The Columbine shootings continue to "inspire" Hollywood

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So far, Kevin hasn't stirred any noticeable outrage among Columbine alums. None of the other filmmakers' interpretations generated much controversy, either. But then, none of them claimed to be the "real story" of Columbine.


The petition opposing Lifetime's miniseries was started by a Las Vegas stage hand named Michael Berry, a 2001 graduate of Columbine. Berry was sitting in his guitar class in the school auditorium when two students ran in and said there were guys with guns running around. As the shots and explosions drew nearer, Berry's teachers locked the doors. Later, a janitor showed the class a safe way out of the school. They ran to a nearby park, where other students milled about in a general panic.

After the initial shock, some students and parents pressed for things to "return to normal" as soon as possible. Berry found that a difficult move. In his senior year, his English class went to see a production of Hamlet set in the 1920s. "The director didn't tell my teacher that at the end of it, the lights go out and guns start firing," he recalls. "A lot of my class had a real hard time with that."

Berry says he doesn't have a problem with Cullen's book, which he hasn't read. But he believes an effort to dramatize the "actual events" of Columbine will do more harm than good. "It's taken me thirteen years, and I still have a few tics and triggers," he says. "This was something that happened to us. Showing someone a video of this — it's way more potent content than reading a book. This is psychologically intense material. It's just toxic. I just don't understand what is going to be added to the conversation."

He notes that people from Jonesboro and Virginia Tech have signed his petition. The issue, he suggests, goes far beyond Columbine: "This does set a precedent for marketing these types of events. If this goes through, I'll bet you twenty dollars there's going to be a movie on the whole Norway thing. Does anybody want to see that rampage? At what point do we draw the line?"

Cullen is well aware of the range of objections to the miniseries. He read through comment after comment in the online petition, trying to understand his critics' perspective, but finally gave it up. "It was demoralizing," he says. "A lot of them were calling me a horrible person."

It stung, he says, that people think the project is just about money, as if anything dealing with Columbine is a guaranteed blockbuster. He spent the better part of ten years researching his book and challenging the core myths about the attack — for example, that Harris and Klebold were out to kill jocks — but most major publishers weren't interested. Even after the book won rave reviews, major studios passed on the idea of a feature-film adaptation.

"It was this project nobody wanted to do, based on this very dark material," he says. "People who think it's a moneymaker, I would love for them to go to Hollywood and have that conversation with the studios that said no."

After some high-profile industry names became attached to the proposal — writer/director Tommy O'Haver (An American Crime) and producers Michael DeLuca (Moneyball, The Social Network) and Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler (Boys Don't Cry) — Lifetime became interested in it as a "prestige project," something to help change the network's image.

"I was leaning all the time toward doing it as a miniseries on TV," Cullen says. "You can tell a much more involved story that way."

Cullen expects to have considerable input into the adaptation, which he says will give due attention to survivors' stories as well as that of the killers. He doesn't anticipate that the miniseries will inspire copycats, because the "actual" Harris and Klebold, stripped of their mythologies, "are pretty unappealing." For economy's sake, the script may contain composite characters on the periphery of the story, but the intent is to tell a true story: "It's definitely all real names, real people, keeping it as real as possible."

Yet it's precisely the assertion of the project's authenticity that most troubles its opponents. In the Columbine community, Cullen's book is widely regarded not as the definitive account of the massacre and its aftermath, but one version of it, with its own biases and questionable interpretations. The second chapter portrays Harris as a chick magnet, an assertion based largely on the account of one reputed girlfriend whom police investigators concluded wasn't credible; several people who knew the killers well believe both Harris and Klebold died as virgins. ("Right now I'm trying to get fucked and trying to finish off these time bombs," Harris wrote two weeks before the attack.) It's one thread in a larger dispute some readers have with Cullen's work — which, in their view, downplays the role of bullying and other factors in its efforts to portray Harris as a well-integrated psychopath and Klebold as his depressed, rejected follower.

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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