The Death of Adult Movies

I rarely frequent movie theaters these days. Box office ticket prices are not the chief deterrent, nor the concession stand price of a barrel of popcorn or a box of Raisinets. Talkative members of audiences, and eardrum-splitting volumes of trailers are also deterrents, but they’re not why I avoid ticket windows.  Rather it’s what’s showing in the theaters that stops me from sitting in the dark. I will make an exception, and pay for a ticket, if I think I ought to see a film. If I make the effort, it’s because I suspect there’s something odd about a film that I wouldn’t be able to identify unless I saw it instead of being misled or repelled by its trailers.

I happen to love movies. Good movies. Ones that uplift me, or instruct me in the art of storytelling, or enlighten me in some respect. But bad movies, or mediocre ones, have the same effect on me as does Andy Warhol’s poster of Campbell Soup cans. And there are far more of those films than there are of that anti-artist’s thirty-two soup cans.

I recently saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I suspected that, like its predecessor,  it was more than just a story about a girl good with a bow and arrow, coming from a circa 1930’s West Virginia-like coal town, and populated with characters whose names seem to have been the result of a Scrabble game with no rules. The setting wasn’t supposed to be a post-war or post-anarchy America governed by PanAm – excuse me, “Panem” – an oppressive government located in some high-tech run Imperial Rome-like city that’s full of evil men and a populace of perversely effete, gaudily dressed clowns entertained by a form of gladiatorial combat. The weird names — Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, Finnick Odair, etc., all vaguely Celtic – didn’t fool me one bit, either. It was all an allegory on America.

So I learned that both Hunger Games movies – I saw the first one, also, and there will be a third, to judge by the ending of Number Two – were political statements about the evils of technology and capitalism and civilization and how virtuous living the simple life at a subsistence level trumps technology and cities and badly dressed people every time. The “message” was as thoroughly embedded in it as it was in another fantasy, Avatar.

As the American consciousness has been progressively foreshortened, minimalized, and cramped over several generations – chiefly by a public education philosophy committed not so much to the acquisition of knowledge and the honing of one’s cognitive powers and rationality, as to what the Progressives and the government wish to have Americans focus on (anti-intellectualism, pragmatism, conformity) – so has the “I.Q.” of films diminished in terms of scope, scale and attention span. This has occurred, not overnight, but incrementally, in generational jerks and spasms, in syncopated tandem with the dumbing down and the engineered cognitive and cultural myopia.

Instead of adapting novels that require a modicum of literacy and an extended attention span to read and grasp – an attention span beyond what a text message or a tweet demands – we are getting movies more and more adapted from graphic novels. From comic books. And if not from comic books, then from juvenile or “young adult” novels, or computer games.  And often a computer-game-inspired movie will loop back into an advanced version of the game.

Left behind in this scramble for boffo box office receipts and securing the twenty-something and “tween” crowds are adults and adult themes and subjects (and I don’t mean pornography). “Adult” themes and stories are about individual heroism, or integrity, or mature but rational relationships and conflicts, and even political issues and crime stories based on a rational ethics.

Instead of something like Seven Days in May, we get Olympus has Fallen. There are no razzmatazz special effects in the former, nor any Korean terrorists (nor any Islamic terrorists, for that matter, that wouldn’t be Sharia-Compliant; see my column on that subject here), just nonpareil direction, acting, and suspense, even though Burt Lancaster, as the coup-plotting general was intended to be the incarnation of the “right wing.” It’s the well-made films with the subtle, unemphasized “messages” that are the effective and memorable films, as well as the ones with no ostensive political or “social justice” messages at all, such as the original The Browning Version, Leave Her to Heaven, or Laura.

Want a gripping story of tragedy or personal conflict from an adult perspective? Try Tunes of Glory, Tea and Sympathy, or The Runner Stumbles. Want a good comedy? Try Hobson’s Choice, His Girl Friday, The Ladykillers, or Nothing Sacred. Want a “romantic” movie that features “adult” conflicts without showing an inch of flesh? Try Separate Tables, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Brief Encounter.

