Revisiting 'Fast Food Nation,' the Book and Film

"Why revisit Fast Food Nation when the book was published nine years ago, and the movie released nearly four years ago? Well, to put it simply, these are important and unresolved issues."

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Richard Linklater and Eric Schlosser, with moderator Eric Hynes. [Photograph: Leah Douglas]

Much has changed in the food movement in the past few years. More farmers' markets are popping up, the White House supports more school food improvement legislation, and it seems that every major publication has a frequently-updated food website. But unfortunately, we're not in the clear yet—our food manufacturing system is still deeply flawed and must be changed.

One of the very first books to raise awareness across the country of our unsafe meat-packing industry and unhealthy amounts of fast food consumption was Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. This book was a bestseller when it was released in 2002, and sparked conversation and reform nationwide.

Fast Food Nation was made into a full-length film of the same name in 2006, but didn't receive the attention it deserved. It features a large cast and highlights some big Hollywood names (Greg Kinnear, Wilmer Valderrama). Last week, I attended a screening of the film with Slice intern Aaron Mattis as part of 92Y Tribeca's summer Eat This Film! series. After the film, we were lucky enough to hear a Q&A with the book's author Eric Schlosser, and the film's director, Richard Linklater.

The Film

I initially had a hard time envisioning how such a tough, gritty work of non-fiction could be turned into a fictional portrayal of the fast food industry. But the movie handles the book well, portraying three story lines of different characters within the food service world.

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Fast Food Nation poster.

In one story, we follow several illegal Mexican immigrants as they cross the border and struggle with the danger and indignities of working in a meat-packing plant. Another story features the vice president of marketing for fictional fast-food joint Mickey's, as he inadvertently begins to learn the truth about the dirty meat being served by the restaurant. And we also follow high school students who are employed at a Mickey's branch, as they weigh the costs of industrial food production with the necessity of making some money.

Fast Food Nation works. There are a lot of characters, but all of their stories are, in some sense, relate-able. From the cartoony world of Mickey's to the harsh realities of life as an immigrant worker, the film captured reality and conveyed Schlosser's message without preaching.

The Q&A

Linklater and Schlosser sat down with moderator Eric Hynes to delve into the film's production and the current state of the food industry. When asked about the motivation of the film, Linklater characterized the work as "a character study, a story about the people." He emphasized the necessity of telling the story of the workers behind the scenes, of the true dirty jobs that we often forget about. Schlosser agreed, adding: "It isn't supposed to be a message movie. It's trying to make people confront reality."

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Director Richard Linklater. [Photograph: Leah Douglas]

One particularly tough scene to watch was in the final minutes of the film, as the cameras trace an employee's walk across the kill floor to her new job. The scene is explicit, but important. In reference to this scene and to the blunt portrayal of life as an immigrant in America, Linklater said, "I felt that we had captured something that hopefully could resonate elsewhere."

These words highlighted that none of the film's grit was just for show—it was meaningful and necessary to watch, so that we may address and fix the problems we see.

Several questions were directed to Schlosser about whether progress has been made since his book's original publication in 2002. "I'm even more optimistic now than when I wrote [the book's hopeful afterword]," he said with a smile. He did note that "the fast food companies need to bear the responsibility for the pollution they're putting into society."

But he emphatically noted that the recent upswing in media attention to healthy food, the White House's organic garden and Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts are all hugely positive indicators. He has faith that "once people realize what they're being fed, they are not going to want to go get a Big Mac." And he hopes that once this realization is nation-wide, industrial farming and agriculture will be a "relic of the 21st century."

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The Take-Away Message

Why revisit Fast Food Nation when the book was published nine years ago, and the movie released nearly four years ago? Well, to put it simply, these are important and unresolved issues. Regardless of political viewpoint, opinion of vegetarianism, or personal consumption habits, we should all feel invested in the health and safety of the food being produced in our country.

I am grateful that the conversation is being encouraged and continued by organizations like 92Y Tribeca, and countless other advocacy groups. Personally, I have read books and watched movies and seen pictures that detail all parts of manufacturing and processing of food and meat—and the gristly truth never stops calling me to action.

Like Eric Schlosser, I am highly optimistic about the future.