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Hollywood's Actual Violence Problem

A few months ago, I received the kind of email that makes me drop whatever I’m doing and call Michael C. The email was from Michael E. Douroux, who spent 25 years as “a literary agent representing writers, directors, producers and cinematographers in motion pictures and network prime-time television”. Since Michael C and I have been trying to break into the industry as screenwriters for the last few years, that got our attention.

Normally, I’d immediately email Douroux and ask for a meeting, except his email included a copy of an article he wrote for Business Insider. Titled “Hollywood Violence Tax”, Douroux proposes a value added tax for violent films.

Unfortunately, every screenplay we’ve ever written is incredibly, incredibly violent. And I mean violent:

- The script we just finished now includes at least two dozen people who get shot, blown up, strangled or...wait for it...lobotomized by an ax--it happens to at least two characters. (We’re incredibly proud of this script.)

- Our first script is about torture...so yeah, it’s really violent...’cause it’s about torture. (We also really love this script.)

- Even our spec script for an animated comedy is about a special ops team...and special ops teams kill people. In our script, they kill a lot of people. (This is also the best script for a half-hour animated comedy about a special forces team ever written.)

A dilemma: how do we contact an industry professional who, apparently, abhors violence? (I’m guessing Mr. Douroux won’t be representing us.)

Since Newtown, politicians and pundits on both side of the aisle have been trying to solve America’s gun violence problem. As I see it, five solutions have been proposed: gun control (endorsed by liberals), expanding gun ownership (proposed by conservatives), placing armed guards at school (the NRA), tracking the mentally ill better (both sides), and the issue that piqued the interest of On Violence’s resident art critic, solving Hollywood’s “violence problem”.

Hollywood does have a “violence problem”, but the problem isn’t violence; it’s morality. Like the screenplays that Michael C and I wrote, Hollywood films tend to be violent. Unlike our screenplays, they lack a moral point of view. They fail to the show the cost of violence and its complexity. Violence itself isn’t the problem, but how Hollywood portrays that violence. As Ebert’s dictum goes, it's not what a movie says, but how it says it.

Michael C and I grew up on action movies. All of Arnold’s films (especially the Terminator films and Predator), Rambo, Die Hard, Aliens, and so on. “Guns, guns, guns,” as Clarence Boddiker quips in Robocop. Explosions. Bullets. One liners about killing people. We love ‘em.

And yet, when we grew up, Michael C joined the military and I marched in peace protests. More importantly, we started writing. This summer, we decided to finally write an action film. The conversation went like this:

“Eric, why haven’t we written an action film?”

“I don’t know.”

“We love action movies.”

“Then let’s write an action movie.”


I wrote the first draft in two weeks, but it wasn’t an action film. If you go with The New York Times definition, it has all of the ingredients: a lone wolf hero, an obsession with guns (and axes), and a few explosions. By definition, a shoot-’em-up action film. But it also has something most action films don’t: cost.

Cost. I’ll say it again, cost. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, Hollywood needs to show the audience the problems with violence: the guilt that comes from killing and the lingering effects of PTSD.

Not to mention the complexity of violence. Hollywood needs to show the difficulty of violence: killing the wrong people and the unintended consequences of killing those wrong people. Or even the unforeseen consequences of killing the right people.

Our action movie? The hero kills a lot of people and it nearly destroys his soul. The torture film? Well, it’s anti-torture, if anything. The comedy? It’s a parody. We like to think that we take the cost of violence into account in every word we write.

Hollywood doesn’t.

In short, Hollywood should stop glorifying violence. Stop presenting heroes who can kill dozens without guilt. Show violence as it actually is: complicated, hard and ugly. Present violence the way it actually is, and we may want to be less violent. (But to show the cost of violence, films will still be violent.)