Either you will not find their counterparts in modern movies, or if they’ve been remade, they just don’t evoke short-term memory, never mind nostalgia. The remakes especially are guilty of pointlessly changing names and situations to appeal to the current generation or the current political mantra. Too often those changes just don’t make the grade. You wonder why producers and directors bother with a remake, until you see what they’ve done to the characters, the story, and the theme.

Needless to say, I won’t be seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, just as I have refrained from seeing any of the Dark Knight Trilogy, or any of the other comic book-based action movies. I’m a full-grown adult. I don’t need to be “entertained” by having my mind seared, scoured, and dulled by endless car chases, exploding CGI space ships, incredible fight scenes that induce mental whiplash, decibel-destroying automatic weapons, and flat acting.  There should come a point in anyone’s life when he should know that he’s being patronized and insulted at the same time, but the capacity to make that connection is missing in more and more adults. “We’re going to treat you like an adolescent, insult your intelligence, and take your money, too.” No, thanks.

Someone might ask: But aren’t these comic book movies upholding heroes and justice, things you are for? I don’t know that this is true. When you project heroes and justice outside the realms of reality, that might be fine for children and adolescents exploring the value of heroism or moral issues for the first time, but it hardly applies to adults. Children, adolescents and adults might get a glimmering of how to solve a serious moral problem by watching Executive Suite, not Wall Street. Or Shane, not The Wild Bunch.

About a million words have already been written by reviewers and critics about Captain America, but few, to my knowledge (and I’ve read a hefty number of them), observe the adolescence-orientation of that film and its ilk, or they reveal that their authors are oblivious or indifferent to the phenomenon. Mike Wilmington of Movie City News, however, wrote an ambivalent column about the pros and cons of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, while still pining for something a little more substantial than the facile razzle-dazzle of modern action thrillers or adventure films. He opens with:

In the mood for something super-duper, movie-wise? Something loud, fast, full of crash-bang and zip-zowie, and liable to make megazillions of dollars all around the world? Captain America: The Winter Soldier — which is the latest Marvel Comics super-hero spectacular — may be  just your super-ticket.

I’m being facetious, but maybe not super-facetious. The movie, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, has a lot going for it, though I think it’s being somewhat overrated. A super-hero picture with a great two-faced super-villain, a super-jittery action camera, super-CGI tricks, super-credit teasers, a shrewdly super-paranoid script, and a sort of a heart, Captain America: The Winter Soldier definitely belongs in the upper echelon of Marveldom, somewhere under Iron Man  and Spider-Man 2, and somewhere above The Hulk and X-Men.

Discussing the plot of Captain America, Wilmington notes:

These nightmare fantasies of the teen-targeted super-hero action movies (or SHAMS) and young adult movies (or YAMs) — so wildly popular with younger audiences — are fashioned out of the Marvel comic books of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is when Marvel Comics main-man writer-editor Stan Lee wrote a lot of his best stuff and when I read a lot of it), and this Captain America (created for the comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) is a left-wing movie that makes its villains part of the military-industrial complex: self-righteous militarists who want to take over the world, and programmed mercenaries like the Winter Soldier himself. [Italics mine]

That observation can also be applied to the differences between the original The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the remake (2004). The first was about a Communist conspiracy to install a president friendly to Communism. The second was about a capitalist plot to install a president friendly to capitalism. Some pundits have called President Barack Obama a “Manchurian Candidate.” However, I’d call him the Ayers/Soros/Alinsky candidate. I might also add that when it comes to portraying a conspiring, manipulative mother-bear bitch, Meryl Streep can’t hold a candle to Angela Lansbury.

Wilmington asks:

Is it a bad joke that this truly super art form is now often most expensively used to make ultra-costly versions of old comic books (even good old comic books) and new young adult novels (even good ones), intended for a world-wide audience of teenagers, and people who seem to want to be teenagers? Are we so steeped in teen fantasies… that the real world and all the magnificent stories you can cull from it are relegated mostly to the smaller budgets and cheaper seats?

