Study Guide to Popcorn
By Ben Elton (Simon and Schuster 1996)
Ethics, moral responsibility, society; film violence
Bruce Delamitri is a film director who makes very violent but stylish movies. ‘Bruce’s movies are hip. Post-modern cinematic milestones, dripping with ironic juxtaposition. His killers are style icons. They walk cool, they talk cool. Getting shot by one of them would be a fashion statement’ (from the book cover).
Wayne and Scout are psychopaths who are killing people without apparent reason. Many people consider Bruce’s films to be the cause of the violence. As a way of avoiding the death penalty they decide that Bruce must take responsibility. They break into his house on Oscars Night and a terrible siege begins.
After the final bloodbath the arguments continue over who is responsible for a violent society—and this violence in particular.
WARNING: Contains strong language; violence; sex
Popcorn stayed at the top of the hardback best-seller lists for quite some time before being released in paperback and has been translated and published widely around the world. It is also a successful West End play now at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1 (directed by Laurence Boswell). Popcorn is also available as an audiobook read by John Sessions.
Mary Whitehouse praised Popcorn for its attack on sex and violence in the movies but Ben Elton has said “I don’t think balanced people can be driven to be any different from what they are … The suggestion is that those who are open to anti-social behaviour may be seduced into believing it is the norm … I feel slightly exposed here because I am putting a point I don’t entirely believe.” (The Daily Telegraph, July 29th 1996).
Joel Schumacher (Flatliners, Falling Down, Batman Forever) has announced plans to direct the film version, and will apparently star Jeff Goldblum, Nathan Lane and Ellen Barkin.
Ben Elton was born in South London and studied Drama at Manchester University. His numerous television writing credits include The Thin Blue Line, Blackadder, The Young Ones and The Man from Auntie. He has written two hit West End plays and three previous internationally bestselling novels. His plays and novels have been widely translated. He tours occasionally as a stand-up comedian. Popcorn is his fourth novel. He is going grey, is married to Sophie Gare and lives in Notting Hill.
Other books by Ben Elton
Ben Elton, Batchelor Boys – The Young Ones Book
spin off of the TV series which Elton co-wrote with Rik Mayall and Lise Meyer
Ben Elton Stark (1989)
His first novel which sold massively in Britain and Australia. It was reprinted 23 times in its first year of publication, and sold over a million worldwide.
Ben Elton, Gasping (1990)
Based on his successful West End play starring Hugh Laurie
Ben Elton, Gridlock (Warner Books 1991)
Ben Elton, Silly Cow (1993)
Ben Elton, This Other Eden (Simon and Schuster 1993)
Other resources on these ideas
Ben Elton FAQs
The End of Violence dir. Wim Venders
The book opens with the narrative switching between Bruce Delamitri being interviewed by the police and him being interviewed by Oliver and Dale on Coffee Time USA the morning before. Most of the book is the events that took place in the intervening 24 hours.
On Coffee Time USA he is quizzed over a series of killings that had taken place, apparently copying killings depicted in his latest film Ordinary Americans. He is expected to receive the Oscar for Best Director that night but a controversy is raging over whether or not his films have given rise to this violence or whether they merely show life as it is. Bruce maintains that it is the latter.
The narrative then moves to switching between Bruce’s appearance on Coffee Time USA and the movements of Wayne and his pretty waif-like girlfriend Scout. They are known as the Mall Murderers and have been killing people across America in exactly the same way as the couple in Ordinary Americans.
Bruce protests in strong terms that the association between his films and these killings is an invention of news editors; he maintains that people aren’t influenced in such a direct way by what they see. He insists that ‘artists don’t create society, they reflect it. And if you don’t like that, don’t change us, change society’ (p. 14). Wayne and Scout are watching this in their motel room hatching a plan.
Bruce spends the afternoon before the Oscars addressing the film studies course at the University of Southern California where he himself studied. He impresses the students but not the dusty old Prof. Chambers who asks some very penetrating, critical questions and gets the better of a very angry Bruce.
Bruce arrives at the Oscars in a limo which crawls through the heavy traffic. He watches the crowds staring and straining to see who’s inside. ‘They couldn’t see anything: all the limos had mirrored windows, so all they could see was themselves… That was it! The whole truth in one startling image. Why were Bruce’s movies so successful? Because people saw themselves reflected in them. Maybe better-looking and a little cooler but none the less themselves, with their fears, their lusts, their most secret desires and fantasies… He was a mirror. He did not create a world for people to watch; they created a world for him to film’ (p. 54).
His acceptance speech at the Oscars is embarrassing waffle. At the same time, Wayne and Scout are moving on having murdered two people at the motel.
At the post-Oscars party Bruce drinking hard. He is rude to everybody—especially to a young woman named Dove who he accuses of making up ‘the terrible emotional abuse’ she’d suffered. Bruce claims to have an addictive personality and therefore was not responsible for his drinking. He rants about the victim culture and the lack of responsibility. Then he sees a Playboy model/aspiring actress who he takes home intending to sleep with her.
What they do not realise until they start to undress is that Wayne and Scout are in the house. Some hours later Bruce’s almost ex-wife, Farrah and their daughter Velvet arrive. Wayne phones the TV networks and soon a convoy of media vehicles and police arrive at the house and a siege commences. The Police Chief and the NBC chief vie with each other as to who is in overall charge of the situation.
Waynes’ plan is for Bruce to go live on every TV network to say that he is responsible for the Mall Murderers’ killing spree because his films had such a profound impact on them. That way Wayne and Scout, though guilty, are not ultimately responsible and will avoid the electric chair. If he won’t do it then he will kill Farrah and Velvet Delamitri and Bruce himself. Eventually Bruce and Wayne agree to debate it together on TV. Wayne has asked for a two-person news crew to come to the house—without clothes—in order to film this as well as a ratings computer so that he can see how many people are watching.
As the debate goes on, the ratings gradually drop until Wayne announces that he will kill Farrah in one and a half minutes. At the end of the time he does shoot her and the Police SWAT team start to enter the house. As soon as Wayne learns of this he says that he and Scout will give themselves up with no further bloodshed on the condition that everyone watching turns off their TVs. If they keep watching he will kill everyone in the room.
The SWAT team move in and there is a bloodbath. Bruce survived but his career didn’t; Scout also survived. Brooke, Velvet and the news crew as well as Wayne were killed. The epilogue of the book is a catalogue of litigation: everyone is blaming everyone else and suing them for damages over what happened. The book concludes, ‘So far no one has claimed responsibility.’ (p. 298).
Ideas for discussion
1) With which of the characters in the book does Ben Elton seem to have the most sympathy?
2) What do the various characters believe about human moral responsibility? What basis do they have (or are likely to have) for these beliefs?
3) What elements of truth and error are there in Bruce Delamitri’s argument that he is only holding a mirror up to society, not creating it?
4) What purpose do you think the confrontation between Prof Chambers and Bruce Delamitri serves in the narrative?
5) Which side of the debate over violence in the movies do you think Ben Elton is on at the end of the day?
6) To what extent has Elton glorified violence in his book in exactly the way the book seems to condemn in films? Is his use of violence legitimate because of the point that is being made?
7) Why do people want to see violent films? Does the public get what it deserves?
The controversy about film violence resurfaces fairly often. How could you bring a Christian angle to a conversation with a non-Christian friend when it is next in the news?