Considering Nightcrawler (2014) as a modern adaptation of Don Quixote
by Kitty Doherty
Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1
First published April 2020, Manchester
This essay analyses Don Quixote in line with the 2014 film Nightcrawler in order to consider the perpetuation of epistemological and moral themes through centuries of literature and media. I argue that Nightcrawler draws upon and mimics aspects of Don Quixote, most notably its picaresque form. In turn, this essay is grounded upon the reading that the novel portrays the negative impact of uncritical consumption of literature. In focusing more specifically on the notion of critical thinking and its relation to morality, I argue that each text depicts the detrimental impact of a lack of critical thinking in their respective societies, and asserts the vital role media plays in this. Nightcrawler succeeds in this by echoing themes from Don Quixote and applying these to a society engulfed by mass media and 'fake news', in which a critical approach to these is indeed essential.
In this essay, I will focus on the epistemological notion of critical thinking and its relation to moral actions in Don Quixote (see note one). I will be analysing the novel in comparison with the 2014 film Nightcrawler (see note two), in order to assess how these notions within the novel have persisted and evolved through the centuries. Nightcrawler, I argue, draws upon features and themes of Don Quixote in order to assert similar moral and epistemological messages, but adapted for the modern age — instead of given chivalric fiction as a source of knowledge, we are given provided with mass media in the 21st century. Both texts portray and judge an uncritical consumption of knowledge. I will explore how the character of Don Quixote consumes chivalric literature to such an extent that it leads to unethical consequences, and I will also explore how Nightcrawler portrays a similar sequence, but as a result of consuming mass media and the news instead. Through a comparison of the texts, the similarity of their epistemological messages will be highlighted and I will reach the conclusion that, in this aspect, Nightcrawler can be treated as a current interpretation of Don Quixote. While I do not wish to suggest that the novel is simply a morality tale, I focus on an interpretation of the novel that comments on and critiques Don Quixote’s treatment of literature, as this allows for an insightful connection to be made with an issue I believe important in the 21st century, demonstrated through an analysis of the influence of the novel on Nightcrawler.
Don Quixote is a picaresque tale following the adventures of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho. The course of the pair’s adventures is grounded upon Don Quixote’s consumption of chivalric literature. Nightcrawler, whilst created centuries apart from Don Quixote, contains similar key features to the novel. To provide a brief summary, the film follows its protagonist, Lou Bloom, who, akin with Don Quixote, is of the picaresque type, and the viewers are guided through his various adventures. His character, like Don Quixote, is flawed and dishonest but appealing, and his narrative perspective allows for a critique and undermining of the culture he is part of. The action of the film begins when Lou Bloom becomes a stringer — a freelance journalist whose trade is to record video footage of crime and sell it to news broadcasts. He works with the help of his assistant: a younger, homeless man called Rick. As Lou becomes more successful in this new career, we see the lengths he will go to for footage become increasingly more unethical. His actions are portrayed as a result of the general public’s demand for news that is entertaining, as opposed to factually correct. The dramatic ending involves Lou getting Rick killed for the sake of a piece of footage. We can see the influence of Don Quixote on Nightcrawler in ways other than the picaresque form. Both use caricatural twins, a master and sidekick duo, as central characters; both protagonists fictionalise their environments by using rhetoric to manipulate and influence those around them; and both establish that an unquestioning consumption of some media form brings about detrimental consequences.
Such an analysis of a contemporary film like Nightcrawler is essential in our present climate of mass media and technology. Kenneth G. Johnson writes a very apt analysis of mass media today in ‘Epistemology and Responsibility of the Mass Media’: ‘Those whose language is amplified through the power of the mass media have a special responsibility to understand the role of language structure, the process of communication, and the nature of their “knowing”’(see note 3). Don Quixote is a picaresque tale following the adventures of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho. The course of the pair’s adventures is grounded upon Don Quixote’s consumption of chivalric literature. Nightcrawler, whilst created centuries apart from Don Quixote, contains similar key features to the novel. To provide a brief summary, the film follows its protagonist, Lou Bloom, who, akin with Don Quixote, is of the picaresque type, and the viewers are guided through his various adventures. His character, like Don Quixote, is flawed and dishonest but appealing, and his narrative perspective allows for a critique and undermining of the culture he is part of. The action of the film begins when Lou Bloom becomes a stringer — a freelance journalist whose trade is to record video footage of crime and sell it to news broadcasts. He works with the help of his assistant: a younger, homeless man called Rick. As Lou becomes more successful in this new career, we see the lengths he will go to for footage become increasingly more unethical. His actions are portrayed as a result of the general public’s demand for news that is entertaining, as opposed to factually correct. The dramatic ending involves Lou getting Rick killed for the sake of a piece of footage. We can see the influence of Don Quixote on Nightcrawler in ways other than the picaresque form. Both use caricatural twins, a master and sidekick duo, as central characters; both protagonists fictionalise their environments by using rhetoric to manipulate and influence those around them; and both establish that an unquestioning consumption of some media form brings about detrimental consequences.
