Sarah Strain

Reel to Real: Student Study Looks at Images of the Environment in Film

The nature of film

Last summer senior Sarah Strain watched 24 feature-length films and documentaries, at least twice apiece. At an average of 90 minutes per film, that's 72 hours. "It was a good reason to be inside on those really hot days we had," she said," but there were definitely a few days when I just wanted to go outside."

The motivating force behind the project made all the time she spent indoors while her friends may have been playing sand volleyball well worth the effort, she said. "We know movies' depictions of things like violence and smoking influence attitudes and behaviors, but not a lot of research has been done on their influence on environmental attitudes. … Culture is a huge influencer, and we need to understand the water we’re swimming in. You need to critically look at culture and think of it through a critical lens and not just consume it blankly."

As Strain said, film has been studied through many lenses by critics, but rarely have critics examined the subtle ways in which the natural environment and sustainable behaviors are depicted. Strain's study, "Reel View of Nature: Analysis of Environmental Images and Messages on the Silver Screen," focused mainly on "whether the film addressed if the Earth is something we should value or something we should exploit," she explained. She watched each film the first time without interruption to get a sense of the overall messages and themes. The second time she paused often to "break scenes apart to get the dialogue or just how they talk about different things: Are they talking about conserving and preserving the Earth or are they talking about using all these resources or it’s our right or destiny as humans to take over [nature] or is it not?"

She looked at both documentaries and Hollywood fictional films that contained heavy nature scenes and animals (such as "Over the Hedge" from 2006). They also had to fit certain criteria – have been released in the past 15 years, have been among the 25 top-grossing films in the United States during their respective years, have been distributed in the United States on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray, and "showcase nature or the environment in some capacity." She selected four (fictional) feature films and four documentaries from three time spans: 1998-2002 ("Everest," "The World Is Not Enough," "Galapagos," "The Perfect Storm," "Armageddon," "Island of the Sharks," "Winged Migration," "Erin Brockovich"); 2003-2007 ("Earth," "An Inconvenient Truth," "Encounters at the End of the World," "The Bee Movie," "March of the Penguins," "Over the Hedge," "Happy Feet," "The Day After Tomorrow," "Arctic Tale"); and 2008-2013 ("The Lorax," "Born to Be Wild," "Avatar," "Oceans," "The Cove," and "Wall-E" among others).

"I kept the selection open and broad because I didn’t know what I would find," Strain said. “I studied the films and asked, ‘What stories are they telling? What are they not telling? How are they describing these stories?'"

Films that generally supported conservation, and preservation of natural resources and valued nature/animals, she labeled as "pro-environment." As a whole, these movies saw nature/animals/Earth as something valuable or worthwhile or recognized the limits on resources and the planet. In contrast "anti-environment" films tended to either show or support human exploitation of nature.

Some highlights of Strain's study:

  • Films have become more pro-environment over the past 15 years, showing a large shift in environmental discourse in a short span of time. In her 1998-2002 sample, pro-environment themes in all films and documentaries were split; whereas, the same themes were overwhelmingly dominant in the 2008-2013 sample.
  • All children's film samples contained environment-friendly ideologies, such as sustainable behavior; whereas, many of the adult films did not.
  • At the turn of the millennium, films tended to be more anti-environment than they are today. "What mostly mattered in film from the late 1990s to early 2000s was economic gain. Movies made later than 2003 had more of a pro-environment message. … Recognizing that resources are limited, finding value in earth and nature and the planet, and expressing those values as important," Strain said.
  • The children's animated film "Happy Feet" (2006) uses overfishing to instigate critical thought on environmental issues, "even though people tend to think of global warming when they consider negative environmental impacts and penguins," Strain said. 'The film gets its message across without being preachy," she noted. She also added that the film encourages viewers to think about environmental issues related to penguins and humans and the chain reaction that results from overfishing.
  • Films that scored poorly for their environmental messages? "The World Is Not Enough" (1999), starring Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, "WALL-E" (2008) and "2012" (2009).

Her vantage point as a sociology and psychology double major was insightful: "A psychologist can look at individual behaviors and attitudes, but a sociologist can look at institutional structures. I know one of the things we talk about most frequently in sociology is environmental issues and environmental injustices – so, for instance, we might look at a certain minority group receiving more toxins from certain dump sites and how that affects their health, education, income, job access and how it all ties into socioeconomic status."

Strain said she believes that in her lifetime, "people see 'reduce, reuse, recycle' as an opportunity as opposed to an obligation.' … I write in my paper about starting to see a shift of valuing the Earth and nature in films, and I ask if this trend is going to continue, or is it reflecting Hollywood’s attempt to bank off the current culture?"

She chose the project, which was funded by a Young Scholars Grant and advised by Dr. William Kinney (Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, College of Arts and Sciences), because it bridged two of her passions: culture and environmental issues. She hopes her study will spark further research into how mass media conveys messages about exploited and degrading nature, and how viewers internalize those images.