A year into the Covid-19 pandemic: How is the virus being portrayed in works of fiction... and is it something that audiences have an appetite for?
We are living through major historical events. The ongoing impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has bled into the basic fabric of our daily lives, and while it might not be the centre of every conversation we have, that impact is consistently present. No facet of society is exempt from the need for adaptation under the current circumstances. The changes made to the production of visual media will no doubt serve as artefacts of the Covid-19 era. Socially distanced interviews, no in-studio audiences and plexi-glass screens are just a few of of the visual markers which signify this.
A friend spoke to me about how these visual signifiers can serve to remind us of the ongoing pandemic in a time when we need escapism. She used the example of the latest series of The Great British Bake Off as an example of Covid-production television which she found refreshing. New content was one thing, but most noticeable for her was that they laid out the Covid-safe measures they had taken right at the beginning of episode one and then never felt the need to mention them again. The contestants had been tested and then put in isolation together with the crew. The result was a show with the absence of masks or distance. It provided pure escapism.
Collective Mood - The popularity of 'Contagion'
An interesting phenomenon from the beginning of national lockdowns in Spring 2020 was the meteoric popularity of the 2011 film Contagion. Directed by Steven Soderbergh the film follows the spread of a deadly virus across the world (sound familiar?). The film spent weeks in Netflix's top 10 most watched category and rose from Warner Brothers 270th most watched film in December 2019 to its 2nd in March 2020.
When we first went into lockdown we had no real understanding of how things might progress or develop. After all, these were unprecedented times - a fact we were reminded of so often it made 'unprecedented' Oxford Dictionaries focus for 'Word of the Year' in 2020. Dr Pamela Rutledge, Media Psychologist and Postgraduate Professor at Fielding Graduate University California (2020), asserts that films help us find meaning and comfort when faced with unknown circumstances. Coronavirus presented an unknown and invisible threat and so, for some of us, anything that could help us make sense of that was welcome. Films like Contagion present the threat but, more importantly, they present a resolution (Rutledge, 2020).
The Pandemic on Screen - a year on
In early January 2021 Amazon Prime added the Songbird to its video on demand (VOD) service. The film was produced in 2020 and imagines a not to distant future where Covid-19 has mutated and devastated the world at large, with those who are suspected to have the virus taken to quarantine camps. This dystopian/sci-fi/romance film centres around Nico and Sara who are in a virtual relationship. When Sara is about to be taken to a quarantine camp, Nico vows to save her.
The film received just 10% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been critiqued for its insensitivity to current events, presenting public health organisations as the enemy as well as just plain slapdash writing and production (The Ringer, 2020; Indiewire, 2020; Digital Spy, 2020). Above all else, the film presents a dystopian and hopeless future to the situation we all currently find ourselves in - and I honestly ask, who needs that right now?
"Songbird is a love story about a dude looking to flout a mandatory lockdown for a virus with an unconscionable mortality rate so that he can hang out with his girlfriend." - Miles Surrey, The Ringer
Songbird isn't the only pandemic production to place the the virus at the centre of it's plot. Locked Down is a 'romantic comedy heist film' that is due for release in the U.K. in March 2021 and stars Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor. While some reviews praise its attempt at satirising initial lockdown ritual and nostalgia (The Verge, 2021), it has largely garnered negative review as slow paced, tedious and a waste of acting talent.
"As a heist movie it’s willfully unexciting and fully incompetent, with a barely comprehensible and bizarrely unmotivated scheme riddled with glaring plot-holes and as a romantic comedy, it’s equally dead on arrival." - Benjamin Lee, The Guardian
Songbird and Locked Up utilise the pandemic as central to their plot and this may be part of the reason for their lack of success. Director of Locked Down, Doug Liman, has said about his film:
“I’m sure Steven Spielberg will get an Oscar in three years for the movie he makes about the pandemic, but this film holds a mirror to what we’ve gone through.” - Doug Liman, Director of Locked Down
And Liman may well be right about his Spielberg comment. We are living though a major global event and it may feel just or perhaps even cathartic to see this portrayed on screen in future. But the key phrase here is 'in the future'. As my friend discussed in relation to watching TV during lockdown - many of us are looking for escapism, not a mirror held up to what we are going through.
The Pandemic on Screen - indirect approaches
Other pandemic productions have taken a completely different approach to storytelling which will forever reflect the time in which they were made and say a lot about our experiences without mentioning the pandemic at all. The example I want to use here is 'Ratatouille- The Musical'. You may not have heard of this musical. It is not an official Disney production. This musical is a result of one woman's Tik Tok video that went viral and captured the attention of hundreds of musicians, songwriters, actors, artists, dancers and costume designers - both professional and amateur - to collaborate, develop, produce and edit a whole musical feature length film from their homes. By the time it came to record each of the parts which would then be edited side by side they even had the likes of Titus Burgess, Wayne Brady, Adam Lambert and André de Shields on board!
The finished result is an amateur production, yet it is exactly the feat of it's production that makes the Ratatouille musical such an interesting piece of filmmaking. It's fun! The musical numbers are catchy and it's a light- hearted 40 minutes.
The charm of the Ratatouille musical definitely lies in the fact that it's genesis was a collaborative production among hundreds of strangers on social media. The creativity and dedication to getting this project off the ground in the first place is admirable. It is unmistakably an artefact of this Covid era without having to reference the virus at all. It also indirectly illustrates the incredibly helpful role digital media and the creative arts have to play during this time.
Coronavirus will continue to impact media production and influence storytelling. However, part of being a good storyteller is knowing when the right time is to share that story with audiences. We are in the midst of another national lockdown in the U.K. and while Covid-19 permeates our everyday lives I feel we all need moments of peace and escape from the pandemic. The collective mood differs from last March when the first lockdown was implemented. A lot of us are fatigued, in mourning, or simply numb. Books, film, games and television provide transportation to other places and times which we can escape to without leaving our homes- and lots of us really need that right now.
Erlich, D. (for IndieWire) (10th December, 2020) ‘Songbird’ Review: ‘The Purge’ Meets the Pandemic in Hollywood’s Awful First Attempt at a COVID Movie, IndieWire. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/12/songbird-review-1234603497/ [last accessed: 28/01/21]
Rutledge, P. (2020) Everyone is watching 'Contagion' right now. A psychologist explains why it's healthier to watch that than the news. Insider, https://www.insider.com/psychlogist-explains-why-contagion-is-so-popular-2020-4 [last accessed: 28/01/2021]
Sandwell, I. (for Digital Spy) (10th December 2020) Riverdale star's pandemic thriller Songbird isn't as bad as you heard – it's worse. Digital Spy, https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a34928008/songbird-review-kj-apa-sofia-carson/ [last accessed: 28/01/21]
Surry, M. (for The Ringer) (11th December 2020) The COVID Thriller ‘Songbird’ Will Make You Sick, The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/movies/2020/12/11/22168193/the-covid-thriller-songbird-will-make-you-sick [last accessed: 28/01/21]