Interpreting ‘A Quiet Place’ – closer than you might think

We might wonder sometimes if that most woke of the woke, Hollywood, knows what it is doing. Could it really have backed a film which is an allegory for the mayhem and destruction which the intolerant enemies of human discourse have unleashed on our civilization? This is probably a pointless question, because in Tinseltown, the love of money trumps everything.

In March 2017, Paramount hired John Krasinski to rewrite the script and direct A Quiet Place, his first directorial venture for a major studio. A Quiet Place and its sequel are two parts of a science-fiction horror franchise – A Quiet Place III, to be directed by Jeff Nichols, will be with us in 2023. But this is a horror tale with a difference. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it tells us much more about ourselves and our condition than we might like to admit.  A Quiet Place can be read as a tale about something very unpleasant, a tale about very disturbing aliens which are currently are invading our world.

When we read, or saw the film version, of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 it probably worried us to some extent. But did we ever think we would be facing its like this side of the Iron Curtain, then still a painful reality? If not, we should have. In today’s London Daily Telegraph  (September 13) we read this headline: “Now woke activists are burning books – and it’s become a frightening gamble to write one”. 

A Quiet Place is a truly frightening film about silence, not about the golden gift we know and which we associate with peace and serenity, but about the repressive and maddening silence forced on those who speak their mind, by those who hate them, because they say things that are found disagreeable by some. Threatened with violent extinction, they are forced to live in a condition of terrified silence. 

This is a simple science-fiction story of a family trying to survive in a world which has been invaded by monsters which destroy any human being whom they hear. Hearing them speak, or make any noise, they are targeted and killed. As Nikki Baughan, described in her Sight and Sound review of A Quiet Place, the cinematic success of Krasinski’s film lies in its operating at a deep emotional level This apocalyptic tale is told entirely through the prism of a single family, one struggling to cope not only with actual monsters, but also with insidious personal demons of grief, blame and guilt. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” insists the father to his son, echoing the stock reassurances of parents everywhere. “Yes there is!” comes the terrified youngster’s incredulous, entirely accurate response.

Allegories are stories which include a representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters. They tell a story which looks like one thing on the surface but also ask us – if we are able to see – to look at something which is much more than a story lying under that surface. They invite us to interpret the story and find in it truth about ourselves and our condition.

As the renowned Irish literary critic, the late Denis Donoghue wrote in The Practice of Reading, interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text. When a text – in this case a film – seems to be saying something it invites us to look under the surface. Interpretation begins when we have acknowledged that invitation and set about fulfilling it. We are, as it were, enriching our experience of that work. Donoghue explains the process:

“We try to understand the text as if its character were hidden and must be brought to light. We move along the interpretive process when we try to make our preliminary understanding of the text explicit to ourselves, thereby turning the occasion into an experience. If we offer to make the experience—or something like it—available to other readers, we have in mind to put the text into the public domain.” 

He adds that “It is fairly generally accepted that the interpreter of a text can’t appeal for authority to the author’s intention—at least beyond a certain point—not only because we rarely know what that intention was but also because the author may not have realized his intention in the text; the text may in the event have exceeded the intention or diverged from it.” 

We bring each text – which is a gift to us from its creator – into our own world and bring our own world to it. Our relationship with it is now part of its meaning and we offer our interpretation of it to others, in the hope that it may help them connect with the deeper meaning that we have found in it, rightly or wrongly. That dialogue is part of the joy of artistic experience, our relationship with works of art. 

This, of course, is the joy which the monsters in A Quiet Place want to extinguish, representing all those in our culture who want to silence those with whom they disagree. The grotesque murderous creations which populate this allegory, provided by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company, are not just some silly inventions designed to make you jump out of your seat. They do that, but they are much more. They are representations of something truly alien and destructive in our midst..

Will they succeed in extinguishing all dialogue, free expression and dissent? We await the third part of A Quiet Place and hope that the allegory will continue its narrative arc and show a path to victory over all those who would condemn mankind to silence and fear of speaking about what we think, see and feel. The first part of Krasinski’s film ends on a note which Baughan interprets as “a realisation that survival may not, in fact, come from avoiding the assault, but in finding the courage to rail loudly against it.” The sad evidence in our daily news is that this courage is in short supply in our creative community today.