I recently had the same discussion everyone feels like they’ve had with disillusioned 30-somethings. It was a conversation about how everything Tyler Durden said in Fight Club was right and how the film is an effective call to arms against a society that no longer rewards traditional masculinity.

Nothing could be further from the truth, in my opinion. But obviously, when I said that, it meant I didn’t really “understand” the movie.

I’ll get to that specific example later, but it reminded me of a trend that’s been around for too long – people who insist that authors/artists/screenwriters/directors meant the exact opposite of what they intended with their work. Ray Bradbury would walk out of lectures when he explained his true themes and ideas in Fahrenheit 451 (which isn’t about government censorship but rather how advancing technology makes people dumber and far less receptive to ideas they don’t agree with) only to have members of the audience “correct” him.

Even worse are the people who insist that films are codes that need to be broken in order to be truly appreciated. Take Inception. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people analyze the ambiguous ending, insisting they see Cobb’s top lean slightly as if falling down or the fact that the kids’ clothes may or may not be the same as what we saw in Cobb’s memory. The point was to allow open interpretation and ambiguity. The ending was whatever you wanted it to be. There’s no clear answer nor will there ever be.

Sometimes this can lead to interesting discussions, but there is a trend where audiences insist there can’t be any interpretations at all. There’s only one true meaning and, since one specific group knows it, they’re the only ones who can enjoy the film in question.

A large part of me wants to round those groups up and show them Last Year at Marienbad just to watch their heads explode, but in the meantime, I want to go over some of the most common “beliefs” about certain films’ meaning and why I believe people have it exactly wrong. I’m not saying I’m definitively right, either. What I am saying is that, if you say a film needs to be thoroughly examined to “get” it, sometimes it’s best to actually do so.

With that in mind, here are some of the most famous examples I’ve encountered.

The Dark Knight

What people say: The internet loves The Joker. It’s easy to understand why – he’s become one of the most famous fictional villains in pop culture and Heath Ledger (and to a lesser extent Joaquin Phoenix) nailed what is a very hard character to portray correctly, since his background and motivations remain fluid.

But some people still get the character wrong and claim he’s someone standing up against a corrupt society (which, apparently, we live in) that has failed its people. He’s exposing how morality is a construct and people can very easily become good or evil depending on the situation.

That’s why Gotham City in The Dark Knight tears itself apart based simply on the Joker’s threats and how he’s able to manipulate the most powerful people in the city to obeying his whims. We’re watching a genius gamemaster at work. It’s also why, at the end, Batman is disgraced and forced on the run. He took the stupid way out and accepted blame for things he didn’t do, all in the name of preserving the corrupt Gotham.

What it’s actually about:
Are you kidding me?

The main adjective to describe The Joker is “villain.” He’s the bad guy. He kills innocent people to further goals that, frankly, don’t make a lot of sense. His ramblings about how “it’s all part of the plan” aren’t genius philosophies but are the equivalent of a homeless man ranting about how the lizard people are the ones stealing our dreams. (And that’s not even getting into his comic counterpart, where he paralyzes a woman “to prove a point,” skins a man alive, beat a child to death with a crowbar, and at one point gained the powers of a god and used those powers to literally eat everyone in China.)

Still, The Joker makes an excellent foil to Batman. Where Batman is stealthy, The Joker is flashy and craves attention. While Batman never kills his villains, Joker gleefully kills gangsters and other people just to prove a point. Where Batman doubts himself and wonders what he should do, The Joker never stops to look at what he’s doing.

Even when he’s proven wrong.

Everyone seems to forget the ending, where the Joker’s last “experiment” involving the two ships carrying prisoners and civilians out of Gotham. The Joker fails and the people don’t end up killing each other, and then when Batman subdues him. Yes, he’s still laughing, but at that moment we see just how weak he is.  

Also, the fact Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders, despite the fact that utterly destroys his reputation and means he can no longer function as Gotham’s protector, is what ends up protecting the city and helping it. In other words, Batman is sacrificing himself for the greater good to ensure The Joker does not succeed.

Something like, I don’t know, a hero would do. Maybe even such an action goes beyond what a normal hero would do, making Batman a super-hero.  

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

What people say: Fortunately, the romantic view of the Summer of Love seems to have died out. But there are a lot of people who still romanticize this movie, especially in their 20s. The poster is still incredibly famous and the film seems like the average college getaway, where people go to a place and laugh at all the older squares who are frustrated by their antics and are too stuck up to let themselves go wild.

Raoul Duke is someone who can’t stand the modern world, which is why he rebels against it by ingesting huge quantities of drugs and freaking people out. Over the course of the film, he begins to believe this trip somehow reflects American society as a whole and that his debauchery is the only sane course of action.