No, it isn’t a bad joke. Something unfunny is at work. What is responsible for the “reimagining” of older material is moral and esthetic bankruptcy, with directors, producers, and most Hollywood studios suffering from selective autism, with a strong strain of Alinskyite target-and-destroyism.

Wilmington’s plaintive remarks echo the subject of Diana West’s seminal critique of American culture, The Death of the Grownup: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization (reviewed here).

In my column, “Maturity Deferred: The Death of the Grown-up,” I wrote:

West’s central thesis is that our culture has ossified into a “perpetual adolescence,” even though the Baby Boomer generation is nearing or at the age of retirement. That generation was sired and raised by the “greatest generation,” one of adults and even adolescents who fought World War Two in combat overseas and in the factories at home.

The “greatest generation,” however, in turn raised a not-so-great generation many of whose members became the creators and proponents of or adherents to the rebellious “counterculture” of the 1960’s and 1970’s, with its pronounced leftist, collectivist and nihilist means and ends. If members of that generation did not actively take part in the assault on the status quo, then they passively accepted a besieged status quo as mere powerless spectators.

West diagnoses part of the problem, as I note in my column:

Throughout her book West cites numerous instances of adults abdicating or never discovering their responsibilities as thinking, reasoning adults. She defines two species of this state of purported adult “adolescence,” a condition she also claims is exacerbated by multiculturalism and diversity:

A reluctance to assert or champion “adult” values one knows are superior, or a fear to assert them, lest one be accused of something terrible (fascism, elitism, or racism) by the enemies of those values;

An indoctrinated ignorance of or hostility to any values that are demonstrably superior.

Lest anyone accuse me of retreating to the past, let him. Today’s culture and arts are not mine. I am not so much alienated from the culture, as it is alien to everything I hold dear. And I think that anyone who has read this column up to this point would agree that they’re grown-ups, too.

  • Jay Ogunshola

    I think Cline, though often correct about many aesthetic issues, is wrong about the abstract meaning of the “Hunger Games” movies. The story is the classic tale of a tyranny using “bread and circuses” to keep the people in check. (“Panem” is Latin for “bread”, wink, wink.) It’s a very well-told story of what happens when a real hero walks into the gladiators’ arena, and lives!

  • DogmaelJones1

    And in the best told stories of that genre are usually subtle “messages.” If the Hunger Games movies were actually what you say they are, I’d have preferred to see an explicit theme. But, there is no such explicit theme. Audiences, if they’re inclined to, must sit and figure it out themselves. And, yes, I knew the Latin meaning of “Panem,” but it wasn’t worth the wordage to emphasize it.

  • writeby

    Mainstream: Obvious, banal, repetitive, with near kindergarten themes (if any), cinematography the size of a PC monitor, drivel dialogue and plots that move from Point A to Pointless at the speed of a chase scene.

    “Serious” or “artsy”: From the pretentious to the bizarre, with themes from simpleminded emotionalism (‘he followed his heart’) to a dissection of the venal; cinematography either 8mm or art house chiaroscuro; aimless plots dipped in sentiment or cynicism.

    “Romantic Comedy”: the juxtaposition speaks for itself.

    And that’s the best of what’s out there.

    I admire your strong stomach, Ed, for even writing about the state of the anti-modern cinema.

    PS. The Hunger Games is an updated version of The Running Man. But, hey, like, ya know, better FX, dude.

    Haven’t been to a theater since Chocolat, but have discovered on DVD, by means of a ruthless screening process, a few films I’d recommend for any who haven’t seen them & who seek a better faire than what’s been out there since, it seems, forever:

    The Illusionist (2006)

    Casino Royale (2006): The closest Fleming Bond–better even than Dr. No–in that entire sad series, including those that followed, which quickly slid back into parodies.

    Batman Begins (2005): In my judgment an exception to your analysis, Ed. But, again, forget what follows. As aide, I think what these comic book films offer the adults (of what’s left of them) is an efficacious hero.

