It’s odd, really, that there are so few movies set during historical epidemics. Oh, you get fictional plague up the wazoo; I’m sure half the internet has a preference right now. But the only movie I can think of off the top of my head that has an actual scene set during an outbreak of bubonic plague is Dangerous Beauty. You don’t expect The New World to mention how many natives were dying of smallpox and things, I suppose, but you could do some really interesting stuff with movies set during the time of various historical epidemics. And they wouldn’t even have to be about whatever-it-is, come to that.
One of my favourite genres is “story that happens during important historical event.” As in, it’s not the event that matters, exactly, despite the event’s giving the story its vague shape. Most of the plot of Dangerous Beauty has nothing to do with plague, and it’s only at the climax, where the main character is on trial for witchcraft because surely that will fix the deaths in Venice (and it’s not at all because she wouldn’t sleep with Oliver Platt!), that the plague really comes up. And, okay, that’s mostly because they’re at least vaguely drawing on the historical record, and of course most of Veronica Franco’s life was not during an outbreak of plague. But still.
It’s well established, of course, that a lot of Shakespeare draws its shape from the recurring outbreaks of bubonic plague that struck England, and you could do an interesting adaptation of several of the plays that confronts that fact. Or a biopic of Shakespeare in the country when the theatres are closed, of course. Or something set at Elizabeth’s court during her bout with smallpox, when it was uncertain if she’d live or die and who would take the throne if she died. For some reason, my brain is fond of the idea of a murder mystery set during Justinian’s plague. Can the detective catch the murderer before catching plague?
It’s not unrelated, I suspect, to the Cough of Death, because no one in Hollywood can be sick without dying. But of course here you’d have a lot of people dying, because that’s kind of the plot. But we simply don’t talk much about illness in movies. It’s one of the parts of the human condition that we show the least of. Possibly that will change; I can imagine a great comedy about the foibles of the current lockdown, for one. But ideally, that would be a comedy with no one actually sick. Though I’m picturing now a story about a household of four roommates or something, one of whom simply has allergies.
Even Shakespeare didn’t write a pure plague story, though I suppose he wouldn’t have had much audience for it. Bubonic plague was more immediate for him; the deaths there were what the deaths now would be if we didn’t have things like self-isolation and proper handwashing techniques. And they didn’t have germ theory, which I suppose means we’re at least somewhat better equipped to laugh at the idea of disease. No one seems likely to burn anyone as a witch for causing this outbreak, at least I hope.