Such an analysis of a contemporary film like Nightcrawler is essential in our present climate of mass media and technology. Kenneth G. Johnson writes a very apt analysis of mass media today in ‘Epistemology and Responsibility of the Mass Media’: ‘Those whose language is amplified through the power of the mass media have a special responsibility to understand the role of language structure, the process of communication, and the nature of their “knowing”’ (Johnson, p.668). What Nicholas Johnson rightly notes is the responsibility of those who consume news, not only those who communicate it, and the importance of distinguishing truth from fiction.
Thus, in comparing and analysing Don Quixote and Nightcrawler in their respective contexts, I will be focusing on a specific aspect of epistemology, hinted at by Kenneth Johnson and Nicholas Johnson: critical thinking, and within that, the importance of critical thinking in assessing the reliability of an alleged authority of knowledge. B. Othanel famously defines critical thinking: ‘Now if we set about to find out what ... [a] statement means and to determine whether to accept or reject it, we would be engaged in thinking which, for lack of a better term, we shall call critical thinking’ (see note 4). Robert H. Ennis further defines a critical thinker on nine counts, the ninth of which my argument will be focusing on: ‘A critical thinker is characterised by proficiency in judging whether […] 9. An alleged authority is reliable’ (see note 5). When using the term ‘authority’, I will be taking a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Power to influence action, opinion, or belief, or a party possessing it’ (see note 6). In Nightcrawler, news will be read as the authority, and in Don Quixote, chivalric literature.
Throughout Don Quixote, notions of epistemology are referenced. Fictional chivalric literature is portrayed as an unquestioned authority of knowledge from the perspective of the protagonist. Bryant L. Creel, in ‘Theoretical Implications in Don Quixote’s Idea of Enchantment’, aptly notes that ‘criticism generally recognises that in the Quixote Cervantes explores the dual character of human nature and the ethical and aesthetic implications of the relationship between human being's physiologically real and psychologically fantastic aspects’ (see note 7). Indeed, through a boundless and utterly unquestioning consumption of chivalric literature, Don Quixote fashions for himself a ‘psychologically fantastic[al]’ identity. The reader learns of this very early on in the novel — on page 21 it notes, ‘the truth is that when his mind was completely gone […] it seemed reasonable and necessary to him, both for the sake of his honor and as a service to the nation, to become a knight errant and travel the world with his armor and his horse to seek adventures and engage in everything he had read that knights errant engaged in’. Not only does Don Quixote unquestionably accept the literature as truth, he goes further and claims himself to be an authority. He chooses to live his life on these terms, and lectures the likes of Sancho and his niece on the reality of his life and beliefs. This is evident in what he says to Sancho: ‘I want you to realise that all the things I am doing are not jokes but very real; otherwise, I would be contravening the rules of chivalry that command us never to lie’ (p. 197). Moreover, Don Quixote himself shows an awareness of the methods and importance of critical thought. When discussing various knights with his niece, he informs her that ‘it is necessary for us to use our knowledge and discernment to distinguish between these two kinds of knights, so similar in names, so dissimilar in actions’ (p. 493). Despite this apparent awareness of the need to assess information by way of ‘discernment’ and to distinguish one thing from another, he does not apply it to his own life.