What it’s actually about: What does this trip actually accomplish? Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo wreak havoc in Vegas and scare the squares but…at the end of the day, what does it matter to them or anyone else?

The novel was released in 1971, two years after the Manson murders and three years after Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as President. The counterculture that was supposed to change the way the U.S. works was dying and already becoming kitsch.  Drug users and hippies were advertised as “the enemy” and were increasingly seen that way by the public.

And in the middle of that, the two protagonists go into the ultimate symbol of American consumerism and wealth – something the counterculture was against – and…did what, exactly?

The novel and the book are about how people like Hunter S Thompson were becoming irrelevant and how their antics weren’t actually accomplishing anything. Three years after the story takes place, Oscar Acosta Fierro (the basis for Dr. Gonzo) disappeared in Mexico. Hunter S Thompson spent decades after the book was published unable to replicate his success or barely even write at all before his suicide in 2005.

Thompson would always read the famous “waves” speech whenever he was asked to read from his book. That’s key to understanding the point of the book and the film. These two characters aren’t sticking it to the man. They’re burnouts who are causing destruction and hurting people in their way. It’s not a romance. It’s a tragedy.

Fight Club

What people say: In many ways, say the fans, the movie was ahead of its time. Fight Club’s commentary on modern society and how it cheapens the human experience has only become more and more relevant as time’s marched on. People were promised one thing and have every right to be mad when their dreams don’t come true through no fault of their own.

All we need to do is become someone like Tyler Durden, a man who has taken control of his destination. And, of course, there are people who aspire to be him and to rebel against the system in the same way he does.

What it’s actually about: Tyler Durden is evil.

We aren’t supposed to like him or inspired by him.

The film is about how easy it is for a hate group, a cult, or a terrorist organization to find members. It’s not about brainwashing a bunch of idiots into following a dumb ideology. It’s about finding people at just the right time, when they’re dissatisfied with their lives, and offering a new solution to their problems. Eventually, they get pulled so far in that what seems normal to them is crazy to everyone else – such as vandalizing coffee shops and blowing up skyscrapers for the sake of “resetting” the banking system, even though that wouldn’t work, without question.

Tyler Durden is the perfect cult leader. He’s charismatic, he knows exactly what to say, and he provides people with an outlet for their frustration. But that doesn’t make him any less of a Jim Jones figure or his “Project Mayhem” plan any less of a new version of Jonestown.

Would you have voluntarily followed Jim Jones to South America? Probably not if you were directly asked. But Fight Club is great in how it explains why people make those decisions. Still, it’s all very clear the film doesn’t believe those are the correct decisions.

Full Metal Jacket

What people say: Stanley Kubrick’s films have been analyzed as though they’re a lost book of the Bible. It’s why he said he was reluctant to give interviews – he didn’t have answers to people asking for the definitive meaning of any of his films. He wanted people to draw they’re own conclusions.

I guess that means I’m being presumptuous when I say people got one of his movies “wrong,” but there are two fandoms in particular that drive me up the wall. I’ll get to one of them later, but the first one is his Vietnam epic Full Metal Jacket.

I’ve seen multiple people dismiss the entire second half of the movie and say the only good parts are in the boot camp segments in the first half with Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, famously portrayed by R Lee Ermey.

Fans of his claim that the movie is very pro-military and Hartman is only as tough as he is because that’s what people need to be in order to turn someone into a soldier. Thanks to people like Hartman, the army can take anyone and turn them in the ultraconservative idea of the all-American masculine male.

What it’s actually about: It’s easy to understand why people like R Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant so much. He gives one of the greatest performances in a Kubrick film and his dialogue is amazingly funny. Plus, Ermey’s previous army career does lend the performance an air of authenticity.

But Ermey himself has said that if he had acted like his character does in the film when he was serving, his superiors would have had him dishonorably discharged and thrown out. They would have zero patience for an officer punching recruits and, should he have been allowed to cause a private to have a homicidal mental breakdown, everyone in Ermey’s chain of command would have been thrown out of the army.

He’s the villain and represents how army life can dehumanize people.

People also forget that there is an entire second half to the movie that takes place in Da Nang, and it’s as good as the first half. Those scenes follow Private Joker as he photographs the battles he sees, as well as the reaction the locals have to American soldiers. We see people violently die in the same way Ermey’s character was killed and it’s presented in the same way. The army trains people to kill in a way that turns them into a sort of organic piece of clockwork and we don’t really think about the consequences or the effects that war has on people. The movie is essentially “if Alex from A Clockwork Orange” joined the army.

Mulholland Dr.

What people say: David Lynch’s epic L.A. show business satire is famous for its nonlinear plot and for the multiple interpretations it’s attracted. Lynch even submitted ten questions for people to use to “figure out” the movie.

