudrillard (1994) who defines culture as simulation outside the frame of reality without an origin, a hyper-reality, where signs and symbols gain meanings from relating to each other (simulacra) rather than through a standardized reality. (p.1-2) He explores this concept in the chapter, The Divine Inference of Images, that the principle truth has ceased to exist and is instead replaced by the simulacra. (p.3-4) However, Hjarvard (2008) likens this to movies such as the Narnia and Harry Potter film series where the metaphysical realm is no longer something you can imagine or see symbolically, but media representations of the characters in this film were given a sense of “richness” in character that make the supernatural appear natural. (p.9)

Along the same thread, Warren (1997) recognizes the significance of iconic images and its power to “move those who see them toward mimesis or imitation” (p.128). He believes that the moving images of film have an “exponentially greater mimetic power” that triggers a way of imagining ourselves and “religious imagery has been used in this way of inviting the viewer to imitate the qualities of the person or reality represented by the icon”. (p.129-130) This theory would sit well with Christian conservatives who believe that exposing the Narnia and Harry Potter series to children will lead them into the way of the occult because of their inability to see or read beyond the content given to them.

On the flip side of the argument, Neil Postman’s (cited in Hosseini, 2008) theory however, aims to highlight that media and religion cannot exist together because of their entire different nature and essence, where media satisfies man’s desires and religion cater to man’s real needs. (p.62) Therefore, there will be no religious turnover regardless of the type of popular culture that the consumer chooses to indulge in because these are both separate entities.

Possamai (2005) presents the debate of “hyper-real religion” versus “hypo-consumer religion” which is useful in understanding the role of fiction produced by the culture industry and its implication on the religious society. He contends that spiritual consumers seek identification through fantasy stories that support their subjective myths and as a sense of self-identification which can transcend from the hyper-real realm into real life. (p. 78-79) In this sense, the magic as depicted in Harry Potter and Narnia will make the viewer try and produce the same qualities within themselves in real life.

Hypo-consumerist religions on the other hand, aggressively rejects any subjective interpretations because of its firm belief in its religious system and only consumes popular culture that is parallel with its creed. (Possamai, 2005, p.136 -138) They act as a form of policing of popular culture on a consumer level and warn against the readings of books like Harry Potter and Narnia to safeguard their monotheist religions.

The theological readings of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia can only be seen when one is well-versed with the Biblical story. The culture industry coined the fantasy genre in film in which these movies are set and that in itself takes the Wiccan, occultism and paganism themes out of the real world and places it in the simulacrum. Statistical studies need to be done on the actual materialization of watching religious films and that to changing one’s religious identification before any further comment can be made on the media’s religious stronghold of its audience.

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