    Master & Commander (2003)

    Chocolat (2000): Best on this short list. A genuine drama, with elements of such: action, suspense, romance, humor, even a smidgen of adventure (which is what drama used to be before the genre Balkanization that’s led to entire films with only one of those elements) with a radical, provocative theme that doesn’t involve sex, mass murder or the same rag worn politics of the past 75-years or so.

    Proof of Life (2000)

    The Thomas Crown Affair (1999): Exceptional & proof a remake can tower over the original.

    October Sky (1999)

  • ToSeek

    Mr. Cline seems to be completely unaware that the Hunger Games movies are in fact the result of “adapting novels that require a modicum of literacy and an extended attention span to read and grasp”, albeit young adult novels (which is another reason to be confident there will be a third movie, since the books are a trilogy).

  • writeby

    For the young who seek better films, here’s a list (leaving out what Ed already included above) of what I think among the best Hollywood made prior to 1970, in no particular order:

    The Fugitive
    Cinderella Man
    Working Girl
    Groundhog Day
    Baby Boom
    Music Man
    The Naked Jungle
    Sergeant York
    Sorry Wrong Number
    Marathon Man
    The High & the Mighty
    Cinema Paradiso
    Romancing the Stone
    Mister Roberts
    His Girl Friday
    The Philadelphia Story
    Ball of Fire
    The Great Escape
    The Magnificent Seven
    Winchester ’73
    The Man from Laramie
    All the King’s Men
    Red River
    No Highway In the Sky
    Grand Hotel
    Silk Stockings
    The Merry Widow
    The Thirty-Nine Steps
    The Agony and the Ecstasy
    Strangers on a Train
    Torn Curtain
    The Winslow Boy
    Foreign Correspondent
    Top Hat
    To Have and Have Not
    Notorious (w/ Bergman)
    Love in the Afternoon
    Valley of Decision
    The Quiet Man
    Sabrina (w/ Hepburn and Bogey)
    To Catch A Thief
    Yankee Doodle Dandy
    The Lady Vanishes
    Funny Face
    Adam’s Rib
    All About Eve
    The Apartment
    The Caine Mutiny
    The Searchers
    Witness For The Prosecution
    Love Letters
    The Maltese Falcon
    The Desk Set
    Woman of the Year
    Inherit the Wind
    High Noon
    My Fair Lady
    The Miracle Worker (Anne Bancroft)
    Whose Life Is It, Anyway
    In The Heat of the Night
    An American in Paris
    Singing in the Rain
    Dial “M” For Murder
    North By Northwest
    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    Gone with the Wind
    Sound of Music
    Rear Window
    We The Living
    On the Waterfront

    *Anything with Astaire prior to 1960.
    **Almost anything w/ Stanwyck, Preston, Cooper, Gable, Bogart, Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Kate (Prior to 1970s) and Charisse.

  • writeby

    List 2:

    Big Red (1962)
    Bright Eyes (1934)
    Tom Thumb (1958)
    Little Miss Marker (1934)
    The Red Balloon (1956)
    The Littlest Rebel (1935)
    The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)
    Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
    Lassie Come Home (1943)
    Pennies From Heaven (1936)
    The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
    Love Me Tonight (1932)
    Footlight Parade (1933)
    The Broadway Melody of 1940
    Monte Carlo (1930)
    The Love Parade (1929)
    Blue Skies (1946)
    Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)
    Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
    The Big Broadcast (1932)
    The Four Feathers (1939)
    Prisoner of Zenda (1937)
    The Beloved Rogue (1927)
    Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
    Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
    You Can’t Run Away From It (1956)
    Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
    The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
    The Virginian (1929)
    Without Love (1945)
    The Westerner (1940)
    The Lady Eve (1941)
    The Gunfighter (1950)
    The Black Pirate (1926)
    Rare Breed (1966)
    Scaramouche (1923 & 1952)
    The Three Musketeers (1948)
    Pin-Up Girl (1944)
    Dodge City (1939)
    Till The Clouds Roll By (1946)
    Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
    Northwest Passage (1940)
    Sun Valley Serenade (1941)
    Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullets (1940)
    Cover Girl (1944)
    Follow the Boys (1944)
    Sinbad, the Sailor (1947)
    Anthony Adverse (1936)
    Black Swan (1942)
    The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)
    Hudson’s Bay (1940)
    Ivanhoe (1952)
    The Black Knight (1954)
    A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
    The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)
    The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
    Fire Over England (1937)
    The Desert Fox (1951)
    The Benny Goodman Story (1955)
    The Glenn Miller Story (1955)
    Strategic Air Command (1955)
    Beau Geste (1939)
    King Solomon’s Mines (1937 & 1950)
    The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
    Stanley and Livingstone (1939)
    China Seas (1935)
    The Fighting 69th (1940)
    Annie Oakley (1935)
    Against All Flags (1952)
    The Far Country (1955)
    Jason & the Argonauts (1963)
    The Vikings (1958)
    Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
    The Stratton Story (1949)
    Breaking Away (1979)
    My Bodyguard (1980)
    Treasure Island (1934, 1950)
    The Last Starfighter (1984)
    Bugsy Malone (1976)
    A Little Romance (1979)
    Things to Come (1936)
    Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
    Fantastic Voyage (1966)
    In Search of the Castaways (1962)
    Keeper of the Flame (1942)
    The Never-ending Story (1984)
    Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
    Baby Boom (1987)

