The Columbine effect

Hollywood still obsessed with school shooting 13 years later

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.

"Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt," wrote Anne Marie Hochhalter. "As a graduate of Columbine class of '99, I have no desire to see any one or corporate organization profit from this or any tragedy.... Now, if this was a documentary based on facts and interviews and aimed at educating the public to promote awareness and prevention, I'd say good, great, let's do it. But no, this is for nothing more than corporate greed and entertainment of an apathetic audience with an overactive morbid curiosity."

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.

In the latest Columbine-themed feature film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva (Tilda Swinton) must cope with the aftermath of her son's attack on his school
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
In the latest Columbine-themed feature film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva (Tilda Swinton) must cope with the aftermath of her son's attack on his school
Journalist Dave Cullen says a miniseries based on his book about the tragedy will do more good than harm
Mary Lynn Gillaspie
Journalist Dave Cullen says a miniseries based on his book about the tragedy will do more good than harm

"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 16-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 14-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, 17-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 13 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.

"Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold declared in one of the so-called basement tapes, the videos the pair made in the weeks before the attack. It was just about the only prediction that the killers got right.

But whose story is it?

"We all have hundreds of stories about what happened that day and since," says Granillo. "But that's not the story they keep telling."

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