Audiences Still Wary of Sept. 11 Stories

Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the truth remains stronger than any artist's attempt to re-create it and the public's desire to relive it.

From Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" to Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," the taboo against taking on the attacks is long gone, at least among writers and filmmakers. But nothing in fiction has compared to the power of a real plane crashing into a real building, and audiences seem torn between the desire to know more about 9/11 and the fear of being reminded too closely.

Tanya Palmer, literary manager of Chicago's Goodman Theatre, says there is a "tension between wanting the art to be relevant, but also a pressure from the audience ... to not always be showing them what's happening in the news."

Readers so far have preferred the facts. Novels such as Foer's "Extremely Loud" or Jay McInerney's "The Good Life" haven't approached the popularity of the million-selling "The 9-11 Commission Report" or of the recent graphic adaptation. Another current best seller is Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower," an in-depth investigation of events leading up to the attacks that has more than 100,000 copies in print.

"Readers definitely have turned to nonfiction books about 9/11," says Ann Close, a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, which publishes Wright and McInerney. "I think people are desperately trying to figure out what happened and what's going on there, and nonfiction sice tracker Exhibitor Relations.

"But if you're looking to greenlight a movie, you don't look at a movie based on Sept. 11 and say, `This is going to be a huge blockbuster hit.' Sept. 11 movies are not about box office. If you're going to make them, you have to keep the budgets in line, and they better be pretty solid movies."

Studios remain in a holding pattern, with no other major Sept. 11 projects expected soon. And audiences remain as escapist as ever, packing theaters for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "Cars" and "X-Men: The Last Stand," while the two Sept. 11 films drew comparatively small crowds.

Independent-minded filmmakers and documentary directors likely will remain the key chroniclers of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. In the year following the attacks, there was a rush of smaller projects, including "The Guys," based on the play about a firefighter preparing eulogies for colleagues killed in the attacks, and "September 11," an anthology of short films whose directors included Sean Penn, Mira Nair and Ken Loach.

"These movies aren't really developed at a marketing meeting. It's more a creative choice on the part of filmmakers willing to tackle this emotional subject," Dergarabedian says. "I don't think there's anyone sitting there saying, `We've got to make a 9/11 film.' It's more about visionary filmmakers. That's how those films get made. If Oliver Stone says he wants to do a World Trade Center movie, who's going to say no?"

The events of 9-11 have touched TV drama in only limited and occasional ways.

The fallout from terrorism ushered in by thatar in advance, people just don't focus on it."

In the last five years, not many plays that directly confronted Sept. 11 have received wide exposure. Perhaps the best known is "The Guys," first seen in 2002, less than six months after the terrorist attacks, and later made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia. In it, first-time playwright Anne Nelson tells the story of a journalist interviewing a veteran New York firefighter, who is mourning the loss of eight men in his fire company at the World Trade Center.

Other playwrights, such as Neil LaBute in "The Mercy Seat," Christopher Shinn in "Where Do We Live," Craig Wright in "Recent Tragic Events," and Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros in "Omnium Gatherum," have also touched on 9/11 and its effects. Yet a definitive 9/11 play has yet to be written.

"I certainly have read a number of plays about 9/11 that weren't very good," says Tanya Palmer of Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

"It's hard to write directly about an event very effectively right after it. That's part of it. The plays that actually work quite well are not often not directly about 9/11 or about the war. They draw on them but they find some kind of metaphorical way of exploring those issues as opposed to being directly about those events."