The Untapped Value Of CliFi: Shakespeare, Passover, Supergirl, And Game Of Thrones

CREDIT: MACALL B. POLAY/HBO
CREDIT: MACALL B. POLAY/HBO

“Numbers numb, stories sell. We don’t deal well with numbers — it tends to suspend our sense of emotion — but we respond very, very well to stories. Individual stories will almost always trump a litany of statistics.”

These words were spoken by climate communications expert Ed Maibach at a 2015 White House panel. And what greater reminders of the timeless power of storytelling are there than two big events of the weekend — Passover and the 400-year observance of Shakespeare’s death.

Shakespeare died 400 years ago Saturday. But he remains alive because he was arguably the most gifted English-language storyteller in history. Many of his characters — Hamlet, Cleopatra, Falstaff — are “alive” in our memory. As the novelist Alexandre Dumas put it: “After God, Shakespeare has created most.”

Passover is the annual commemoration and ritualistic retelling of the story from the Book of Exodus of how the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt by God acting through Moses. The participants in a seder use a Haggadah, a booklet with the details of the story and the related ritual. The word Haggadah means “tale” or “parable” or “story.” In Exodus, Moses tells the Jews to tell the story year after year after year: “You shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt’.”

If you want someone to remember someone or something, tell their story again and again.

With climate fiction, Hollywood gets a B for effort, a D for everything else

Since storytelling has had such a powerful effect on humans since the dawn of history itself, it is no surprise that many look to storytellers today for more powerful means of communicating the danger of and solutions to climate change — what many are calling climate-fiction or CliFi. So far, at least as far as fictional TV and movies go, the results have been pretty bad.

We had the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which burning fossil fuels leads to a frozen planet. It was not only incredibly unscientific, it arguably set back the messaging effort by putting the absurd “global cooling” notion in people’s heads!

On the flip side, at the very start of the entertaining but nihilistic 2014 CliFi movie “Snowpiercer,” more than 99.9999 percent of the world’s population die (thankfully off camera). The cause: A failed geoengineering experiment to stop global warming that turns the Earth into a frozen, dystopian wasteland. Things go downhill from there.

The popular “Hunger Games” movies seem to have excised what little was in the books about post-apocalyptic global warming — omitting the key sentence in the first book suggesting the suppressed revolution that led to the creation of the annual slaughter-fest known as “the hunger games” was preceded by a climate-driven apocalypse.

“Game of Thrones,” which premiered Sunday night, is seen by some as a climate parable for Earth. The imminent climate change faced by the continent of Westeros is a long period of very cold weather (and various scary things associated with it, like the White Walkers). “Winter is Coming,” as the family motto of the noble House Stark in the north puts it. The defenders against the scary things are “The Night’s Watch.” The various factions who represent different parts of the country are too busy fighting for power to pay any attention to warnings about climate change and its grim consequences. Sound familiar?

But while Reuters posed the question last April, “Is ‘Game of Thrones’ aiding the global debate on climate change?” I think we can safely say the answer is “probably not.” The actual onset of winter is barely a focus of the story, which is overwhelmed by sex, violence, and the interplay of many well-acted and gripping storylines that have nothing to do with climate change.

Christopher Nolan’s 2014 saga, “Interstellar,” lacked a stellar take on climate change — and had a particularly defeatist theme, “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” On the bright side, it annoyed conservatives a great deal.

The 2014 spy spoof, “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” however, sets up the super villain as an ecoterrorist. At one point he explains his mass extermination plan this way: “Global warming is the fever, mankind is the virus. We’re making our planet sick. A cull is our only hope.” Seriously. Conservatives websites were delirious.

Sadly, that brings us the new TV series “Supergirl,” which decided to have the exact same theme! Krypton famously blew up before Superman (Kal-El aka Clark Kent) and his cousin Supergirl (Kara Zor-El aka Kara Danvers) were, separately, sent to Earth by their parents. But what you probably didn’t know was the reason Krypton blew up. In a flashback scene on the doomed planet, Kara’s aunt (Astra) explains the update to the decades-old story:

https://www.mrctv.org/embed/142505

Krypton is dying because of climate change — its core is unstable “because of how we’ve harnessed it for power.” The message: “We became greedy. And now the oceans have changed, and the weather. I’m trying to get people to stop and see what they’re doing, and in doing so, I’ve had to do some difficult things.”

On the one hand, this really annoyed conservatives at the time, as in the NewsBusters piece “Supergirl’s Not So Super Global Warming Propaganda.”

On the other hand, in her attempt to “save” Krypton, Astra becomes a murderous ecoterrorist, as we learned in another flashback, which includes Supergirl’s mother Alura:

https://www.mrctv.org/embed/154007

In a bizarre twist, Supergirl’s mother is also implicated in Krypton’s self-destruction because she didn’t listen to her sister in time to save the planet but instead prosecuted her for murder. And you thought your family had issues.

But the plot is based around the final line by Astra about Earth: “Much like Krypton, this planet is on the verge of ecological destruction. I can stop it. But the humans won’t like my methods. That’s why I need you. They trust you. Together we can save them.”

Silly humans! Who wouldn’t like the “methods” of murder, mayhem, and mind control?

By April, the same conservatives were delighting in the fact that the Supergirl story had morphed into their fantasy-nightmare vision of a world run by liberals, “’Supergirl’ Shows Liberal Fantasy Where Mind Control Is the Answer to Global Warming.”

One character asks the bad guy Non (Astra’s husband) near the end of the season, “So, mind control is the answer to global warming?” He replies that yes, in a world that he would run with a mind-control machine, “there are no more racial divisions, no Republicans, no Democrats. Only one people, working with one purpose towards one goal. To save the world.” And like any good Hollywood ecoterrorist, when the mind control machine is destroyed, he decides to simply kill all humans.

Maybe we need a new genre name: Anti-CliFi.

Memo to Hollywood: We sort of appreciate that you are injecting climate change into more stories, since climate change is the story of the century. And we know great stories have bad guys. But those who take the threat of catastrophic global warming seriously — which pretty much includes all the governments of the world, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, every major scientific association, and frankly, most of the public — aren’t actually the villains. The real villains aren’t hard to find.