John Carpenter has always been fairly outspoken when it comes to his films and how they’re viewed in the years since their release. He’s fought over them in court, claiming victory against Luc Besson due to similarities between Lockout and Escape From New York, and he’s had some harsh words to share with those remaking his films. Rob Zombie knows this well. Carpenter is even outspoken over properties that aren’t his, like the time he criticized The Walking Dead.
The director’s most recent outburst dives in a little deeper than his previous comments, raising an interesting point on how creative work is interpreted after its release. Carpenter tweeted out the following comment on They Live, a film that could possibly be interpreted a few different ways and made relevant for modern audiences. Some of those interpretations are quite unsavory, though, and the “master of horror” isn’t having it:
This isn’t the first time in recent months that a property has found itself at the center of a debate over interpretation. Rogue One found itself drawing the ire of the “alt-right” and director Gareth Edwards made his feelings known about the complaints. Critics and fans alike look past the things on the screen and make their own decisions. What fans can draw from a film on the screen has always been connected to the desires of the creator, but that doesn’t mean they always follow what a director or author intends. It is typically the creator’s decision to make their story themes explicitly clear or leave it open ended, something that is received in a variety of ways.
Think about how people viewed Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, famously represented in Room 237 to an unsettling degree. Kubrick may have left the ghostly elements up to interpretation, but other people took the film as an open door to their own beliefs and opinions. And while it is a stretch, there’s usually nothing wrong with that.
Carpenter’s tweet highlights a point where a director or storyteller has to step in to clarify what they intended with their work, especially when it takes that extreme direction. Does it mean that’s the gospel that everybody will follow? Of course not. But it does create some official reference for fans to look to. At the same time, it puts the film at odds with fans who want to find their own connection with the work.
There’s no real answer to which side is correct — although it is easy to always side with the creator and not the side spreading negativity. While interpretation can take on a life of its own, there are personal questions to be asked once they slide into the territory of hate or harmful speculation.