There was a time, not so long ago, when science fiction and fantasy were the entertainment of choice for a small group of mostly men and boys who tended to be smarter than average, also known as nerds and geeks. These books required a little deeper thinking to understand the setting, talking about concepts that were outside of our actual experience.
Give Us Back Our Geekdom
That tweet got me thinking.
As a younger kid, I was a big comic book guy. Wolverine, X-Men, G.I. Joe were among my favorites. This was in the 1970s and I consumed a fair number of comic books but what I really read a lot of were sci fi and fantasy novels. Lloyd Alexander, Piers Anthony, Tolkien, those were my companions as a kid growing up as the distant fourth and youngest child with very few other kids my age living nearby. This was before the internet and cable TV so other than Saturday morning cartoons there wasn’t much mindless entertainment to fill our days.
In my middle school days Dungeons & Dragons was really taking off in society and a select few of us spent a lot of time on recess poring over the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide while other boys played basketball. We even played some D&D in my gifted and talented classes during school as a way to encourage our creativity (and avoid actually learning anything). As my middle school years went on and something magical happened to our female classmates, reviewing the stats for a kobold suddenly seemed less interesting. Like most kids in middle and high school I adapted to my surroundings, playing sports and seeking to position myself into the “popular” circles. Still, when I got home from practice and went to bed, I was reading the same sci-fi and fantasy books.
If I was to point to the moment when scifi/fantasy had a real renaissance, it would maybe be the end of 2001/spring of 2002. Two films stand out to me, first just before Christmas of 2001 with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring which kicked off the three part Lord Of The Rings adaptations, and then in spring of 2002 saw Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, a fun and whimsical origin story for Spidey.
We went to FotR as soon as we could, maybe even opening day, and I can still recall walking out of theater simply gobsmacked. Some years earlier I had read in Dragon magazine, the official magazine for D&D, that a film adaptation of LotR was in the works with some guy named Elijah Wood playing Frodo but I didn’t think it would ever amount to anything. The story is just too complex and not flashy enough for modern audiences, me being a cynical asshole even back then. The real thunderbolt for me was the Balrog in Moria, we saw FotR in the theater and I think I spent the first minute of the scene with my mouth hanging open after the Balrog roared. When we left the theater a young couple was in front of us and the girl said something like “I don’t get it”, I remember wanting to punch her.
The 2002 Spider-Man wasn’t great cinema but it was fun, and that is what comic book movies are supposed to be. Dunst was at her yummiest and Maguire captured the dorky enthusiasm of Peter Parker, not to mention J.K. Simmons who was perfect as J. Jonah Jameson.
The two films made a nice contrast based on the source material. Spider-Man is derived from a comic book where you have to convey your story in pictures and brief dialogue. Fellowship Of The Rings is a meaty, complex book that isn’t something you can just casually bang out in an afternoon.
Something weird happened. What was once dorky became mainstream, being geeky became sort of chic. When Transformers in 2007 and Iron Man in 2008 hit theaters it really started to take off. It wasn’t long before superhero movies were churning out as fast as they could slap a new one together along with a string of terrible fantasy movies. Every once in a while we got a decent film, I still like the Godzilla film from 2014 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. But with each passing year the films seemed to get more lavish and less interesting. Even Avatar which grossed over $2.5 billion wasn’t a great film at all, it was just visually stunning.
Hollywood found a formula that worked and that formula increasingly meant big, dumb and loud movies that took no risks. Often that formula meant taking a successful film and churning out sequel after sequel, each dumber than the last.
The disastrous Hobbit trilogy of movies, a wanton cash grab following the success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, is perhaps the best example of this. As soon as I heard that they were stretching what is really a very small book into three full length films, the alarm bells started going off. I was right to be skeptical, if anything I wasn’t skeptical enough. I reviewed the first Hobbit movie on my old blog (The Hobbit: An Unexpectedly Mediocre Movie) and I wrote about the contrast between the LotR movies and The Hobbit:
… I guess the comparisons were inevitable but they are valid and comparing the two trilogies is like comparing a high school play with a Broadway production.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a bold, risky production that was shot all at once before anyone knew if they would have commercial success and the result was one of the best adaptations of a beloved book that you will ever find. I left the theater after The Fellowship of the Ring bummed that I had to wait a year for The Two Towers. I couldn’t wait for the movies to come out each December and bought the DVD sets as soon as I could. I can say that I have not only watched the movies over and over, I have also watched most if not all of the hours of special features.
