The good news for any filmmaker planning to do a Civil War movie is that you can tap into a pre-existing fan-base of enthusiastic Civil War buffs who are sure to generate plenty of buzz for the project.
The bad news is that this same fan-base might just kill your movie if you don’t get the details right. Like all fandoms, Civil War buffs are proprietary and prickly about outsiders on their turf. Get the tiniest details wrong — the wrong buttons on a general’s uniform, the wrong color for a colonel’s boots — and the backlash will be furious.
James Cameron faced this same situation when making Titanic. The subculture of Titanic fandom is smaller than the subculture of Civil War buffs, but it’s just as fiercely enthusiastic and defensive. Cameron was able to satisfy those fans because he is, himself, the biggest Titanic fan-boy of them all. He sweated all the tiny details and was able to satisfy the most devoted fans without prompting the kind of backlash that can sink a movie.
You can see that backlash all the time with comic-book movies. The fans are excited to see the story they love come to the big screen, yet they get angry when some outsider they don’t know and trust starts messing with their hero. They seem to feel simultaneously validated and violated by Hollywood’s attention. The big-budget, mainstream project promises the broader acceptance they have long desired, but at the same time that broader acceptance erodes their sense of being special and their sense of control over their story. Their fringe-y, outsider status was what had separated them from everyone else, and to have everyone else suddenly jumping on the bandwagon makes them resentful of all the newcomers.
Jack Black and Todd Louiso captured this perfectly in the movie High Fidelity, portraying the archetypal indie music snobs. They were passionate fans of great but unknown bands and, on one level, they wanted nothing more than for the whole world to hear this music and to love it as much as they did. But if that ever happened, their own enthusiasm for the music would have diminished. If everyone loves that band, then loving that band no longer makes you special. And their characters, Dick and Barry, were never sure which they loved more — the music or feeling special.
College Humor recently posted a great sketch called “Religious People Are Nerds,” in which they explored the parallels between certain forms of religious devotion and the devotion of the “nerds” of fandom.
Because what is a nerd, really? It’s just someone who’s passionately obsessed with something, like a board game, or a movie, or a series of books. And who, I ask, who are more into their books than religious people?
At the risk of offending both my fellow religious people and my fellow nerds, I think the comparison holds — not just in the comical ways that sketch suggests, but also in the dynamic tension between the desire for more mainstream acceptance and the desire to remain set apart as special.
You can see that tension at work in all those articles I mentioned in the previous post that criticized Ryan Lizza for not fully appreciating, say, all the nuance of Francis Schaeffer’s brief flirtation with theonomy. Christian PR-man Larry Ross’ article “Christian Dominionism Is a Myth,” is typical of these in reading so much like a blog post explaining what they got wrong with the Green Lantern movie. The valid complaints Ross makes are smothered by the larger, over-arching complaint that somebody else is trespassing on our turf.
It’s exactly the same proprietary defensiveness that can be found throughout every kind of fandom. The real complaint isn’t really about the particular offending details, but the more personal offense that someone else is addressing our topic without first consulting us. We are the experts, the devoted fans say, and we deserve recognition and deference for immersing ourselves in this stuff long before it was cool.
This is what frustrates me about the often excellent, often insightful “Get Religion” site, which frequently does a fine job of highlighting the inexpertise of journalists covering religion. But just as often when I read that site, I feel like I’m hearing Jack Black’s Barry mocking a customer for daring to suggest that Echo and the Bunnymen deserved to be compared to the Jesus and Mary Chain.
“If they’d just asked me first, they’d have gotten those details right!” seems to be the gist of so many complaints about religion reporting. The legitimate concern for getting the details right is always a part of that complaint, but it usually seems overshadowed by the larger complaint that they didn’t ask me first.