By Jerry Chandler
Recent events have had an impact on the nation’s bestselling book lists. We’ve seen a sudden uptick in sales of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. People who have never read it and people who haven’t read it in decades are seeking it out at various booksellers to see for themselves or to refresh their memory of the reported parallels to today’s world being discussed by the pundit class. Some of those who are less inclined to spend the time reading have reportedly been seeking out the film version of the story. Where people haven’t been able to get a copy immediately, I’ve seen some people suggesting as a tide over read George Orwell’s other classic, Animal Farm.
As long as people are in the mood for such stories, let me suggest another story that has been long overlooked outside of a few school classes here and there. It’s a story I was introduced to back when it aired on television in 1981, and it was a longtime favorite of mine. This would be The Wave. The story is a chilling warning of how easy it is to be pulled into groups that have the darkest of intentions. What made the story of The Wave all the more chilling was its source of inspiration. The Wave was based on a real life incident that took place in 1969 with a history class at Elwood P. Cubberley Senior High School, Palo Alto, California.
You can see an archived story from the school newspaper about it HERE. The story starts on page 3 of the paper.
There are three versions of The Wave available on the American market. There’s the novel by Young Adult novelist Todd Strasser based on the teleplay of the TV film, there’s a DVD of producer Norman Lear's 1981 ABC telefilm, and a Blu-Ray of the 2008 German remake. You can also find HERE the original 1976 short story The Third Wave, written by Ron Jones, the high school teacher who led the class.
The story is as follows. A high school history teacher is instructing his class on the rise of the Nazi Party in pre-war Germany and the rule of Hitler. As the students take in the lesson, they begin to ask the question that so many before them and after them have asked. How could the German people let such a things rise up and grow in their midst? How could so many be convinced to join them? How could so many afterwards claim they didn’t know what was happening long after they “should have” known?
The teacher tries to explain in the usual, conventional ways, but this, of course, totally fails to convey any true sense of understanding to the students. Then an idea comes to the teacher. When words and ideas cannot introduce understanding, he believes that actions can. He introduces the students to the concept of a new club, a student organization, that he names The Wave. A part of the backbone of the club’s requirements is a unity of group strength, discipline, community, and action. Initially the club appeals to the sense of wanting something to belong to that many feel. It’s also fun for some of them. Slowly there enters a sense of pride. Following soon after that come the feelings of fierce loyalty to and for the group and the ideals of the group. This last bit also creates some issues between members of the group and anyone who is not a part of the group; especially those who don’t see The Wave as positive thing.
Slowly, without realizing it, the teacher himself begins to become sucked into the experiment. Finally, he decides to put an end to The Wave when he realizes that things are getting out of hand and more than a little out of control. He calls a final meeting of The Wave- although the students don’t know it will be the final meeting -and introduces the members to their true leader. It’s a moment of revelation that shocks each and every one of them to their very core, and it’s a moment of understanding that they will never forget.
Of the three versions of the story available for purchase in the states, I’m familiar with only the first two. The 1981 telefilm was, well, a 1981 ABC telefilm. It shows its age when viewed today- certainly when viewed for the first time -due to its very much being a product of the overly melodramatic school of drama that could be found in made for television films from that era. This is doubly so for The Wave telefilm as- while not being made exclusively for this audience -it was originally being made with the intention of targeting a high school aged audience. It’s certainly still watchable, but anyone seeing it for the first time should keep in mind that they’re about to be exposed to 1980’s telefilm drama at its thickest.
Todd Strasser’s novelization of the film reads better in this day and age than the telefilm plays. It’s the same story, but the advantage of the print medium is the absence of dated filmmaking styles. At a short 144 pages, it makes a quick read for most. It’s probably the one I’d most recommend of the two older versions; certainly for the younger set who might get fidgety with the film’s 1980’s drama style.
Unfortunately, I can’t personally speak on the quality of 2008’s The Wave (Die Welle) just yet. To be honest, it’s existence was only just recently brought to my attention, but it’s on my Blu-Ray buy list. But it has been highly recommended and praised by several people I know, including the alter ego of Needless Things writer Devlin Valek. You tend to give the benefit of the doubt when you get a stamp of approval like that.
For those looking for something else that falls in line with the reading or viewing materials the sudden desire for fiction like 1984 and Animal Farm might create, The Wave, while not quite on their level, should fit in nicely. There’s also a website dedicated to The Wave that includes information on the other versions of the story, links to interviews, and information that teachers may find useful. You can find it at this LINK.
Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.