The Columbine Effect: Why Hollywood Is Keeping the Story Alive

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?

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

"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."

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Michelle Stevens
Michelle Stevens

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech....but this will only give more bad ideas to children. As well, the victims are now adults and they can not get their childhood back. WORST IDEA EVER.....


Can we cool it with the canned VVM content? You guys can mock the Guardian for their hypocrisy about MIrkarimi - and rightly so - but at least they can muster actual content about the city in which I live.

Like many people who were in high school at the time of the Columbine shooting I was deeply effected by them, but that was - like you point out in the article - 13 years ago. This type of coverage of media exploitation is great for the metro Denver region where the massacre happened, but when syndicated widely it threatens to become the very thing that it decries.

And on top of that you don't print Savage Love?! I don't even know why I bother sometimes . . .

Mike Tattoo
Mike Tattoo

How can you do a story on Columbine well over a decade later and not even get into the fact that Pat Sullivan, one of the first responders on the scene who was later voted national sheriff of the year, ran a massive, massive, undercover speed and pedophile ring. He was later busted and sentenced to a jail that was named after him. Also, in January of 1998, Eric and Dylan were both arrested for breaking into a van and stealing some electronics equipment. They were put in the Juvenile Diversion Program and Anger Management classes. This is later referred to as the “January Incident.” where there are accusations that the local cops raped one or both of the boys.


No matter how darkly they portray the perps, someone out there is thinking "I can do a better job shooting up my school, look at Dylan and Eric they got famous, so will I"

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