Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.