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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 44

Essay:
Swept Away

Words by Caitlin Quinlan.
A short history of wild weather on-screen.

In our everyday lives, the weather is a mostly banal consideration. In movies, it is traditionally wild. There are the disaster flicks: catastrophes such as The Day After Tomorrow, tawdry B-movie horror-comedies like Sharknado, wherein a tornado filled with sharks terrorizes Los Angeles, and emotionally heightened dramas like The Impossible about a family surviving a tsunami. They are designed to shock and entertain us, hovering on the edge of totally implausible and borderline possible—perhaps, in some twisted way, we watch these movies to prepare ourselves for apocalyptic doom? 

On film, weather has the power to transport us, often literally.1 In The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel, the aptly named Dorothy Gale gets caught in a tornado that transports her and her dog, Toto, to the Land of Oz. The upheaval of the house with Dorothy and Toto inside causes the death of the Wicked Witch of the East when it crashes down in Oz and sets the story’s wondrous journey in motion. The realm-shifting tornado even triggers the film’s move from sepia tones to Technicolor.2 

Or take a similarly witchy tale, The Witches of Eastwick (adapted from John Updike’s novel), in which Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer discover they have hidden powers when they conjure a brutal thunderstorm to put an end to a tedious school ceremony. Unbeknownst to them, the storm has also brought with it the devil in the form of Jack Nicholson. The town is turned upside down when all three women are irrevocably seduced by him and move into his lavish mansion—a plot development that not only exposes Eastwick’s puritanical side but also threatens the sanctity of the women’s bond. 

Then there’s Groundhog Day’s weatherman Phil Connors, trapped in a time loop after a blizzard strikes Punxsutawney, and Ariel in The Little Mermaid, besotted with a man knocked overboard during a storm at sea. Worlds changed by freak weather events have a fantastical quality to them that is moderated by the familiarity of the weather in its daily, less striking forms. It is not totally alien or paranormal, even if the changes it provokes are. “I’ll give you a winter prediction,” says Bill Murray’s Connors, shortly before his world is turned upside down. “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”3

It’s not surprising that extreme weather appears so frequently in movies. Whether storms, blizzards or tornadoes, these events have a striking visual quality that makes them exciting on-screen and their obvious drama does a lot of narrative heavy lifting. They’ve been used since the very earliest stories too—think of biblical floods and rainfall, or stormy shipwrecks in Greek tragedies.4 These things aside, when we assess these films through a contemporary lens—one that is cognizant of the current global climate crisis—it is interesting to consider the role weather has played in expressing severity and threat even at a time when climate discussions were not as prevalent as they are today. It’s hard to watch the storm in The Witches of Eastwick without worrying about Cher’s ramshackle home on a wooden pier flooding in the rising sea levels or falling into the waves below.

“Worlds changed by freak weather
events have a fantastical quality to
them that is moderated by the
familiarity of the weather.”

More subtle weather patterns can provide a narrative device or set the mood in their own way. Spike Lee’s 1989 drama, Do the Right Thing, explores racial tensions and gentrification in a Brooklyn neighborhood during a long, hot summer, with animosity growing as the heat wave intensifies. Playwright Tennessee Williams was also fond of using hot weather as a tool to escalate antagonism or signal destruction, and the film adaptations followed suit. Think of a sweat-soaked Marlon Brando flaunting his body to Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire, catalyzing the dangerous lust between them. Leigh’s Blanche is at the mercy of the heat, her mental state declining in the humid atmosphere.5 It makes an interesting comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, where Jack Torrance succumbs to insanity in the snow-laden isolation of the Colorado Rockies. The pressure of these climates—opposite and yet similarly effective—brings bold characters to their knees. These articulations of weather, both big and seemingly small, reveal the complex relationships between people and climate in ways that may have been overlooked at the time. 

Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, author of Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film, thinks that wild weather on-screen has generally failed to inspire audiences to think about climate issues. In the book, she writes that film viewers can feel protected “from the causes and implications of the drama enacted on screen” when environmental issues are presented as improbable fantasy. She explains further over Zoom that “there’s a lot of exploration about the efficacy of films to bring awareness and engagement and action on the part of viewers. Then the question becomes, Is awareness enough to motivate people to participate in one way or another to take action? The views on that are mixed.” 

But when we watch films today that were made several decades ago, before climate change was part of the public consciousness, we may find ourselves interpreting the wild weather they depict differently. “As a viewer, I am influenced by my current condition,” Willoquet-Maricondi says. “Now that we have this awareness and are under this threat from weather events that are unpredictable and violent, do we look at these weather events differently in these films, regardless of how they were meant at the time that the film was made?”

Once a dramatic and fun storytelling device, now the weather on film has a new role to play in drawing attention to the climate crisis in a more realistic way. Albert, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts–backed sustainability organization, provides training and support for broadcasters and movie producers to center the importance of positive environmental action. One initiative in particular, Planet Placement, encourages the makers of film and television to include environmentally focused plot lines, character traits or other subtle nods to climate issues within narratives. To guide others, Albert highlights examples from existing works along with any successful results; when Cousin Greg’s grandfather Ewan in HBO’s Succession wrote Greenpeace into his will, for example, it led to a real-world surge in people wanting to do the same. Other case studies include everything from the use of “climate change” as a sexual safe word in The Morning Show to references to the Great Smog of London in The Crown.6 

Albert’s director, Carys Taylor, explains that “Planet Placement is the phrase that we have attributed to this area because it’s about weaving climate issues into all kinds of content and meeting audiences where they are. . . without beating it round anyone’s head.” 

“The advertising industry pours a lot of money into understanding what’s going to shift and nudge people to do things differently,” she says. “We need to replicate the same.” Albert’s work focuses more heavily on representing solutions rather than climate fatalism—it’s not about terrifying people into inaction but easing them into positive change. 

It’s still unclear whether a cinematic flood or heat wave could be an effective way to change attitudes about environmental issues, but Albert’s upcoming research into tangible behavior shifts as a potential result of Planet Placement could be hugely insightful. On-screen, weather can transform fictional worlds. Who knows—perhaps our viewing habits will prove capable of transforming reality.

NOTES

( 1 ) This is a global trope. In the Korean romantic comedy Crash Landing on You, a wealthy South Korean businesswoman is swept up in a sudden storm and lands on the North Korean side of the DMZ, where she meets (and falls in love with) an army captain.

( 2 ) Technicolor involved a different color process than today's movies. The extremely vibrant but relatively uniform palette in The Wizard of Oz is the result of filming the same scene through various colored filters on different strips of film, which are then used to print colors onto the final reel.

( 3 ) The weather is a main character in Groundhog Day thanks to the presence of Punxsutawney Phil, a famous groundhog who people believe can predict when winter will end. If Phil can see his shadow, winter will continue for another six weeks. If he can't, spring will arrive early. “Phil" has been casting his predictions since 1886.

( 4 ) In the Bible, God is often shown acting through the weather. Among his acts: He causes the storm that shipwrecks Jonah and another that kills Job's family, sets hailstorms on the Amorite army and causes a years-long drought that only ends with prayer.

( 5 ) Many works of art contain an element of pathetic fallacy—a literary device whereby nature appears to reflect the emotions of characters. Common examples of pathetic fallacy include sudden downpours when a person is sad and rainbows at moments of heightened romance.

( 6 ) Planet Placement's writers' guide emphasizes that climate change doesn't need to dominate the script. “Maybe it’s your character borrowing an outfit from a friend rather than buying a new one. . . . It doesn’t have to take center stage or be an entire story about climate change. The important thing is just to reference the environment in a way that doesn’t disrupt your story.”

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