20 of the Most Misunderstood and Misinterpreted Movies Ever Made

20 of the Most Misunderstood and Misinterpreted Movies Ever Made
Screenshot: Fight Club/20th Century Fox

That fact that a film is misinterpreted can’t always be laid at the feet of an audience: director François Truffaut famously suggested that it’s nearly impossible to make an anti-war film, since the job of a filmmaker is to create compelling characters and situations that inevitably make war look exciting. You can extend that thinking to the creation of compelling villains and anti-heroes — Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, the odious stockbroker in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, became a hero to many who took his satirical “greed is good” catchphrase literally.

It’s true that sometimes filmmakers do their jobs too well, undercutting their own point by making their bad guys too compelling. Darth Vader racked up one of the biggest body counts in cinematic history, and still wound up on every kid’s lunchbox. Marketing can also be a problem; trailers train us to look for a certain type of movie, so once we’re in the theatre, it can be hard to see anything different. A film that looks like a failure as horror can seem brilliant once we realise that we’re in a comedy — think Evil Dead II. We’re trained to limit our expectations, and sometimes it just takes a more open mind.

So what are the most misunderstood movies ever — deservedly or not? In answering that question, I’ve tried to stick to fairly objective readings, and avoiding overly elaborate fan theories (The Shining is probably not about the moon landing). And I’ll start with a caveat: No truly interesting movie can be subject to a single interpretation — even if the writer and director say it’s about one thing, some viewers may have a different take. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that there might be things you hadn’t considered. (You’re wrong if you buy that Shining/moon landing bit though.)

Starship Troopers (1997)

Starship Troopers is wildly fascinating adaptation in the ways in which it takes straightforward source material — in this case, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel — and satirizes largely by taking it at face value. It’s a rather shocking bit of literary criticism disguised as a B-sci-fi movie, turning the novel’s themes on their heads. At the risk of oversimplifying Heinlein, the novel (with a nearly identical plot) suggests that war is inevitable and that military service might be the best possible cure for a general moral decline.

Director Paul Verhoeven, who grew up in German-occupied Netherlands, called bullshit (while claiming he couldn’t even finish the book). Instead, he created a wildly over-the-top satire that brings to the fore the novel’s possible fascistic interpretations, opening his film with an “homage” to Leni Riefenstahl and including a series of Nazi-inspired propaganda segments. The lead characters have no compunctions whatsoever about treating the alien “Bugs” to any and all manner of cruelty and medical experimentation because, well, they’re the enemy, after all. Many early reviewers say it as a mindless spectacle or a straightforward paean to fascism; they clearly didn’t get the joke.

Fight Club (1999)

To what extent ought a movie be held responsible for its fanbase? I’ll spare you a rundown of all of the actual fight clubs that rose up in the years following this 1999 David Fincher film’s release, but a quick internet search reveals there’s probably one near you, if you’re so inclined. Like the various men’s encounter groups that cropped up in the mid-’90s, Fight Club looked to an awful lot of viewers like a plea to reconnect with a certain type of stock masculinity — take off your shirt, make some soap, and beat the shit out of other guys, if only to feel something. Tyler Durden became a hero.

The thing is, that’s the furthest thing from what writer Chuck Palahniuk intended; the book the film is based on makes the case that replacing numbness and capitalistic materialism with typical American male tough-guy bullshit is a like-for-like exchange. The film falls down, perhaps, by making Durden too seductive (his plot to wipe out credit card debt also has a certain appeal), but the film concludes with Ed Norton’s Narrator using a gun to free himself from Tyler Durden’s influence, after all. That’s the bit many viewers seem to have overlooked.

The Shining (1980)

Where to start with The Shining? It’s a movie that both defies explanation and, simultaneously, has generated enough interpretations to inspire a whole other movie (Rodney Ascher’s Room 237) that delves into the pet theories of fans. The biggest misunderstanding here is about what the movie is intended to be. Stephen King was notoriously dissatisfied with the adaptation of his book, a (very) loosely autobiographical work abouthis struggles with alcoholism. The Jack Torrance character, played by Jack Nicholson in the movie, provides the book’s central point of view, struggling, in the early chapters, to overcome his own demons and earning a last-act redemption.

