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The Columbine Effect: Why Hollywood Is Keeping the Story Alive 

Wednesday, Mar 21 2012
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Illustration by Jay Vollmar.


The news first surfaced in the Hollywood trade press last month: The Lifetime cable network is developing a miniseries about the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Based on a best-selling book about the tragedy, the project involves a team of heavyweight producers whose collective film credits include the fact-based dramas Moneyball, The Social Network, and Boys Don't Cry.

Sam Granillo heard about the miniseries on Facebook a few days later. A miniseries? On Columbine? Based on actual events, as they say? Really?

"When I read about it — I don't know if furious is the right word, but I was intensely emotional," says Granillo. "I was beyond irritated."

The 30-year-old Granillo is a cameraman and production assistant who's worked on a slew of commercials and television programs, from MTV's Extreme Cribs to American Idol. But his interest in the proposed miniseries goes deeper than professional curiosity. A couple of lifetimes ago, he was a 17-year-old junior at Columbine.

On April 20, 1999, he was eating lunch in the school cafeteria, known as the Commons, when seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began shooting students outside. The pair soon entered the school, firing randomly at cornered teens and tossing pipe bombs. Hundreds of people fled the Commons in various directions. Granillo and 17 other people ended up trapped in a small room in the kitchen area, listening to shots, screams and explosions. The door had no lock, so Granillo planted his feet against it.

In the course of about 50 minutes, Harris and Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher, injured 21 others, then committed suicide. The SWAT rescue teams didn't reach the kitchen for almost three hours. The police led Granillo and the others through a broken window, past pools of blood and lifeless bodies on the ground outside. Some of those bodies had been friends Granillo knew well. He'd also known Klebold since he was 10 years old — or thought he'd known him.

Past the scenes of carnage was a battery of police investigators demanding written statements, reporters trolling for eyewitness accounts — and television cameras poised to soak up the shock and grief. For weeks, survivors of the attack were buttonholed, interrogated, stalked. Tabloid journalists offered hard cash for a hot-off-the-presses copy of the school yearbook, racing to be first to publish the killers' senior photos. The headlines went on for months, followed by "anniversary stories," documentaries, books, and even feature films loosely based on the shootings.

Even when he thought he was through mourning, Granillo found that Columbine wasn't through with him. He had bouts of anxiety, recurrent nightmares about being chased and trapped. "At first the coping mechanism in my brain downplayed a lot of what happened to me, but it stuck with me," he says. "Then I wanted to get counseling, and I kept running into dead ends. I found out a lot of other people were in the same situation. It was available to us once, and now it's not. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Sam, it's been 10 years. Aren't you over it yet?' But it's never going away for us, ever."

A few months ago, Granillo began raising funds and conducting preliminary interviews for a documentary about the long-term trauma left by the shootings. He figured this might be a way for him and others to put the tragedy to rest, take the discussion in a new direction.

Then he heard about the miniseries. A true story about the worst day of his life, his friends' lives. A true story. Based on actual events. Told by people he's never met.

"Anyone who wasn't there doesn't understand how we feel about having our lives put on display for everyone to see," he says. "Who would want that? I'm worried for my friends who are going to turn on the television and see themselves portrayed as who knows what. A miniseries? That's like the fucking straw that broke the camel's back."

Another Columbine graduate soon launched an online petition, "Say 'No' to Columbine Movie." Within a week, thanks largely to social-media activism among alumni and their families, the petition had collected more than 5,000 signatures. Some of the protesters posted comments expressing their displeasure with the project's source material: Columbine, a book by journalist Dave Cullen, who bills himself as "the nation's foremost authority on the Columbine killers." Cullen's book won awards and made several critics' best-reading lists for 2009, but it's had a rougher reception in Littleton, where some prominent members of the Columbine community have taken issue with its accuracy and its slant.

Other signers were troubled that the network backing the miniseries is Lifetime, purveyor of turgid melodramas involving cheating spouses, suave serial killers, and Tori Spelling. ("Lifetime should stick to cheesy movies about pregnancy pacts and Dance Moms," one wrote.) But the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that any film project purporting to be the "real story" of Columbine, yet put together by outsiders, would reopen wounds and possibly inspire more copycat shootings.

"This is a terrible idea for a movie," wrote Anne Marie Hochhalter. "I was injured at Columbine, and Dave Cullen's book is inaccurate and sensationalized. Please don't let this movie be made; it brings back all the pain I experienced and is insensitive to all of us in the Columbine community."

Hochhalter figures in several passages in Cullen's book; she was one of the first students shot outside the school and was left paralyzed by her injuries. Her mother's suicide a few months later provides another graphic scene. But Cullen never interviewed Hochhalter; his accounts of her family's ordeal, complete with quotes, come from various news articles.

"It felt kind of violating, to be honest," Hochhalter says of the experience of reading Cullen's book. "He got the part about how I was injured completely wrong. I couldn't bear to read the whole thing. The fact that this movie is in the works, based on what he wrote — I just feel sick over it. I don't want young, impressionable, angry people out there, who idolize Harris and Klebold anyway, to see this on film."

About The Author

Alan Prendergast

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