  • DogmaelJones1

    First, I’m not getting into a discussion about my movie choices. What I mention in the column is only the tip of the iceberg. However, the pre-1965 clunkers outnumber the betters or the bests by about 100 to 1. Many of “Writeby’s” choices of what’s worth watching I happen to agree with, others I don’t. I also left an extended comment on my column on Rule of Reason. Yes, “To Seek,” Mr. Cline was completely aware of the Hunger Games trilogy. I have not read them, and don’t plan to. The novels were not the main thrust of the column here, but rather what Hollywood does to material it adapts to the screen, whether it’s good or bad material. I shudder to think what Hollywood would to do any my novels.

    Secondly, I’ve observed among Objectivists that when one criticizes the esthetics of art, and especially contemporary art, and most especially movies, one does so at the risk of touching a raw nerve. The last contemporary movie I’ve seen that knocked me flat was “Agora.” I have reservations about some of the director’s techniques, but those can be forgiven in lieu of the intensity of the story and its overall production quality and performance of the cast. At the risk of alienating readers, I would make this analogy: Most Objectivists I’ve met and discussed the subject with, and regardless of their ages, when it comes to art and especially movies, are in the same conflicted moral conundrum as the young people in Thomas Carter’s “Swing Kids” (1993).

  • Grantsinmypants

    I haven’t seen the second one, so take these claims for what they are, but the theme of The Hunger Games is the individual asserting her right to exist as against the collective’s claim of a right to kill her for “the greater good.” Nothing more. You’re right that they fail to make that undeniably clear, but that’s what it is. The urban-rural conflict is secondary (and probably not even intended, as the rural people are still completely integrated into national the economy, and the urban elite are clearly seen to be politicos, not capitalists). The fact that these movies are popular is a good sign (probably too little too late, but a good sign nevertheless).

  • Steven Smith

    I appears that Mr Cline has failed to notice the age of the average movie goer. It’s late teens or early twenties. These people are the ones who pay for these movies (not adults who want “serious” material). It’s called capitalism Cline. The movie makers are giving the audiences what they want – car chases, explosions, CGI etc .As you said, If you don’t like these movies, take your business else where. I find these pop corn heroes fighting for a cause, struggling and putting out enormous effort towards a goal, very inspiring and uplifting. Isn’t that what life is all about – struggling to succeed? Hmm, how come you fail to mention this? These young people aren’t as stupid as you imply Mr Cline. Life is a struggle – just like Captain America demonstrates in his recent well deserved smash hit.

  • writeby

    “It’s called capitalism Cline. The movie makers (sic) are giving the audiences what they want…”

    I wonder if pandering could be called capitalism. I suppose that in a capitalist system, there will be the Keatings & the Wyands. But those who produce something of genuine value generally give the people something many or even most of them don’t want.

    Like anesthesia, the Spinning Jenny, the Wainwright Building or Atlas Shrugged.

