The Columbine shootings continue to "inspire" Hollywood

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Within a week, thanks largely to social-media activism among alums and their families, the petition had collected more than 5,000 signatures. Some of the protesters posted comments expressing their displeasure with the project's source material: Columbine, a book by journalist Dave Cullen, who bills himself as "the nation's foremost authority on the Columbine killers." Cullen's book won awards and made several critics' best-reading lists for 2009, but it's had a rougher reception in Littleton, where some prominent members of the Columbine community have taken issue with its accuracy and its slant.

Other signers were troubled that the network backing the miniseries is Lifetime, purveyor of turgid melodramas involving cheating spouses, suave serial killers and Tori Spelling. ("Lifetime should stick to cheesy movies about pregnancy pacts and Dance Moms," one wrote.) But the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that any film project purporting to be the "real story" of Columbine, yet put together by outsiders, would reopen wounds not yet healed and possibly inspire more copycat shootings.

"This is a terrible idea for a movie," wrote Anne Marie Hochhalter. "I was injured at Columbine, and Dave Cullen's book is inaccurate and sensationalized. Please don't let this movie be made; it brings back all the pain I experienced, and is insensitive to all of us in the Columbine community."

Hochhalter figures in several passages in Cullen's book; she was one of the first students shot outside the school and was left paralyzed by her injuries. Her mother's suicide a few months later provides another graphic scene. But Cullen never interviewed Hochhalter; his accounts of her family's ordeal, complete with quotes, come from various news articles.

"It felt kind of violating, to be honest," Hochhalter says of the experience of reading Cullen's book. "He got the part about how I was injured completely wrong. I couldn't bear to read the whole thing. The fact that this movie is in the works, based on what he wrote — I just feel sick over it. I don't want young, impressionable, angry people out there, who idolize Harris and Klebold anyway, to see this on film."

Cullen, who now lives in New York City, says he was surprised by the virulent opposition to a miniseries based on his book. The project has been "in development" for years now, but he cautions that it hasn't been "greenlit," hasn't been cast. There isn't even a finished script yet.

"When the book came out, I braced for possible controversy, and there wasn't much," he says. "People who don't like the book probably aren't going to like the film. But with the film, we don't have anything for them to judge yet. It's frustrating."

Although it's drawn the most ire, the miniseries isn't the only Columbine-themed project in the works. A stage play based on Cullen's book is also planned, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, a new film starring Tilda Swinton as the mother of a Harris-like teen killer, has been making the rounds of the festivals and is scheduled to open in Denver on March 30.

And the news continues to offer its own reminders of the tragedy. Most of the students who attend Columbine today aren't old enough to have any direct memories of the attack. They'd rather see their school's name celebrated for its frequent state athletics championships than used as shorthand for "massacre." But events keep conspiring to keep the school's dark legacy alive. In the past three months alone, locals have had to contend with not one, but three "Columbine-related incidents" that made national news:

•In December, Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis was interviewed by a sixteen-year-old youth from Utah about the attack. The youth was arrested a few weeks later, suspected of plotting with another student to bomb an assembly at his school and escape in a stolen plane.

•In February, a fourteen-year-old girl was arrested after an alleged assault on two other students with a hammer. The girl's mother claimed that she'd been bullied. The case wouldn't have made headlines — except that the school happened to be Columbine.

•Two weeks later, a shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio left three dead and two wounded, the latest in more than a hundred such incidents since Columbine. The suspected shooter, seventeen-year-old T.J. Lane, reportedly told a deputy that he'd fired at random, but other accounts have suggested he was seeking revenge.

If you include college-campus violence in the statistics, then there were deadlier school shootings before Columbine (University of Texas, 1966) and afterward (Virginia Tech, 2007). Harris and Klebold had hoped to kill hundreds more, with bombs planted in the Commons and the parking lot, but their plan failed miserably. Yet Columbine remains the touchstone for this type of event, the standard by which other horrors are measured, the archetype for Harris-and-Klebold wannabes. That the culture is still so fascinated by the shootings thirteen years later may have more to do with the powerful myths woven around the tragedy — by the media, the killers, law enforcement and others — than the "actual events" of what happened that day.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast