One Christmas long ago, my wife and I visited my folks in Ohio and went out one night to see Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. As much as I admired Kubrick as a filmmaker, I found this movie to be completely repellent. There was no hope, no redemption, no hint of human decency to counter its bleak dystopian vision and its unrelenting violence. My wife and I came away feeling like we had been mugged. We got back home and turned on the TV. There wasn’t much on except The Bells of St. Mary’s, a sappy holiday staple in which Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman play a priest and nun struggling to save a parochial school from closing. It was wonderful. We watched it all the way through, grateful for the reminder that there might be some goodness left in the world, even if it was manufactured on a Hollywood soundstage.
Kubrick was able to make a movie like A Clockwork Orange only because the old Hollywood Production Code had been replaced by the current film rating system. Between 1934 and 1968, strict standards of moral uplift were imposed on the film industry, with the Catholic Legion of Decency also keeping a sharp eye on things to make sure there was no backsliding. The Production Code viewed motion pictures as primarily an entertainment medium with a responsibility to “re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life.” Accordingly, the realities of life were rarely allowed to intrude – or at least not without first cleansing them of all nudity, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, licentious behavior, graphic violence and degradation. Under the Code, it was forbidden to depict drug use, prostitution, venereal disease, surgical operations, childbirth or cruelty to children and animals. One reason the good guys always won in Hollywood films is that the Code did not permit crime or criminals to be portrayed in a favorable light. People could read about such things in a book or newspaper but never see them on screen.
The Production Code did not require movies to have happy endings, but then there was no need. Moviegoers might or might want to be morally uplifted, but they certainly did not want to pay good money to be depressed. Long before we become exhausted by the realities of life, we are schooled in fairy tales that generally wind up with the characters living happily ever after. Even when exhaustion sets in, we seek solace in stories that end better than our own lives usually do. When you come right down to it, the stories of our own lives always end badly, since the main character dies in the end.
Some people think the purpose of religion is to supply the happy ending that is otherwise missing in life. For most of human history, people lived miserably and died young. Something in us desperately wants to believe that the story doesn’t end there. We want more time to set things right, to undo wrongs, to tie up all those loose plot strands that were left dangling when things take their final turn for the worst. We want to know what it all means. Then we wouldn’t mind taking our ease in a place where the Hollywood Code still applies and the realities of this life are never allowed to intrude.
It is certainly hard to argue on the evidence that our religious beliefs are anything more than fairy tales for adults. Did Moses really part the Red Sea? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Do God’s children live happily ever after in the hereafter? Who knows? That’s not the point, really. We are not lying to ourselves, even if none of it is true. It’s not what the stories are about so much as what the stories say about us. What do they reveal about our hopes and dreams? How do they shape what we think and, above all, what we do? How do they give meaning to our lives? In a very real sense, we are the stories we tell.