A scandal has recently erupted in the US involving the release of a made-for-television film, Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy. In this drama Heroes-star Hayden Panettiere plays student Amanda Knox, who has in real life been sentenced to 26 years in prison in Italy for her part in the murder and sexual assault of English student Meredith Kercher. The film was originally to contain a scene in which the victim, wearing jeans and a bra, was pinned down during the attack. This caused great controversy when the trailer aired. The parents of the victim of the still very recent murder did not want the film to be made and the father called the controversial scene ‘horrific’. Whilst star Hayden Panettiere insists upon the production being ‘fact-driven’ and ‘classy’, one cannot help but ask if the offence and upset that this dramatisation has caused are really justified and one could accuse the makers of the film of exploiting a recent tragedy for cheap thrills.
Dead bodies wheeled into laboratories for analysis and flashbacks to startling moments of violence have become so commonplace on the small and the big screen that it seems inevitable that real stories with such high dramatic value should be seized upon by those who want to shock and entertain. For, after all, whatever excuses people may use for watching such productions, it is not really for their educational value or out of some sense of obligation but simply for their entertainment. They are the hour-long equivalent of slowing down when passing a car crash on the motorway.
The Amanda Knox film is by no means the first of its kind. Many high-profile murder cases have had some sort of adaptation made in their wake: 2006 drama Longford, starring Jim Broadbent and written by Peter Morgan, screenwriter of The Queen, which focussed on the vain efforts of Lord Longford to secure the release of Moors-murderer Myra Hindley, and Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood about the murder of a family by a pair of thieves was made into a 1967 film and then revisited in Philip Seymour-Hoffman film Capote (2005). Recently, ITV has stirred up controversy by hiring popular actor Dominic West (pictured) from The Wire to play infamous serial killer Fred West in a three-hour drama. Murders clearly capture the human imagination and sensational cases inevitably appeal to film and television-makers.
This raises a few questions: why would it be immoral to watch a programme about a murder that happens to be real if we consider it perfectly acceptable to watch a fictional thriller depicting an equally brutal murder? Does sensationalism become more deplorable when it is based upon true events? And when do real cases become fair game for the film and television industry? Is it more acceptable, for example, to create a film about Jack the Ripper such as From Hell (2001), which featured Johnny Depp and Heather Graham, than it is about a more recent case, such as the murder of Meredith Kercher, where Amanda Knox is still in the process of an appeal and the tragedy is still fresh in the minds of those who knew Meredith Kercher?
All that is clear is that the industry is becoming ever faster in translating real-life horror into on-screen thrillers, thus forcing us to reflect upon the use of murder in all screen dramas, fictional and real, historical and contemporary. It is left to each one of us, then, to decide whether the human fascination with murder is something which should be readily indulged with ever more blood-soaked dramas or an appetite which we should do our best to suppress as we switch over to The Sound of Music.