A similarly unquestioning attitude towards an authority who claims knowledge is evident in Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom gives great authority to the internet and television, his sources of knowledge, as only eleven minutes into the film, Lou claims ‘I spend all my time on my computer’, and throughout the film, viewers are provided with shots of him alone in his flat, doing nothing but watching the news on a large television. Furthermore, the first time we see him watching the news in his flat, non-diegetic background sounds of a multitude of news readers speaking over one another is used, suggesting the overwhelming presence of news in the lives of Lou and other characters. Thirty-five minutes into the film, Lou also tells Nina, the director of a news broadcasting service he wants to sell his footage to, that ‘television and news may be something that I love, as well as something that I’m good at’. The authority of the news is further shown through its relationship with the general public. When discussing what kind of footage Lou should be shooting, Nina tells him: ‘We like crime. […] We find our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs’. Later, when Lou has increased his skills as a stringer and acquired footage he knows to be valuable for its graphic and shocking nature, he reminds Nina that ‘with this footage, people would turn to your channel for the story’ to ensure she pays him enough for it. The fact that Lou persuades Nina with the reward of viewers ‘turn[ing] to your channel’ indicates how much her job is defined by the viewers. These lines suggest a dynamic between news service and viewer — by turning to regularly ‘turning to’ broadcasted news to stay updated about the world around them, the viewers allow the medium of news to be a figure of authority in their lives, and to maintain that authority over them.
As previously mentioned, Don Quixote’s lack of critical thought causes him to believe fiction as fact. The general news-watching public of Nightcrawler is the same. A clear example of Nina and the other news broadcasters choosing to air a fictitious version of news over factual one can be seen right at the end of the film. After Lou succeeds in recording a particularly dramatic and shocking scene, Fred, another member of the team, informs Nina that it was a ‘drug robbery’ and not a ‘home invasion’ — the type of news that, according to Nina, receives the highest views. In response, she tells him:
Nina ‘It detracts from the story.’ Fred ‘It is the story.
Here, we see Nina deliberately choosing to ignore facts for the sake of a more compelling narrative. It is also important that the word ‘story’ is repeated, as it strongly connotes fiction as opposed to fact. By the very fact that more people watch news that is hyperbolised or manipulated in some way, it is clear that the general public lack the critical ability to discern between truth and fiction, or simply do not care to distinguish.
Having established that both Don Quixote and Nightcrawler portray a lack of critical thought that results in a misguided acceptance of authorities of knowledge, I will analyse where, in both texts, this acceptance has negative ethical implications. In part one of Don Quixote, the protagonist’s delusional chivalric identity causes him to seriously harm others. He meets a barber, and believing he is a knight with a helmet —- which is actually his barber’s basin — Don Quixote attacks him with a ‘lowered pike, intending to run him through’ (p. 154). In addition, he attacks someone who talks negatively of the fictional Lady Dulcinea. The quote reads: ‘he could not endure hearing such blasphemies said against his Lady Dulcinea; he raised his lance […] struck him twice with blows so hard he knocked him to the ground, and if Dorotea had not called to him and told him to stop, he no doubt would have killed him then and there’ (p. 255). Whilst these scenes can be read comically, random and violent attacks are undoubtedly unethical, especially with an intention to kill an innocent man. The direct connection between Don Quixote’s delusions (being upset about verbal attacks against ‘Lady Dulcinea’) and his violence (‘He could not endure … [so] he raised his lance’) establishes that his violence outbursts are a consequence of him accepting chivalric literature as a source of knowledge.
A comparable array of unethical and shocking actions can also be seen in Nightcrawler. Nina’s broadcast service receives footage from Lou of a house where a multiple homicide had just taken place. Lou had entered the house to film the victims in graphic detail, and left. The dialogue between Nina and her team at this point is particularly telling. Nina asks her colleague:
Nina ‘How much of this can we show?’ Colleague ‘Legally?’ Nina [sarcastically] ‘No, morally. Of course legally.’
Then later in the same conversation:
Nina ‘Oh, for Christ sake, are we breaking the law by showing this?’ Colleague ‘Block the faces, don’t give out the exact address, do that ... I guess I ... I don’t know… I wouldn’t think so, no.’ Fred ‘Journalistically and ethically? [...] We are beyond all broadcast standards.’ Nina ‘Have you seen the overnights? [points at screen] I’ll risk the fine.’
It is clearly immoral to broadcast footage of the dead bodies and home of victims whose families have not yet identified or even been notified. Nonetheless, Nina and the others broadcast it because, simply, ‘Have you seen the overnights?’ They simply care more about meeting the viewers’ demands.
