A rework of Fight Club’s anarchist ending for China’s Tencent Video has caused controversy among fans, but censors have a long history of missing the point
Fight Club was already mired in controversy when it hit cinemas in 1999, drawing criticism for its brutal violence, “nihilistic” worldview, and depiction of toxic masculinity (before the term was widely adopted to describe the kind of insecure, hyper-macho behaviour that fuels its narrator and his split personality, played by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt).
“It is a film which smugly flirts, oh-so-very-controversially, with some of the intellectual and cultural paraphernalia of fascism,” wrote film critic Peter Bradshaw in a 1999 Guardian review. Stephen Hunter, of the Washington Post, appeared to agree, describing the film as: “a para-fascist parable… a hymn of praise to anarchy and chaos.”
Now, however, David Fincher’s Fight Club – widely-regarded as a cult classic, along with Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name — is whipping up a different kind of outrage, following its debut on the Chinese streaming service Tencent Video.
As pointed out by Fight Club fans in China over the weekend, the version on Tencent Video features a notably different ending to the original film, which (spoiler alert) sees Norton’s character, the Narrator, kill off his alter-ego before watching several skyscrapers explode as part of a scheme to write off credit card debt.
In the version aired in China, however, things take a very different turn after the Narrator kills off Durden, with the state stepping in to save the day, foiling the anti-establishment scheme. Whether you agree with the film’s message or not, morally speaking, it’s pretty clear that this edit completely misses the point, as many viewers have pointed out on social media.
This isn’t the first time that a film has undergone substantial – and controversial – changes in order to secure distribution in China, though. Many Hollywood studios have made major changes to the final edit of their films in order to tap into the world’s largest film market (at a reported ¥47 billion, or £5.5 billion).
Below, we take a look at some of the worst and weirdest edits that films have undergone to circumvent China’s increasingly-strict cultural crackdown.
REWRITING FIGHT CLUB
“Through the clue provided by Tyler, the police rapidly figured out the whole plan and arrested all criminals, successfully preventing the bomb from exploding,” reads the happily-ever-after coda to the newly-released version of Fight Club for Chinese audiences. “After the trial, Tyler was sent to a lunatic asylum receiving psychological treatment. He was discharged from the hospital in 2012.”
Needless to say, this conclusion is far from the iconic, Pixies-scored explosion scene that played out in Fincher’s 1999 cut. With Tencent declining to comment on the matter, however, it’s unclear whether the changes were made by the film’s original producers to bring in more international revenue, or whether they were ordered by government censors.
LOWERING THE BLOOD-SPATTER IN DJANGO UNCHAINED
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained — starring Jamie Foxx and a whole host of Tarantino faves — actually slipped through the cracks in 2013, making it the first of the director’s ultraviolent films to be approved for official distribution on the Chinese market. Hours into the premiere, however, it was abruptly pulled, with officials refusing to offer a reason for its removal.
Ironically, the revisionist Western then had to be revised before it was allowed back into Chinese theatres, around a month later. The edits mostly revolved around graphic sequences, which also caused controversy in the US ahead of the film’s premiere.
According to Zhang Miao, then president of Sony Pictures’ Chinese branch, Tarantino did have input when it came to these changes, which included “tuning the blood to a darker color” or reducing the height of his blood splatters. “Quentin knew how to adjust that, and it’s necessary that he is the one to do it,” Miao told China's Southern Metropolis Daily in 2013 (via Yahoo). “You can give him suggestions, but it must be him who does (the tuning).”
SCRUBBING FREDDIE MERCURY’S SEXUALITY IN BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
Brian Singer’s 2018 Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, already antagonised Freddie Mercury fans by omitting his Aids battle – a defining characteristic of the frontman’s life and legacy – in favour of focusing on the “fabulous Queen years”. In China, however, the film went even further, glossing over his sexuality altogether.
Several minutes of footage were reportedly edited out of the film under pressure from Chinese censors, including scenes of a mulleted Rami Malek kissing another man, and characters simply saying the word “gay”. Other clips that were binned included a close-up of Mercury’s crotch as he performed, and footage of the band dressing in women’s clothes for their “I Want to Break Free” music video.
“Why is it necessary to delete gay-related content?” asked one Weibo user after watching the edited version (via the BBC). “Doesn't a person's life... deserve to be complete?”
China has a long history of censoring LGBTQ+ content, however. Despite the fact that homosexuality had been legal in the country for more than two decades by the time Bohemian Rhapsody aired, Xi Jinping’s “anti-corruption” efforts have also seen the government block gay representation on TV and social media apps such as TikTok in recent years.
CUTTING A QUARTER OF CLOUD ATLAS
Did you find the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas incomprehensible the first time around? Well, try watching it with almost 40 minutes of the story completely missing. That was the task presented to audiences when the film premiered in China, back in 2013.
Overtly sexual content is usually cited as the reason for the extensive edits, with a central romance between Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy’s characters once again raising concerns about China’s treatment of LGBTQ+ media. In the end, however, the edit removed both gay and straight sex scenes (but not gory sequences that showed characters shot in the head or having their throat slit — go figure).
According to the Hollywood Reporter, none of the film’s three directors — Lana and Lilly Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer — were involved in the re-edited 130-minute cut, but entrusted it to their Chinese co-producers. Later, Cloud Atlas’s US-based producers said they were “unaware” of the cuts. Lana Wachowski also voiced her own complaints following the China premiere, saying: “It sucks really… but I believe you can watch the full version online.”
BUSTING ALL OF THE GHOSTS
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak fell pretty flat at the US box office in 2015, with $12.6 million debut against a budget of $55 million. Producers, however, set their sights on China with hopes for an overseas hit to save the day (as happened with del Toro’s Pacific Rim two years earlier). As it happened, the Gothic romance never actually made it to China, and many believe that it’s down to the ruling party’s secular rejection of ghosts.
Apparently, this is one of the common rules for films to enter the Chinese market. No ghosts, no gays, no plots to bring down the government (successful ones, at least). Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot also suffered the same fate, not due to the targeted hatred of its all-female cast — racist keyboard warriors had that covered — but because of its supernatural subject matter. Even after the film’s title was reworked as Super Power Dare Die Team, presumably to distance it from its ghostly theme, it was banned in China.
There are ways to get around China’s no-ghost rule, however. One solution is to suggest that anyone who sees ghosts within the universe of the film is insane, or under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. If Fight Club’s new ending is anything to go by, filmmakers could also just tack on a written disclaimer: They woke up and realised it was all just a dream.