This week I re-read an article in an old issue of Black Static magazine by Stephen Volk, taking about how TV and film producers are steering clear of material that they considered “too dark”.
Coincidentally, in the same week, Analog magazine rejected one of my short stories, and restated their requirements. One line stuck out like a sore thumb: “Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers.” I have no issue with stories being rejected, but this statement affirmed the truth of Stephen Volk’s comments; his own wonderfully dark television series, Afterlife, was shelved by the BBC for being “too dark”. The fact that it had a wonderful script, terrific actors and great storylines didn’t seem to matter.
The equally brilliant US series Carnivale, American Gothic, and others, were dropped for much the same reason. To paraphrase: “The viewing public doesn’t like downbeat material.”
Can this really be the case? Have the TV producers and publishers done any research to support their argument? Or do they simply lack courage and imagination? Do they have such a low opinion of the intelligence and emotional robustness of their audience?
One of the reasons I regarded Golden Compass as such a poor film was because it steered clear of one of the book’s central themes: the death of God. If the producers had been braver they might have been surprised by the box office returns. After all, The Exorcist was thoroughly condemned by many Christians, and protesters would form barriers outside of cinemas to stop audiences going to see it. Ironically, as a result of the controversy, people in their droves went to see the film. Had it not been for the Christian naysayers the film might have sunk without trace instead of becoming an iconographic horror classic to this day.
The US version of The Vanishing had – wait for it – a happy ending! Incredible. The original was very dark, extremely unpleasant, and plausibly realistic. Hollywood took a fictional version of the very real crime, which happens in various guises all the time – that of the abduction and murder of women – and turned it into yet another piece of the cinema of reassurance.
I have equally found many horror novels operate on the same principle: everything turns out okay in the end.
While I’m not arguing for darkness for its own sake, I believe the arc of a story and its ending should be appropriate to the thrust of the tale. If an upbeat ending is the best way to go, fine. But crowbarring in a happy ending does a disservice not only to the story, but to the audience for that story.
I’d love readers of my blog to share your own views on this topic. Are you for or against the dark?
5 thoughts on “Forbidding the dark”
I agree largely with what’s been said here and I don’t know where this assumption about audiences comes from. I’ve never been personally asked about my opinion regarding ‘down-beat’ programmes. Oscar winning films consist of many that do not have happy endings. So I think it must people behind the scenes who consider what material makes them money…audiences are not truly considered.
I don’t know where the assumption comes from either, Tony. But from reading some commentary over the years it would seem that playing it safe is the default position. I read in various places that some TV shows were cancelled for this very reason (in other words, the TV companies stopped making as much money from them as they hoped). On the other hand HBO is really adventurous in its programming, with things like True Detective, and British TV will often try out really dark material. But I agree with you that ultimately it’s about the bottom line financially. I wonder if there are any statistics about audience perceptions – besides surveys linked to financial projections?
Hi John, I think I would have to go with the dark endings every time. Some of the best movies/books of all time have ‘unhappy’ endings. Many of Stephen King’s books/movies have dark endings, so does American Psycho, The Thing… and the list goes on…
I really want to say something positive about audiences here in the USA but I just can’t find the right words. Perhaps my words would be too “downbeat” anyway.
For the dark. It’s too rare but I guess that’s what makes it so appealing.