The Hobbit has the feel of cheap exploitation; hey we made a ton of money on the LOTR movies so let’s see if we can do the same thing with The Hobbit. I was quite concerned this would be the case after all the pre-production squabbling and then when it was announced that one book, The Hobbit, would be divided up into three movies while the much larger and more detailed LOTR trilogy was also done in three movies, I was definitely not excited. In many ways The Hobbit was just like so many other attempts to make a cheap buck by exploiting a beloved book. I enjoy the old cartoon version of The Hobbit more than what I watched last night.
This is in 2013 before I suffered through the other two films. My review of the final installment was even less charitable.
All I kept thinking was: please let it be over. In the end I was rooting for Azog to just kill Thorin just to get it over with. The orcs winning the battle of the five armies and conquering Middle Earth would be a small price to pay to reach a swifter end to this cinematic disaster; an audio-visual assault on the senses, on film-making, on acting and on simple human decency.
What a travesty. It happens over and over. The first Iron Man was great fun, the second less so and then the character just got boring. The first Captain America was also good fun and the sequels went downhill immediately. The Godzilla remake in 2014 was also decent but Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 2019 and Godzilla vs Kong in 2021 were awful. You can see it coming down the road in the impending woke Amazon series set in Middle Earth that promises to be a visual obscenity.
The question is, why? Why did the genre that once appealed to the smart kids suddenly get so dumb?
The Critical Drinker has part of it right, dumb people started to consume it and there are a lot more dumb people than smart people. Dumb people are easier to amuse. Flashing lights and loud noises usually will do the trick. They don’t want a complicated plot or deep themes to wrestle with along with the characters. They want things to blow up and maybe some fart jokes. Nothing wrong with that in moderation but those should be occasional distractions, not the constant diet.
The second factor is that not only are dumb people watching these flicks but there are just a lot more dumb people around. The Zman mentioned this in a Subscribestar post today:
If you meet a random sampling of a thousand people, half of them will have a below average intelligence. If we expand the range to include people in what is generally called the high normal, they about eighty percent will be average or below average. To be precise, it is 84% of the population that falls into this category. In other words, the big-brained people are a small club, relatively speaking.
The roughly eighty percent is the target audience of Hollywood. The main reason they target this audience is this audience is four times bigger than the smart fraction and they are easier to satisfy. That last bit is important. The Fast and Furious franchise is proof that it does not take much to get this audience into the theater. Hollywood knows the formula for titillating this audience.
I commented that not only are half of people of below average intelligence but the average intelligence of people has gone down precipitously in the last 50 years. In other words, a person in America of average intelligence in 2022 is considerably less intelligent than a person in America of average intelligence in 1972.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that our “social safety net” has encouraged dysgenic breeding. Dumb people have a lot more dumb kids who survive to become adults thanks to the welfare system, and in turn those new dumb adults have lots of dumb kids of their own. Meanwhile more intelligent people have been discouraged from having children or at least putting off childbearing until much later and thereby reducing the number of children per couple. If we did the same thing in agriculture we would all have starved to death as cows produced less milk with each generation and crops had lower yields each season. In people we call it “justice” or “equity”.
Another reason is simple demographics. Much to the chagrin of the people who mutter empty platitudes like “there is only one race, the human race” and reduce race to “skin color”, as if the only difference between Whites, Asians and Africans is the shade of their skin, it remains a stubborn fact that different racial groups possess differing averages of intelligence. As America becomes less White, as a people we are less intelligent. This is by design, as our overlords are convinced that a nation of dumb people will be easier to control.
Finally there is the personal technology aspect. Basically every American has been conditioned to seek after shorter attention span entertainment. Youtube pushes creators to make “shorts”, brief videos to compete with the mind-draining Tik Tok. We read blurbs and tweets instead of newspaper stories. We have all of the information known to mankind at our finger tips while sitting on the can so we don’t need to learn and remember anything. This happens to pretty much everyone. I had four Amish girls in my van yesterday, all around 15, and all four of them spent the entire time in the car looking at their phones.
There isn’t really a solution. I find myself rereading old science fiction and fantasy books instead of slogging through the mostly dumb new stuff. There is still decent fiction being written but most of it is trash, and especially the most popular material. The same is true for movies, older films are generally better entertainment than newer. Again there are exceptions but in general it is simply more entertaining to rewatch a movie than to sit through something just released.
Ours is a world that has less room for the intelligent and the non-conformist, the rebel and the dissident are pariahs in a nation that idolizes idiots. I recommend doing what I have been working on, creating for myself an ark of sorts of decent films and books. We used to produce culture, one of our jobs now is to preserve that older culture for the future.