Back to the original proposal, we shouldn’t try to stop violence through taxation. Not all violence is portrayed equally. When it’s done right, it teaches and evolves society. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, we can’t just get rid of violence. We just have to portray it the way it actually is.

twelve comments


The problem with this statement “the guilt that comes from killing…” is that I think it mostly isn’t true. Commonly true perhaps, but mostly not. If it were mostly true, problems arising from that would be far more widespread than they are. The Marines who mowed down Banzai attacks, the B-26 crew that caught a Red Chinese regiment at a river crossing in the daylight, submarine crews, the Confederates at Cold Harbor, the Carthaginians at Cannae, they did some slaughtering; but I don’t think so many felt that bad about it. From what I’ve read (strictly reading, never doing) most guys just accept it as something that they had to do and even take some professional pride in (professional pride in the win, not the killing). Guys on the U.S.S. Johnston felt bad for the shipmates that suffered and were lost, not for the IJN sailors they drowned and burned.

I think it possible, probably the norm, that guys will do what needs to be done, accept it as having been needed, and then get on with their lives.

Honestly, Carl, I’d have to do more research to respond. My gut reaction is the exact opposite, based on what I’ve read and heard. Even if the guilt doesn’t hit right away, years down the line it comes back.

Eric C:

Your position could be true, but I think is on par with Grossman’s idea that reluctance to kill is an ingrained part of human nature. I don’t think that is true. Figure it this way, if it was then Mongol troopers of old would have had problems. There is zero evidence of that to my knowledge. The same for Tamurlane’s men, again no evidence of that to my knowledge. Or check out the various American Indian ledger book drawings, lots of slaughter to include women and children; again no evidence. So from this I conclude in my simple way that men are perfectly happy killing skads of other humans, if…if they come from a culture that condones that.

Our culture is a little confused about this, because there is a marked bifurcation in cultural values in this country. It is my opinion that the great mass of flyover people don’t disapprove nor associate any need to feel guilt with killing others in war, commonly accepted views of war crimes aside. It is a job to be done, do it as best you can, be proud if you excel professionally and get on with life.

The cultural elites on the other hand, are a little uncomfortable with that. It is my view that they are pretty far removed from the grimmer realities of life and they can’t quite square the need to kill in war with elite sensibilities. So they come up with the warrior who kills but then feels bad about it. That allows them to have it both ways, accepting the need to kill but still being able to view themselves of being made of finer stuff than the flyover people.

Now undoubtedly there are people like that, but I don’t think that is the norm. I think for the most part that is a cultural construction that is there primarily for the benefit of the elites. That construction doesn’t do anything good for the soldiers who are on the line. They do what they must as best they can and then instead of being honored for that, a large part of popular culture, created by elites who don’t go for the most part, tell them that they have to feel bad about doing their duty. That isn’t helping the ordinary man. The elites get to feel good about themselves however.

Here something I found quick that sort of illustrates what I am getting at.


I think I’m falling somewhere between and off to the side of Eric C and Carl on this. I agree that Hollywood has a pretty shallow view on violence, though Hollywood’s body counts pale in comparison to Asian studios. But I also think the movies you (and I) grew up with had a more sophisticated take on the cost of violence than we see today (though tv is more sophisticated now). Rambo, The Deer Hunter, heck, even Robocop, all showed the effects of violence on basic humanity.

That said, I also believe that most people come out of violent situations with their psyches intact – one of the few areas where I agree with Grossman. As an aside, I don’t care for Grossman’s work because it’s derivative of SLAM’s studies, and those have been proven to be based on atrocious, and sometimes non-existent research. A curious academic study titled “Canadians Against Fire” (it has its own weaknesses, including pulling data from a small set of Second World War surveys, and infers conclusions to questions that weren’t actually asked of the subjects) notes that Second World War Canadian soldiers (subject to effectively the same training as GIs) did NOT suffer from a reluctance to pull triggers and so show inhibitions towards killing. On the contrary, at the slightest sign of Italians or Germans, the Canadians would open up with everything they had. It took a lot of work and leadership to instil decent fire discipline. From my own experience, some soldiers feel guilt, but not all. Some soldiers feel greater survivor guilt after sending friends home in coffins than feel remorse for killing their enemies. And some harbour a grudge for so long that I know Second World War vets who to this day won’t drink anything that sounds German (their loss!). I think that Lord Moran’s “Anatomy of Courage” is more accurate than “On Killing” or “On Combat.”

Anyway, while I’ll keep an eye out for your future films (‘Sherman Productions,’ perhaps?!), I leave you with this question: Why, in North America, at any time of day, can I find multiple programs or films depicting casual violence, yet I cannot find a single program showing a couple in a normal, healthy, stable, loving relationship?

@ F – “(though tv is more sophisticated now)” I already have a post on Cable drama planned…they do show violence well.

“Why, in North America, at any time of day, can I find multiple programs or films depicting casual violence, yet I cannot find a single program showing a couple in a normal, healthy, stable, loving relationship?”

Because conflict = good drama. Conflict is at the heart of all story, is the standard answer.


Your last question is a very good one. I think Eric C. is only partially right. Conflict = drama more easily done. Showing a couple in a relationship you described can be done in a very entertaining way, but it is harder to do when you don’t have recourse to cars going sideways and people shooting pistols at each other.

There have been a number of very successful and entertaining shows about what you describe over the years, The Dick Van Dyke Show, the two Bob Newhart shows, The Cosby Show, Little House on the Prairie (my young self refused to watch such a macholess show, but my old self is wiser) and others. All of those shows had some very very talented people involved in their production. The way I figure it is sort of like comedy. Comics can always fall back on shock, cursing, sex and foreign cab drivers to get a cheap laugh. But the good ones can get a laugh without using the crutches.

I need to amend something I said above. I should have said violent conflict – drama more easily done.

The point of my question didn’t have anything to do with the challenges of making a stable relationship look exciting (ever see the Chris Rock comedy skit on the difference between boring and exciting relationships?!). It actually tied back to the post’s premise that there are 5 approaches to tackling gun violence, and was following the pants-hiked-up-to-the-nipples approach of blaming it on television (or film). By that rationale, if there’s a lot of violent media to be consumed (heck – lets throw in video games too) there will be a lot of violence. If there’s less violent media, there will be less violence in society. If there’s more thoughtfully violent media, then there will also be less violence in society. Or maybe a greater percentage of the violence will be committed by Woody Allen-types.

Similarly, if there are not a lot of thoughtful depictions of families in media, then there won’t be many stable families in society, and the solution to the ‘family problem’ is to show more good ones in media. But families are generally fine (hysterical outcries from fringe elements of the liberals, conservatives and the NRA notwithstanding), and I doubt many people would argue that a couple more good romantic comedies per year would reduce the spousal abuse or divorce rates.

So here’s another question getting back on topic: If Hollywood’s depiction of violence is a contributing factor to gun violence in America, why aren’t East Asian countries – where they churn out on-screen violence that would make Tarantino blanche – swimming in blood?

PS – I still can’t watch Little House on the Prarie.

It actually ain’t that bad.

You confused me with your question. The five approaches were in a previous post.

Hollywood is in the entertainment for pay business. It is not a college. People need to get their education where education comes from and they shall get the entertainment they want unless people get hurt.

The entire violence in media / videogames debate in the U.S. is a totally obvious distraction from the gun violence problem. It’s an attempt to hammer “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” meme into Americans’ heads again. It’s meant to move the center of the discussion away from the points where the NRA is on the defensive. It’s a bogeyman.

Europe has had the same discussion for different reasons (old grumpy men disliking seeing their grandsons playing videogames) for years. As so often, the U.S. is not leading, but late.

After years of accusations and debates, the videogame haters and violence -in-movies-haters still have no non-discredited studies to support their position. It’s all only intuition, and primitive reporters jump on every mention that some guy who was trouble had played this or that game. They kept pounding on the game “Counterstrike” a decade after it was hot and even called “World of Warcraft” evil things.

The problem is that there’s a gazillion things with a better correlation with actual violence than violence in videogames. Almost every violent boy plays violent videogames, but that’s because almost every boy plays violent videogames.

The correlation between eating breakfast regularly and violence is no more robust.

So in the end, the NRA and its allies launched a decoy, lots of gullible people are now chasing the decoy and the decoy is in fact a long discredited POS.

I should mention, for the record, I hate censorship. I don’t think the government should monitor films or movies, and I don’t think they cause gun violence.

I just want to study violence in films.