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Books and Movies
Twister movies spin bad examples

This seems to be the year of twisters -- not the ones in real life but on the big screen and the little one.

"Houses tumble across the Oklahoma landscape like gigantic bowling balls. Tanker trucks come dropping down from the sky," USA Today wrote in its description of the movie, "Twister," a $70 million thriller. The film already is No. 1 at the box office.

MEANWHILE, "NIGHT of the Twisters," the made-for-television movie, already has been shown twice on the Family Channel because of popular demand. The movie is based "loosely" on the June 3, 1980, tornadoes in Grand Island.

In fact, hundreds of Central Nebraska residents likely have watched the tornado movie or tuned into the TV show. Most of us want to know how realistic the movies are and how much of the Grand Island tornado experience comes through in "Night of the Twisters."

LIKE EVERYONE else, I have my own opinions, but why not check with the Rozendal family, the Grand Island residents portrayed in the book and the movie?

"The movie is quite different from the book," said the tactful Florence Rozendal. For one thing, the Rozendal family lives in town. For another, the movie portrays the tornadoes as a rare autumn event.

"The (film makers) did much of their research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and also Hurricane Hugo," Mrs. Rozendal said. "I thought the tornadoes in the movie looked more like a hurricane."

MRS. ROZENDAL notes that her cousin, Ivy Ruckman, author of the book "Night of the Twisters," had no control over the movie story once she sold her rights.

"There are many dramatic things in the book that could have been used in the movie," she added. "The grandma in the movie is in the book. She was an elderly neighbor who had to climb up the bed springs of a mattress when she was rescued."

Unlike the book or the movie, the Rozendal family was never separated. "We did have a neighbor who was separated from her family and that is the basis for what is in the book," Mrs. Rozendal said.

LONG BEFORE the TV movie, "Night of the Twisters" created tremendous nationwide interest in the Grand Island tornadoes. Many grade school teachers use the book in their classes. During the school year, The Independent receives monthly requests for pictures and information on the tornadoes. The Rozendal family also receives a considerable amount of mail, much of it addressed to Ryan and Dan Hatch, the main characters in the book. "A worker at the post office teases my son by calling him 'Ryan Hatch,'" Mrs. Rozendal said.

At the time the TV movie was being filmed in Ontario, Canada, Ivy Ruckman, a former Hastings resident, lobbied for Grand Island to be used as the name of the town. The movie makers changed the name to Blainsworth, although many street names are real. The movie refers to the Capital Heights area, but the film shows Grand Island being in a valley.

THE WORST part of the movie, as far as I'm concerned, is its depiction of family members getting into cars and driving during the storm. Mrs. Rozendal agreed. "That's a terrible message to give out to people."

In fact, the climax of the movie is somewhat overdramatic, showing Ryan Hatch floating in the air and hanging onto the hand of his father while the tornado chases the car around town.

Some of the "Twister" movie also is overdone, although these movie characters actually are supposed to be in cars chasing tornadoes and willingly are taking great risks by being in a vehicle. Vince Miller, a real-life storm chaser and consultant for the movie, defends its authenticity but notes that twisters rarely line up neatly in a row, and weather observers actually don't get to the storm scenes very often or very quickly.

IN SOME ways, it's disconcerting that millions of people will see both of these films and come away with misinformation about the tornadoes and Grand Island. Mrs. Rozendal said she hopes teachers will discuss the differences between the book and the movie when they talk about tornadoes with young children.

My hope is that people don't start equating tornadoes with roller-coaster rides. Tornadoes are fascinating and even thrilling. But they also are extremely dangerous. The greatest disservice from the twister movies is not in converting facts into fiction but blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

When the sirens sound, people need to be seeking shelter, not adventure.

Bill Brennan is executive editor of The Independent.