The film doesn’t have nearly as much sympathy for Jack. Seen from the outside, minus the character’s internal monologue, he’s a mere bully and an abuser. It’s fair that Stephen King was disappointed in the depiction of a character who so closely reflected his own struggles, but the film isn’t trying to be the story of a man driven off the deep end by trauma and substance abuse (and maybe ghosts); it’s about what happens to an arsehole when he finds himself untethered from society’s constraints. It’s true that he doesn’t have much of a character arc, but that’s by design: He’s a bastard. The horror is faced by the ones who have to live with him.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Oh look it’s another Stanley Kubrick project. The late director was notorious for his attention to detail; he acquired the rights to Brian Aldiss’ 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” in the early 1970s a with an eye toward making a film version that he continued developing right up until his death in 1999. The director had considered some sort of collaboration with Steven Spielberg on the project in the early 1990s that never came to be, so it was with the full support of Kubrick’s heirs that Spielberg returned to it, penning a script based on a Kubrick-commissioned treatment from writer Ian Watson. The result was a fascinating blend of styles that lead audiences and critics to wonder how much of the movie belonged to each director.

One bit that was debated at the time is the fairy tale ending involving Haley Joel Osment’s robot child David finally getting to experience one final day with his human mother, Monica (Frances O’Connor) in the far future. Some audiences thought that the mysterious beings who made the reunion possible were aliens, and therefore likely a Spielberg addition (the director having a known penchant for friendly extraterrestrials, especially before War of the Worlds). But no! They’re not aliens, but highly advanced robots. Moreover, the seemingly happy ending is actually incredibly bleak — David hardly becomes the “real boy” he sought to be, and his affection is revealed to be only programming, satisfied as it is by a recreated, utterly false version of his “mother.” Dark stuff — and pure Kubrick, if filtered through the gauze of Spielberg.

American Psycho (2000)

Most audiences, I think, got it, but American Psycho came in for plenty of early criticism among viewers and critics who found its ultra-male ultra-violence not only off-putting, but offensive. Those interpretations are complicated by the fact that the film is based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis, a not-entirely uncontroversial figure in his own right. Still, the movie’s satirical style is clearly over-the-top, and director and co-writer Mary Harron has made clear it was her intent to mock and bury misogyny, not to praise it.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Stockbroker and scammer Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is having a fabulous time throughout most of The Wolf of Wall Street running around, high as balls, living a lavish and unrestrained life on other people’s dimes. Scorsese invests a lot of time and energy in making Belfort look cool, or at least like it would be fun to be him, and then blows it all up in depicting the character’s fall, gradually incorporating violence and sexual assault, and laying out the cost to the victims. The ending sees Belfort our of prison and on the lecture circuit, but it’s presented as yet another con job, ending on a shot of an enraptured audience that turns a mirror on us, asking us to consider why we ever thought this arsehole was cool (or worth making a movie about).

There’s certainly an argument to be made that Scorsese went too far in depicting the salacious parts of Belfort’s life, and not far enough in showing the cost to his victims, but that stinger makes it clear his intent was never to lionize the crook.

Taxi Driver (1976)

History got away from both Taxi Driver and Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as the underage sex worker he “rescues,” the movie incorporates an attempted presidential assassination on Bickle’s part — and very unintentionally inspired would-be real-life assassin John Hinckley Jr. to shoot President Reagan in order to impress Foster.

All that, and the string of “scared white people” vigilante films that cropped up in the ‘70s, impacted Taxi Driver’s legacy, and the ambiguous ending had led many viewers to conclude the violent Bickle is meant to be seen as a hero. Certainly Bickle isn’t portrayed as an outright villain, but an alienated Vietnam-era outsider; he’s briefly praised by the media at the movie’s conclusion, which is meant to be ironic: If Bickle had succeeded in his assassination plans, he’d have been treated much differently. In subsequent years, both Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader have spoken about the ending’s intended ambiguity.

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

A very different film that Taxi Driver, but one also coloured by real-world events; in the case of Child’s Play 3, the horrifying murder of a 2-year-old boy by two 10-year-olds in Merseyside, England. The British press got the idea that the kids were recreating a scene from the movie in carrying out the killing, though investigators found no such link — they determined the killers had never even seen the film. The resulting moral panic nonetheless led to legislation, and the film never quite escaped the shadow of the murders.

