The Columbine Effect

Thirteen years and a hundred school shootings later, why is Hollywood still obsessed with this one?

Cullen is well aware of the range of objections to the miniseries. He read through comment after comment in the online petition, trying to understand his critics' perspective, but finally gave it up. "It was demoralizing," he says. "A lot of them were calling me a horrible person."

It stung, he says, that people think the project is just about money, as if anything dealing with Columbine is a guaranteed blockbuster. He spent the better part of ten years researching his book and challenging the core myths about the attack — for example, that Harris and Klebold were out to kill jocks — but most major publishers weren't interested. Even after the book won rave reviews, major studios passed on the idea of a feature-film adaptation.

"It was this project nobody wanted to do, based on this very dark material," he says. "People who think it's a moneymaker, I would love for them to go to Hollywood and have that conversation with the studios that said no."

Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings.
Columbine grad Sam Granillo is making a documentary about the long-term trauma inflicted by the shootings.
Journalist Dave Cullen says a miniseries based on his book about the tragedy will do more good than harm.
Journalist Dave Cullen says a miniseries based on his book about the tragedy will do more good than harm.

After some high-profile industry names became attached to the proposal — writer/director Tommy O'Haver (An American Crime) and producers Michael DeLuca (Moneyball, The Social Network) and Christine Vachon and Pam Koffler (Boys Don't Cry) — Lifetime became interested in it as a "prestige project," something to help change the network's image.

"I was leaning all the time toward doing it as a miniseries on TV," Cullen says. "You can tell a much more involved story that way."

Cullen expects to have considerable input into the adaptation, which he says will give due attention to survivors' stories as well as that of the killers. He doesn't anticipate that the miniseries will inspire copycats, because the "actual" Harris and Klebold, stripped of their mythologies, "are pretty unappealing." For economy's sake, the script may contain composite characters on the periphery of the story, but the intent is to tell a true story: "It's definitely all real names, real people, keeping it as real as possible."

Yet it's precisely the assertion of the project's authenticity that most troubles its opponents. In the Columbine community, Cullen's book is widely regarded not as the definitive account of the massacre and its aftermath, but one version of it, with its own biases and questionable interpretations. The second chapter portrays Harris as a chick magnet, an assertion based largely on the account of one reputed girlfriend whom police investigators concluded wasn't credible; several people who knew the killers well believe both Harris and Klebold died as virgins. ("Right now I'm trying to get fucked and trying to finish off these time bombs," Harris wrote two weeks before the attack.) It's one thread in a larger dispute some readers have with Cullen's work — which, in their view, downplays the role of bullying and other factors in its efforts to portray Harris as a well-integrated psychopath and Klebold as his depressed, rejected follower.

It's doubtful that even the most nuanced version of the killers' motives would satisfy all camps. Harris and Klebold offered contradictory explanations for their hatred and despair. They were filled with rage over perceived slights from family members and the "bitches" who rejected them, but they also believed they had "evolved one step above you fucking human shit." They offered ample warning signs of their intentions because they suspected, correctly, that almost no one was paying attention. They disparaged religion but clung to a hope that they would somehow be able to enjoy their dead-celebrity status. They pursued their apocalyptic plot for months, with the monomania of terrorists, even as their lives seemingly improved, yet they were adept at blaming others for their isolation and contempt for the whole world. "I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things," Harris wrote in the final, self-pitying entry in his journal. That's not an explanation — just another expression of long-nurtured grievances by an angry, deeply delusional teenager.

A few of Cullen's most vocal critics say they don't trust his book because he relies so heavily on sources among law enforcement and school officials, including Jefferson County lead investigator Kate Battan, FBI agent Dwayne Fuselier (whose psychological analysis of the killers Cullen presents as if handed down from Mount Sinai) and principal Frank DeAngelis — people that Columbine families accused of misleading them or providing self-serving accounts. Although Cullen deals in a roundabout way with the police cover-up concerning prior investigations of the killers and their blunders on the day of the attack, he also describes the Jeffco commanders — several of whom lied outright to the media and the victims' families — as "essentially honest men," and he makes a point of proclaiming that Battan "was clean."

"He was working with Battan and Fuselier to make the police look good," says Brian Rohrbough, who fought in court for years to establish that the official account of how his son Danny died outside the school was wrong. "He glosses over the cover-up as if it's an incidental thing."

When Columbine was published, three years ago, Rohrbough and other parents were incensed to learn that Oprah Winfrey was going to feature the author, along with Battan and Fuselier, on a show marking the tenth anniversary of the shootings. Contacted by a producer for photos of his son, Rohrbough suggested that Winfrey was making a terrible mistake.

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