    Or something most thought foolish or impossible.

    Like the Benz engine or the Wright Flyer.

    A person who panders, though, like a Keating or Wyand or Hearst, is a parasite, a dependent, a second hander.

    Capitalism, though, depends on the independence of the innovator; indeed, capitalism is tailor-made for such men.

    Uplifting men’s vision & refining their tastes through art, instructing them through invention, educating them through logic & argument–I’d say these are the marks of an authentic capitalist.

    Unfortunately, these–with rare exception–are not the marks of most Hollywood writers, producers and directors.

    What films like Captain America, etc., actually do is to cash-in on men’s desire to contemplate efficacious heroes–Doyle’s Holmes, Spillane’s Hammer, Sabatini’s Capt. Blood, Forester’s Hornblower, Rand’s Roark–by presenting paper thin characters performing impossible feats. Comic book super heroes. Fine for a 15-year old, perhaps, but a poor excuse for anyone over 18.

    Behind that cashing-in, though, hidden from an audience that will eat anything, lies the sneer of the Hollywood cynic, happy to peddle–& in the end destroy–something he in fact despises. Like Broccoli’s parody of Bond.

    Capitalism? I suppose, if one also categorizes sideshow exhibitions of freaks, true crime & gossip mags, pimping & whoring, drug peddling & pornography as such also.

  • Steven Smith

    “Comic book super heroes. Fine for a 15-year old, perhaps, but a poor excuse for anyone over 18.” Really. As I said, life is a struggle (not just for under 18 year olds) – in fact a lifelong struggle ( ‘strive to enter the narrow gate’, ‘many are the afflictions of the righteous’, ‘you must enter the kingdom through much tribulation’ etc. ) When people fail in this struggle, they embrace collectivism and Marxbama. If you cannot see that everyone must fight a battle for control of their mind, you must be living in a ivory tower. Captain America and his side kicks, go through their trials, struggles and tribulations – and win. Very, very inspiring and motivating. Thank you very much comic book writers and their movie counterparts.

  • writeby


    You’re (understandably) confusing the didactic with the aesthetic.

    And, yes, given the choice between an artwork didactically rational but aesthetically second rate and an artwork enshrining the corrupt but aesthetically well done (Mad Men; Game of Thrones; House of Cards; The West Wing (which today looks pristine when compared with those others); etc.), one would be forced to choose the former.


    “Art is not the means to any didactic end. This is the difference between a work of art and a morality play or a propaganda poster. The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme. Art is not the means of literal transcription. This is the difference between a work of art and a news story or a photograph” (

    Nor can it be, past a certain age of the reader, a comic book:

    “An artist does not fake reality—he stylizes it. … His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality—they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts” [emphasis added] (

    Ray guns, alien monsters and a hero flinging a shield at tanks during WWII is pretty much not factual, wouldn’t you say?

    And for kids, that’s okay; it’s the presentation of efficacious heroes that takes center stage at that point in a boy’s maturation. But when a boy becomes a man, there is an artistic need for more. For a Romantic hero, yes; but also for a realistic one.

    For a Howard Roark or a Hank Rearden or a Cyrano, rather than a Superman or a Captain America or an Iron Man.

  • Hilda

    Very insightful column. It has made me rethink many movies I’ve watched. I do crave adult movies—movies that are not condescending or insulting and deal with serious topics in an intelligent benevolent manner. This explains why I’m a fan of “old” movies and ostensibly avoid the new stuff.

  • Hilda

    Thank you for the list. I’m always looking for good movies to watch. Based on your insightful comments, I will trust your judgment and check some of these movies out.

  • Hilda

    I don’t see Rob Roy (1995) The list is not complete without this wonderful movie.

  • Hilda

    “…cash-in on men’s desire to contemplate efficacious heroes…”

    Thank you. I could never quite pin it down, but now it’s clear why some of these movies left me unsatisfied and disappointed.

  • writeby

    Maybe we could see a film together, Hilda. ;o)

  • Hilda

    Hmm. Intellect, wit, and boldness.

  • writeby

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