Commentary Magazine


Hollywood Plays “Let’s Make a Deal” with Chinese Communist Censors

In 2007, Cracked devoted one of its beloved lists to “The 7 Least-Faithful Comic Book Movies.” Given the proliferation of comic book adaptations to the big screen, and the famously high standards of the fans of each graphic novel, competition was no doubt fierce. The piece opens: “Look, Hollywood, we understand that film is a different medium than comic books. We realize that changes must be made, storylines streamlined, art design massaged.”

“But,” the author adds, “there are some films that we cannot forgive.” Indeed, high standards for authenticity are one thing, the understandable desire of fans to see a film that shares more than a title with its namesake is quite another. And so some artistic alterations in one version of the new Iron Man film are sure to raise eyebrows among viewers. Even more notable, however, is why those changes were made. The Washington Post reports:

Even the nerdiest comic-book fan would be surprised to learn what cutting-edge technology secretly fuels “Iron Man’s” action-packed heroics: a milk-grain drink called Gu Li Duo from China’s Inner Mongolia.

That’s according to the Chinese version of the new blockbuster, which was released here complete with other surprising (read: odd and, at times outright nonsensical) footage inserted by producers to win the favor of Chinese officials.

If aesthetically jarring, the gambit has paid off handsomely. “Iron Man 3” raked in more than $64 million in its first five days and broke Chinese records with its May 1 opening-day haul of $21 million.

It’s a sign of how eager Hollywood has become to court China’s Communist Party leaders, who maintain an iron fist over the country’s booming movie market.

No fan of the film industry will be overjoyed at Hollywood selling its soul to the Communists for some imperialist-capitalist cash, but if it’s just Iron Man drinking some Mongolian milk, where’s the harm, right? Well, the Post continues:

This is how an invading swarm of Chinese soldiers in last year’s “Red Dawn” suddenly became North Koreans. And how Bruce Willis’s character mysteriously came to spend much more time in Shanghai than Paris in last year’s “Looper.” And why the outbreak sparking the zombie apocalypse in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” this summer has been rewritten to originate from Moscow instead of China.

U.S. producers often spin such tweaks as an attempt to appeal to Chinese viewers. But experts say their more crucial target is the Chinese government’s 37-member censorship board, which each year approves just 34 foreign films for Chinese screens and reviews all their content. With China becoming the world’s second-largest box office market last year, failing to make that list can mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars.

U.S. film executives have described a process that involves heavy negotiation and wooing as they try to win approval. To please the authorities, studios have been willing to add Chinese actors, locations and elements to their cast, adjust release dates and tweak plot points to flatter or at least avoid offending Chinese officials.

So it’s not just a few minor changes for a few bucks. It’s an all-out garage sale of souls for gobs and gobs of money. “Tweak plot points to … avoid offending Chinese officials” is a pretty mellow way of saying “change the whole point of the movie because the Chinese Communists are offering us so much money that we honestly forgot American audiences even existed and c’mon what would you do and don’t be so naïve.” Which is the real message from studio execs.

And in fact it draws attention to something about the entertainment industry that has been impossible not to notice lately: purely in terms of entertainment value, movies are being not just outrun by television, but lapped and left in the dust. And one aspect of this may have something to do with it: television series, especially on cable and certainly on premium channels, treats their viewers like adults. I don’t mean with sex and violence, or the creepy objectification of teenagers that unfortunately shows no signs of abating. But in terms of intellectual engagement, these days films treat viewers like they’re idiots while television shows treat viewers like they already understand the world.

Long before Red Dawn’s Chinese invaders morphed into North Koreans, the Arab terrorists in the original Sum of All Fears–released in 2002–were dropped in favor of neo-Nazis after objections from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Yet over on network TV, before Sum of All Fears was released Americans were already watching 24, which depicted Islamic terrorists as Islamic terrorists–a fact which CAIR was none-too-happy about either. Accusations of “Islamophobia” were lobbed at the current Showtime hit Homeland, which also portrays Islamic terrorists as Islamic terrorists, and doesn’t blame America for everything that happens. As such, it’s infuriated some on the left. But the show rolls along.

Of course the obvious difference here is money. Film studios have much to gain from appeasing Communist censors, whereas television shows just don’t have the same market. How ironic that in pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hollywood and the Communists embrace censorship, and each other.

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