Why would Ryan Murphy, one of TV's hottest and most prolific producers, decide to adapt a 30-year-old play about the forming of an AIDS service organization for HBO? Because he thought the story of the outbreak of AIDS was being forgotten.
Murphy is the creative mind behind the shows Glee and American Horror Story, and he's remaking The Normal Heart — Larry Kramer's 1985 off-Broadway sensation which revealed the gay community's often fractious response to an epidemic that was then essentially ignored by the government.
"So many young people don't know this part of our history," Murphy says. "They don't remember the fear."
Murphy remembers the first time he himself, as a gay man, had any sexual contact in the early '80s. He was 16 and working at a shoe store in a mall in Indianapolis.
"I was picked up by a guy who was 21," he says. "And I went back to his apartment." There, Murphy noticed a copy of a gay newspaper, The New York Native, with "a huge banner headline about AIDS. And I got up and left the apartment."
Over the course of the next decade, Murphy would lose 10 friends to AIDS. He worked at an AIDS hotline in Washington, D.C., and he read — and loved — The Normal Heart.
Murphy's adaptation of the play airs Sunday night on HBO. It's the second recent big drama about AIDS in the 1980s. Dallas Buyers Club scored half a dozen nominations at this year's Oscars.
Murphy sees a parallel with Platoon, the movie that came out almost 15 years after Vietnam. Just as there was with Vietnam, with AIDS, "there's a shift in people wanting to talk about it," he says. "For a long time I don't think people wanted to."
It's hugely important to remember the early days of the epidemic, says Phill Wilson, who runs the Black Aids Institute. But he points out that HIV is still alive and well and killing people. And its face today is very different than in 1985.
"HIV in America is a black disease," he says. "Nearly 50 percent of people living with HIV in America are black. Nearly 50 percent of new infections in this country are black. Over 70 percent of women with HIV in this country are black. "
Those disproportional numbers are reflected, to a point, in popular culture — Wilson points to TV shows like Noah's Arc and Brothers & Sisters, both of which feature HIV positive characters. A few movies by African-American directors have explored the contemporary realities of living with HIV. (Wilson points out in particular Precious, a rich and compassionate portrait of a teenager who discovers she's infected after escaping extraordinarily violent abuse at home.)
So what does The Normal Heart have to say about HIV today? Lots, says Wilson, who's seen the play numerous times: "Here's a story about a people, against all odds, when no one seemed to care, who came together, to save their lives."
The Normal Heart's message clearly resonated with a group of young people involved with Metro Teen AIDS, a Washington, D.C., organization involved in peer education and HIV prevention. But as it happens, Murphy was right. Even though all the youth are involved in the fight against HIV, not all of them were clear, before seeing the movie, about the history of the struggle.
"I didn't realize it was only gay men at the beginning," says 25-year-old. "I thought it was straight and gay."
And a 15-year-old was shocked at the idea that gay people had ever been closeted. "If I was in that situation, I wouldn't be scared to be who I am," she says.
But a friend of hers gently points out that the movie was about overcoming that fear. And that changed how gay people are seen in this country. "I guess you have to fight for what you want," she says.
Somewhere, Larry Kramer is smiling.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
During the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980's, Larry Kramer wrote a play called "The Normal Heart." It became an off-Broadway sensation and revealed the gay community's often fractious response to an epidemic that was then essentially ignored by the government. Now three decades later, that play has been adapted into a movie for HBO. It airs Sunday night. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that the epidemic of the 1980's is not the epidemic of today.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Talk about an American horror story.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORMAL HEART")
JONATHAN GROFF: (As Craig Donner) Oh my God.
ULABY: When "The Normal Heart" was written in 1985, it was not uncommon to see awful scenes in big cities like this one in the movie. Gay men rushing to the hospital, their lovers clasped in their arms, dying by the thousands from a disease they barely understood.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORMAL HEART")
MARK RUFFALO: (As Ned Weeks) I'm supposed to use gloves. I'm supposed to do this. I'm supposed to do that. I'm supposed to not kiss him. I'm not supposed to be only 45 years old and taking care of a 35-year-old young man who's a hundred years old in time.
ULABY: Like so many young people in that terrifying period, Ryan Murphy was shaped by the knowledge that having sex could kill him.
RYAN MURPHY: I can remember the first time I had any sexual contact. You know, I was at a mall. I was picked up by a guy who was 21. I was 16, working at a shoe store. And I went back to his little apartment.
ULABY: While the guy was fixing drinks, Murphy looked down and saw a gay newspaper.
MURPHY: Then there was a huge banner headline about AIDS. And I read that article, and I got up and left the apartment.
ULABY: Murphy filmed "The Normal Heart" partly in tribute to its author, activist Larry Kramer. The play is autobiographical and furious. It includes what are basically transcripts of what Cramer screamed at protests and wrote in editorials.
RUFFALO: (As Ned Weeks) I am telling you, they are murdering us, and we are letting them. We're going to die, and we are going to die very soon unless you get off your (bleep) and fight back.
ULABY: This is the second big, splashy drama about AIDS in the 1980's in recent popular culture. "Dallas Buyers Club" scored half a dozen nominations at this year's Oscars. Ryan Murphy sees a parallel with the movie "Platoon" that came out almost 15 years after Vietnam.
MURPHY: That is now happening with AIDS. There's a shift in wanting to talk about it again. And for a long time, I don't think people wanted to.
ULABY: It's great to remember the early days of the epidemic, says Phill Wilson, who runs the Black AIDS Institute. But -
PHILL WILSON: Unfortunately, that can lead people to believe that HIV belongs in the museum.
ULABY: HIV, says Wilson, is not over. And its face in 2014 has changed from 1985.
WILSON: HIV in America is a black disease. Nearly 50 percent of people living with HIV in America are black. Nearly 50 percent of the new infections in this country are black.
ULABY: And over 70 percent of American women with HIV are black. That reality's reflected in movies by African-American filmmakers, including Tyler Perry, Bill Duke, and Lee Daniels. His film "Precious" from five years ago follows a teenaged mom diagnosed with HIV.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRECIOUS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As classmate) Is your baby OK?
GABOUREY SIDIBE: (As Claireece Precious Jones) Yeah, I just got to stop breast-feeding him.
ULABY: So what does a movie like "The Normal Heart" have to say about HIV today? Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute says, a lot.
WILSON: It is a story about a people, against all odds, when nobody else seemed to care, who came together to save their lives.
ULABY: Yet it's in danger of being forgotten, says "The Normal Heart's" director.
MURPHY: So many young people don't know this part of our history. They don't remember the fear.
ULABY: To test this, I showed a preview of HBO's "The Normal Heart" to young people at a Washington, D.C. organization called Metro Teen AIDS. They're committed to fighting HIV. But even a 25-year-old named Coli did not know how the epidemic started.
COLI: I didn't realize it was only gay men at the beginning that were basically getting the cases treated. I thought it was straight people and gay people.
ULABY: Neither did the girl sitting next to him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Uh uh, I didn't know anything.
ULABY: 15-year-old Amoni, after watching the movie, could not believe that gay people used to be routinely closeted.
AMONI: It was just shocking. I mean, I don't know, I guess if I was in that situation, I wouldn't be scared to be who I am.
ULABY: But her friend, Ayanna, explained to her that overcoming that fear changed how gay people are seen in this country.
AYANNA: I guess a lot of gay men are more open now than what they were before. And I guess you just have to, like, fight for what you want.
ULABY: Somewhere, Larry Kramer is smiling. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.