Massachusetts has gotten the lion’s share of New England love from Hollywood. It is, after all, the most populous state in New England and home to the historically important city of Boston. While many films are set in the Bay State, there are four categories key categories that I’d like to discuss: College Films, Period Pieces, Maritime Films, and Modern Boston Films.
Boston is known far and wide as a college town, and to lazy Hollywood screenwriters, College really means Harvard. The Social Network (2010), The Paper Chase (1973), With Honors (1994), Legally Blonde (2001) and a good number of other popular movies are set there. School Ties (1992) gets by with a fake, Harvard-like prep school.
There are plenty of films set in fake colleges that are plenty similar to Massachusetts/Harvard for that matter. The Program (1993), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Van Wilder (2002), and Old School (2003) seem awfully Massachusetts-like, don’t you think?
Boston is the spiritual home of the American Revolution, but there are only a few films actually set during that time in Boston. For colonial era period pieces, the Salem Witch Trials get more attention. Hollywood has adapted The Crucible twice, in 1957 and 1996 for instance. Hocus Pocus (1993), Maid of Salem (1937), I Married a Witch (1942), and Bell Book and Candle (1958) are a few more Salem Witch Trial movies.
There are more than a few literary adaptations set in Massachusetts as well. Little Women got the big screen treatment three times, the most recent being in 1994. The Scarlett Letter has been adapted over ten times. Moby Dick’s gotten a few spins around the backlots too, although no adaptation is really definitive for this dense, symbolist tome.
Speaking of Moby Dick, the Bay State gets its fair share of seagoing films. The Perfect Storm (2000) is a good example, but adding a category for Maritime films is really an excuse to talk about the most notable film set in Massachusetts. It’s the film the launched the career of one of America’s greatest directors and made us afraid to get into the water – 1977’s Jaws.
Jaws is notable for its iconic score of course (duh-nuh, duh-nuh) and its withholding use of the film’s main villain. It’s greatest legacy, for better or worse, is that it is the film most responsible for there being a “summer movie season.” Before Jaws, movies were released and marketed largely by appealing to the public’s desire to see “big stars.” Jaws needed no big stars to become the biggest movie of all time (at least until Star Wars (1977) came out).
Jaws was really the first “event movie.” Although critics loved it, it wouldn’t have mattered if they hated it, people needed to see it just to see what the fuss was about. After all, they call successful summer movies “blockbusters” because of Jaws.
We close our discussion of Bay State films with a newer trend. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a notable uptick in movies set in and around modern Boston. The Departed (2006) won Martin Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar. Mystic River (2003), The Town (2010), Gone Baby Gone (2007), and the semi-period piece Shutter Island (2010) have shown Boston’s potential as a setting for gripping mysteries. Finally, the inspirational Good Will Hunting (1997) has aged remarkably well.
Next time we visiting the Mid-Atlantic States: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe