The first rule of Fight Club is that “you don’t talk about Fight Club”.
But thanks to a piece of spectacularly heavy-handed censorship, the 1999 film has been the subject of conversation in China in recent weeks.
The controversy started in late January when the ending of the original film was altered before its release on the video streaming platform Tencent Video. In place of buildings exploding and a radical plan to destroy capitalist society getting started, the new denouement sees the police foil the plot and the main protagonist sent to a “lunatic asylum” to recover.
Of course, the three lead actors in the original – Brad Pitt, Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter – weren’t available to shoot the alternative ending, so the censors simply cut the film by about 10 minutes and put up a final message that read: “The police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all the criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding. After the trial, Tyler [Pitt’s character] was sent to a lunatic asylum, receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.”
Edits to foreign films in China are common but wholesale changes to endings are rare, experts say.
One example from 2005 was the tampering with the Nicholas Cage film Lord of War which was altered so that the authorities, and not the criminal, came out on top. In the original version the Ukrainian arms dealer at the heart of the story returns to selling weapons after his release from prison. But in the Chinese version an on-screen message advises viewers that “Yuri Orlov [Cage] confessed to all the crimes he was charged with in court and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the end.”
The changes in both films stem from a central tenet of local censorship: that criminals must be punished for their misdeeds and that endings that imply disorder or chaos are deeply undesirable.
The Tencent version of Fight Club “puts power back into the hands of the police and implies an ideal closure in line with Chinese state discourse,” Dr Ng How Wee of the University of Westminster told The Guardian newspaper in the UK.
Another egregious example of fiddling with the plot came in Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 biopic about British rock band Queen, which was stripped of all references to frontman Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality.
Around the same time Chinese censors were blurring out images of men wearing earrings as part of efforts to discourage “non- traditional” expressions of gender.
In all cases viewers have complained that the edits made the films feel confusing or incomplete. “I don’t understand why our censors would remove an ending that shows that American capitalism is dead. Surely that demonstrates our superiority?” queried one Fight Club viewer on the rating site Douban. “I am shocked they changed the ending of a seminal film like Fight Club. What next, a new ending for The Godfather?” railed another on weibo.
But the final twist came this week when Tencent Video quietly reinstated the original ending without explaining why it had made the changes in the first place. “That’s the effect of censorship: you never know where that red line is so you just lower your bottom-line again and again yourself,” one weibo user offered in explanation.
It’s also likely that no one at Tencent Video expected that such a fuss would result over changes made to a film from 1999 that most Chinese had not heard of. Of course, more people in China are now talking about Fight Club than ever before, highlighting how such acts of censorship can become self-defeating…
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