Land of the Dead (2005)

As with Day of the Dead, the earlier George Romero zombie movie that grew in esteem over time, the zombies here are smarter and more interesting that the shambling hordes of old. While critics honed in on the issues of class this sequel raises (they’re right there on the surface), they often missed the broader, more existential themes: the zombies are shown developing their own society, and we’re encouraged to sympathise with them when the humans attack. Romero appears to be suggesting that humanity, as it is, is all but unredeemable. Zombies might not be the end of things, but a new (better?) beginning.

A Serbian Film (2010)

Upon release, A Serbian Film earned a not undeserved reputation as one of the most depraved films ever made. That alone has garnered it a cult following, though it’s genuinely tough to sit through for all sorts of reasons. What many of the reviews missed, however, was the film’s stated subtext: Srđan Spasojević has talked about efforts to parallel the strife of the Balkan world following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and, in particular, to satirize what he sees as a scourge of political correctness ruining Serbian film. The film wasn’t censored in Serbia, which has no real film censorship laws, so depictions of child rape and necrophilia feel like an extreme overstatement of his case. Subtext doesn’t necessarily make a movie good or worthwhile, but here we are. As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote, “A Serbian Film revels in its sheer inventive awfulness and dares the viewer to find a more serious layer of meaning.”

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

How do you market something like Jennifer’s Body? That’s a problem with almost any movie that blends genres or otherwise breaks rules, and it always hurts the box office. Like a lot of similar movies, this one has become a cult classic in the intervening years, which may or may not be of comfort to anyone who lost money on it initially. The film uses horror and violence to empower its teenage women characters, but was egregiously mis-marketed to focus on their sex appeal, completely disregarding the feminist themes and intentions of Diablo Cody’s screenplay and Karyn Kusama’s direction. Its modern cult status confirms some audiences eventually caught on.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

When viewed as an intentionally traditional romantic comedy, (500) Days plays as quirky, if a little off-putting. The non-linear narrative obscures things, but a rewatch suggests we’re not actually meant to root for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom Hansen, who projects his own fantasies and desires on Zooey Deschanel’s Summer Finn, and is never really being interested in her perspective. The best interpretation of his character is that he’s kind of delusional; at worst, he’s a creep — giving the final line (“Autumn”) a whole new layer of chilling irony.

Inception (2010)

It’s that spinning top, right? Totems like the metal top let characters in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending modern classic know if they’re awake or deep within their own subconscious. In the final moments, Leo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb spins the top (if it spins and stops, it means one thing, if it spins indefinitely, another), but opts not to stick around to see the result — as the audience, we’re not privy to the answer, either.

Viewers have debated the character’s fate ever since, but that binary choice is, in many ways beside the point: as the movie suggests, and as Christopher Nolan has himself stated (more or less), reality can look different to different people, and outside observers aren’t best suited to judge anyone’s subjective reality. So while the debate over totem is interesting, the movie’s ending doesn’t turn on whether or not the top falls. Ultimately, the fact that it doesn’t matter is the point.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s millennia-spanning classic has had viewers scratching their heads for over 50 years by now, and it’s well earned status as one of American cinema’s true classics means that we’ll probably be scratching our heads well into the future. Provoking thought is the film’s purpose, in many ways, along with evoking a particular sense of awe about the course of human evolution.

While it would be nearly impossible to suggest that anyone in particular has misunderstood the film — there are an awful lot of ways to come at it — it’s also not the case that 2001‘s basic plot is completely inscrutable. Stanley Kubrick himself gave a pretty good, straightforward synopsis in a 1969 interview with film journalist Joseph Gelmis. It’s not all pretty lights and trippy space walks; its rep as an inscrutable mishmash is fairly undeserved.

Into the Wild (2007)

In this case, the film makes itself perfectly clear, it’s just that viewers weren’t hearing the message. It’s understandable: the story of real-life Christopher McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) finds the adventurer, having grown disenchanted with modern American society, setting off into the wilderness. Who can’t relate to the desire to escape? But McCandless, never entirely prepared for his journey, wound up dying out in the wilderness at only 24 years old. The film finds him coming to the realisation, too late, that escape from the problems of the world have left him without any meaningful human connections, which are vital to survival. The movie has nevertheless inspired many viewers to follow in his footsteps, not all of them surviving.

Jose and the Pussycats (2001)

As befitting any film co-starring Parker Posey, Josie has taken on cult status over the past twenty years in part because of its goofy charm, but also because it seems more relevant than ever in its satirizing of the crass commercialization of mass entertainment. At the time of its release (when it made zero dollars), critics and viewers alike generally missed all of that, with the film’s non-stop product placement coming under particular scrutiny. Every scene has at least one extremely prominent bit of brand representation — which was the joke! Yet still many took issue with it. But this wasn’t a case of a film biting the hand feeding it — according to the film’s co-director/co-writer Deborah Kaplan, speaking on the DVD commentary track, though the filmmakers had to get approval from the brands featured, they weren’t paid by any of them.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Long seen as the bastard son of the Nightmare series, Freddy’s Revenge largely avoids connections with the larger Freddy-verse, and doesn’t show a ton of respect for the rules laid down in the original. In many ways, it’s a transitional movie that bridges the early, more existentially terrifying Freddy with the wise-cracking trickster of later films; here Mr. Krueger is working his way out of the dream world and into reality via hormonal teenager Jessie (Mark Patton). That allows for some impressive body horror, but also ties in with the film’s queer subtext. The often sweaty, often shitless Jessie flees from his girlfriend into the arms of his best friend, Ron. He encounters his coach at a gay bar; later, that coach is essentially spanked to death by Freddy in the showers.

This was all assumed to have been unintentional camp, but the stars (Patton and Robert England) as well as writer David Chaskin have all made clear in the years since that they, at least, knew exactly what they were doing, and the queer subtext was definitely the point. The then-closeted Patton wasn’t always happy about it, and he explores his experiences in the documentary Scream, Queen! available on Shudder.

Spencer (2021)

While it received largely positive reviews and earned Kristin Stewart her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Princess Diana, Spencer didn’t do particularly spectacular business, in part, perhaps, because no one quite knew how to market it. It was sold as a straightforward biopic, but paying audiences encountered something a bit more surreal and impressionistic, a film that takes on shades of horror as it attempts to capture the lead character’s state of mind. One scene in particular that left some viewers confused involves Diana and a giant string of pearls that Diana destroys and then eats. Many a viewer has taken to google to question whether or not the moment reflects a literal event — which, of course, it does not — though it was inspired, perhaps, by Cleopatra’s legendary bit of pearl-eating. No pearls were harmed in the making of the film, either; Stewart was eating chocolate.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Truman Capote was disappointed with the film version of his 1958 novella, beginning with the casting of Audrey Hepburn (he’d envisioned Marilyn Monroe). Remembered largely as the frothiest of all the classic romantic comedies, it’s easy to forget that, while it does smooth out the some of the novella’s more risqué elements, they’re still there in the background, if depicted less explicitly. If not a sex worker, precisely, Holly Golightly is still a woman paid handsomely by the men she keeps company with; she’s also still a one-time child bride who was a stepmother to four children as a teenager. The movie’s pop culture reputation leaves much of that out, but there’s quite a bit more darkness and complexity onscreen that the famous Audrey Hepburn poster lets on. (Of course, the less spoken about Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi the better.)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Following some years spent in the Hollywood wilderness, during which time she was branded “box office poison” (along with some other once-popular actresses who weren’t as bankable as they used to be), The Philadelphia Story was Katherine Hepburn’s big comeback, pairing her with Cary Grant and James Stewart. She’s at the centre of the film’s love triangle, no question, but the screenplay also knocks her down a peg or two: the actress whose power made her popular in the early ‘30s had failed to connect with the more conservative audiences of later in the decade, and so Philadelphia Story saw her Tracy Lord character doubting herself and coming to understand that her perfection and power are threatening to men and aren’t doing her any good.

It’s all perfectly calibrated to boost Hepburn’s appeal without completely ditching the sass and strength that had made her a star initially — and it was all very much by design. The original play was written for Hepburn, who provided the financial backing to get the thing off the ground. When the show did well, she acquired the rights and sold them to MGM, gaining veto power over almost every significant aspect of the production in the process. It was a hit, and also a bit of sleight-of-hand: the movie that wound up softening Hepburn’s image was, in reality, one of the biggest power moves in Hollywood history.

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