The most common thing I’ve seen is that the film’s first half is meant to be a dream while the second half depicts the reality of the main characters.

Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is a failed actress whose ex-girlfriend Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring) is dating a director and is seeing her star rise. Diane hires someone to kill Camilla but is so traumatized by her own actions she dreams up a false reality where she recasts herself as the good guy and her failed career is attributed to a giant conspiracy rather than her lack of talent.

There are subtle clues that the entire first half is just a dream, including visual clues and shared elements between the two versions of reality – like how the fictional film Adam Kesher is being threatened with over the casting is the same movie Camilla just starred in during the second half.

What it’s actually about: This is going to be me in fan conspiracy mode, but I believe the usual interpretation of Mulholland Dr’s plot is wrong.

I personally think the “it was all a dream” ending is simply boring. And Lynch has made something else that clarifies what he intended with Mulholland Dr – a third season of Twin Peaks.

That series ended with the confirmation of parallel universes and how the famous “lodges” acted as a barrier between them. Still, it wasn’t an effective barrier, because actions in our world can affect the denizens in the lodges. The U.S. government launched an investigation into these parallel universes and, in the end, we see Dale Cooper traveling to a different reality where people like Laura Palmer are living completely different lives.

This was all foreshadowed in Mulholland Dr. The film is about how those parallel universes and the lodges work, using an aspiring actress as the model. First, we know it takes place in the Twin Peaks universe. Laura Palmer even makes a cameo. And it’s a cameo in one of the most important places in the film – Club Silencio, aka an extension of the “waiting room” in Peaks. The emcee is dressed identically to backwards talking “arm” and “there’s always music in the air.”

Betty and Rita are women who somehow end up in a parallel universe, just like Cooper and Diane. They, however, did it accidentally and had no idea what was happening. It’s why Betty has a breakdown and likely dies at the end.

The Shining

What people say: The Shining may as well be about everything, judging by the internet. It’s either a confession of Kubrick’s role in faking the moon landing, an allegory for the destruction of native Americans by European settlers, or a fictional retelling of the rise of the Nazis.

Kubrick’s films are famously visually dense, and he always snuck in references people missed on their first viewing. (Who else didn’t see the 2001 soundtrack in the record store Alex DeLarge shops at in A Clockwork Orange the first time they watched it?) and wanted audiences to come to their own conclusions, so in a way there is no “wrong” way to interpret The Shining.

Still, people have latched onto The Shining as Kubrick’s densest film and believe it was meant to establish him as the director who took so long to make a film because his films were just that dense and complex.

What it’s actually about: Room 237, which compares The Shining to Finnegans Wake, is one of the most frustrating documentaries ever made. It exemplifies the “movies are puzzles” trend among certain groups and films simply don’t work that way.

First, Kubrick intended this horror movie based on a book by an already enormously successful author to be proof he could deliver a box office hit after Barry Lyndon underwhelmed. It’s still visually dense and carries all of Kubrick’s trademarks, but he wasn’t using this as an opportunity to push any envelopes or to confuse audiences. In fact, he was so eager to make it a success he not only cut the original ending after it had been playing for a week in theaters and cut more than half an hour of scenes from the European versions to emphasize the action. And in terms of Kubrick trying to please the critics with a dense, thought provoking film, he was among the nominees for Worst Director at the first ever Razzie Awards for The Shining.

But that doesn’t have to do with the film’s actual themes. And the film is about something simpler than, say, Kubrick admitting he faked the moon landing. It’s about addiction, something author Stephen King was very familiar with when he wrote the book. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic who barely has one foot on the wagon. But it’s an addiction that’s already caused a lot of pain and suffering to his family – Wendy even says so at the start of the movie when she explains how her husband dislocated his son Danny’s shoulder in a drunken rage. As the film goes on, we see Jack fall off the wagon completely and, as he does so, becomes a danger to the people he loves.

Now, the film says this relapse may be influenced by ghosts but the specters we see in the movie are all reflections of Jack’s tortured mind. He sees a ghost bartender who tempts him with alcohol, he sees a woman morph from a beautiful young model to an old, decaying hag to reflect his dissatisfaction with his wife, and he sees the Overlook’s previous caretaker encouraging him to be violent as a way of “correcting” his family’s bad behavior. It’s behavior that prevents Jack from being what he wants to be – an addict who is not responsible for his actions.

The film’s sequel Doctor Sleep made this even more clear, but the original film is not meant to be ambiguous. The scariest thing in the world aren’t ghosts or haunted houses. It’s seeing the people we love turn into unrecognizable monsters thanks to outside forces they can’t control.

About the Author

Daniel Suddes

Daniel Suddes lives in Atlanta and is a panelist on the "Myopia: Defend Your Childhood" podcast (myopia.dudeletter.com).

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