Lou Bloom is portrayed to be morally flawed throughout the film. There are particular instances, however, where he goes to appallingly unethical lengths for the sake of news. In the aforementioned house Lou enters, he films but does not assist a man who was alive and moaning for help. He tells Rick, ‘one of the people in the house last night was alive. I cut that part out. I also cut out the men leaving in their car’. Furthermore, despite seeing and filming the men who committed the homicide and their number plate, he does not inform the police. Instead, he tracks them down, with the intention of following them to a populous area, where he will then call the police and film their hopefully dramatic arrest:
Rick ‘You gotta call the cops.’ Lou ‘And we will, at the right time… We’ll find a more interesting place to film the arrest.’ Rick ‘Like where?’ Lou ‘Anywhere I want… a better or more populated neighbourhood. He’s a violent and wanted criminal, I can’t believe he’s just going to peacefully surrender.’
Evident, again, are Lou’s attempts to create a fictionalised, edited version of the ‘truth’; an arrest, orchestrated by himself. What he intends is ethically problematic as he hopes for civilians to be hurt or even killed. This eventually comes to fruition: Rick, alongside a number of police officers, are killed. Bearing in mind my previous analysis, it is clear that the characters in Nightcrawler commit unethical acts for the viewers, who, lacking critical thought when it comes to media consumption, prefer news that is shocking and graphic, and not necessarily but predominantly, opposite to what is true.
It is important that, as a novel, Don Quixote mocks and displays a self-consciousness of itself as a genre in critiquing literature as an authority of knowledge, through features like as its epistolary form and the discussion of a book of Don Quixote’s exploits at the beginning of Part Two. In doing so, the text immediately directs its own readers towards an awareness of the act of reading, a notion noted aptly by Friedman in ‘The Critical Frames of Don Quixote’, who writes that ‘Don Quixote invites the reader to penetrate the frame, to analyze, to recognize ironies and interpretive conundrums. Reading and writing are what Don Quixote is about, but, despite the obvious emphasis on literary in-games, internal references, and comic modalities, the preoccupation with the nature of narrative relates to the foundations of epistemology’ (see note 8). As a film, Nightcrawler displays a self-consciousness of itself as a medium not dissimilar to the visual one it critiques, and in doing so, more effectively imparts its caution. Throughout the film there is non-diegetic background music that creates a jarring mood against the visual. For example, mid-way through the film, Lou arrives at the scene of a car accident before the police. He comes across the dead body of a man, and in order to get the best possible camera shot, he moves the body so it is under more aesthetically pleasing light. The music during this disturbing scene is hopeful, successful and congratulatory. As a picaresque hero, this music encourages the viewer to root for Lou, to see his actions from his perspective and as a positive moment for his career. It makes the immoral protagonist appear attractive. Furthermore, it places the viewer in the position of the society depicted in the film. The society who demands, watches and enjoys the news footage Lou produces through actions such as these.
Through the analysis of Nightcrawler and the influence Don Quixote has on it, it is evident that the consumption of knowledge is an epistemological theme which is pertinent in both 17th century Spain and 21st century USA. With the exploration of chivalric literature, the news, and their influences, both reveal authorities of knowledge which are taken to be true, but in reality are at best hyperbolised and at worst utterly fictitious. Don Quixote’s main character consumes chivalric literature with an utter lack of critical thought and, as a consequence, is unable to distinguish between truth and fiction, leading him to commit immoral acts. Nightcrawler, through Lou and Nina, reveals the fictitious nature of much of what we call the ‘news’, and shows us a general public who consume it much like Don Quixote consumes books — uncritically and with no concern for truth, causing equally immoral consequences. Nightcrawler, then, acknowledges this important epistemological theme within Don Quixote, applies and further explores it in a modern climate in which an increased awareness of the nature of communication and consumption of knowledge, is vital.
1: Migeul de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. by Edith Grossman (New York: Ecco Press, 2003). All in-text references are from this edition of the novel.
2: Nightcrawler [film], dir. by D. Gilroy (Bold Films, 2014). All in-text references are from this edition of the film.
3: Kenneth G. Johnson, ‘Epistemology and Responsibility of the Mass Media’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 61.4 (2004), 663-75 (p. 664)
4: B. Othanel. Smith, ‘The Improvement of Critical Thinking’, in Progressive Education, 30 (1953), pp.129-134
5: Robert H. Ennis, ‘A Definition of Critical Thinking’, The Reading Teacher, 17.8 (1964), 599--612 (p. 600)
6: ‘Authority, n.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/13349>
7: Bryant. L. Creel, ‘Theoretical Implications in Don Quixote's Idea of Enchantment’, Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America12.1 (1992), 19-44 (p. 20)
8: Edward H. Friedman, ‘Readers Digest: The Critical Frames of “Don Quixote”’, Confluencia, 14.1 (1998), 3–11 (p. 4)