Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a huge movie buff. Not only do I not have the patience to sit in a seat for two hours and watch something, but my husband’s and my taste in films overlap very minimally — comedies and the rare musical are about it.
So, film ignoramus that I am, why am I even tackling how Hollywood has handled pandemics and the like? It’s largely because it is not I who has to do the tackling.
Dr. Walter Dehority of the University of New Mexico has done it for me. His article, “Infectious Disease Outbreaks, Pandemics, and Hollywood — Hope and Fear Across a Century of Cinema,” was published this spring in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Dehority embarked on what sounds like a fun project: searching the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) for certain terms having to do with infection. The list of terms searched is actually quite long (163 in all). It includes the expected topics, such as “outbreak,” “pandemic,” “virus” and “infected.” Many known infections, such as “plague” and “HIV/AIDS,” produced a lot of
hits. And for you fans of movies dealing with “zombie infection” and “vampire infection,” those
terms were in there, too.
The searches yielded 373 films, which the doctor pared down to 80 that (1) dealt with an outbreak or pandemic, and (2) were “culturally relevant” as defined by box office take, Academy Award wins, or mentioned in another piece at least 25 years after initial release.
He then sat down and watched all 80 productions.
Interestingly, he found some patterns in how outbreaks were depicted during certain eras. The
earliest films — up until, say, the 1950s, dealt with heroics and sacrifices by medical professionals. Plague, cholera and tuberculosis seem to feature prominently in these earlier films.
With the onset of space exploration, there was a focus on extraterrestrial bugs hitching rides to Earth on satellites or spaceships. Whether those pieces were behind the quarantining of Apollo astronauts on return to Earth is hard to say, but it’s certainly plausible that Hollywood and the media contributed to that decision.
Sentiment of the times might have been behind the plethora of films from the ’60s and ’70s that
dealt with environmental woes causing disease. During the remainder of the century, we were
preoccupied with HIV and AIDS, and pandemic movies certainly reflected that concern.
This century, we’ve been most concerned with post-apocalyptic events as well as the “undead.”
Certain themes seem to recur throughout the eras. The failures of government leadership to
contain the pandemic ethically cropped up quite a bit. So did the discrepancies in social classes’
access to treatment. Many films dealt with stigmatization of affected and infected individuals, and the more science-fiction-ish of them dealt with infected people no longer being considered human. Biological warfare also was a frequent theme.
It remains to be seen how Hollywood will deal with COVID-19. When I do see movies, I tend to
be about feel-good ones. If we’re going to do that, let’s try and hail all our heroes. Not just the
health care providers on the front lines, deserving as they may be. The grocery workers who kept us sane as we sought solace in our kitchens. The performers who kept our feet tapping by singing to us online. The information people who took the brunt of our venting as they gave us the latest on numbers, laws and actions. And yes, those in power who, for the most part, tried
to balance it all and do the right things.