Todd Strasser’s “The Wave”

I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about any weird fiction for a while, and I thought I’d get back on the horse by discussing a short novel that technically isn’t “weird fiction”, but it definitely is weird and fiction!

This one has in fact been on my mind for quite some time: the very short young adult novel The Wave, written in 1981 by Todd Strasser.

The Wave tells the story of what seems at first to be an innocent high school classroom experiment.  When history teacher Ben Ross shows his class a movie about the Holocaust, his students can’t understand how ordinary Germans could be drawn into such an inhuman ideology.  Troubled by his inability to understand this himself, the next day in class he introduces “The Wave”: a new movement to inspire discipline and community. For the first lesson, he introduces them to the slogan “Strength through discipline”, in which they must follow the teacher’s commands in an efficient and unquestioning manner. The next lesson, “Strength through community”, teaches the students to sacrifice their individuality in the service of their greater community.  In the third lesson, Ross teaches the class “Strength through action”, in which they put their new-found discipline and community to use in achieving their goals.

At first, the experiment seems, counter to intuition, to be a positive one.  But soon “The Wave has taken on a life of its own, spreading to hundreds of students in the school, and Mr. Ross is being treated as an almost militaristic leader.  When sporadic violence erupts, in the name of “The Wave”, Ross’ brightest students (and non-“Wave” members) begin to worry that he has created a monster — and may not be willing or able to stop it anymore.

The novelization of The Wave has a curious history: it is in fact based on a teleplay written by Johnny Dawkins that was produced as a made-for-TV movie first aired on October 4, 1981.  The movie was an outstanding success, earning a 1981 Peabody Award and a 1982 Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.

The teleplay itself, however, is adapted from something else: real life!  “The Wave” is inspired by the real experiment performed in 1962 in a Palo Alto, California high school class by teacher Ron Jones.  Faced with unanswerable questions about the behavior of Germans during WWII, he introduced the principle of “The Third Wave” to his class to try and demonstrate answers.  By the third day, membership had swelled to over 200 members, as students recruited their friends and reported on those who failed to comply.  By the fourth day, Jones decided to end the movement, which was slipping out of his control; he concluded it in a dramatic fashion mirrored in the teleplay and book: don’t read the description of “The Third Wave” on Wikipedia if you’re worried about spoilers!

The novelization is short — 138 pages in my edition — but surprisingly effective, especially considering I’m a cynical adult and the book was written at a more optimistic young adult level.  The early chapters seem almost a little naive and simplistic to me, especially the everyday behavior of the high school students, but once “The Wave” takes hold, the story becomes utterly compelling and seems terrifyingly plausible.

Why, you might ask, am I blogging about a book based on a made-for-TV movie that came out literally 30 years ago?  Because I actually saw that movie when it first appeared on television, and it has always stayed with me to a greater or lesser extent.  You can actually watch The Wave on YouTube; part 1 is below:

The role of teacher Ben Ross is played by the most excellent actor Bruce Davison, back when he was early in his film and television career and relatively unknown.  The finale of the film, when “The Wave” comes crashing down, is worth seeing by itself.  And the real end of “The Third Wave” was remarkably similar to the fictional version!

I should note that Todd Strasser is still writing books for teens and is very active in speaking at elementary, middle and high schools; you can check out his webpage here.

In an era when people are, seemingly more than ever, eager to turn society into an authoritarian police state, The Wave is as relevant as it ever has been.

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One Response to Todd Strasser’s “The Wave”

  1. J Thomas says:

    When I read Ron Jones’s account of what happened I had trouble believing some of the details. It didn’t seem plausible that a whole class would get so intent in a few days. Well, it wasn’t the whole class. it was 90% of the class because he threw out the 10% that didn’t go along. But still…. Where would he get an auditorium on short notice that held 200 students? Etc.

    I looked for more info and found the following:

    This writer doubted even more than I did, to the point that he wrote a site devoted to debunking it. How would it be that 200 students agreed to keep it secret, and it stayed secret for 30 year except that Ron Jones himself gave it a lot of publicity? But then he started getting reports from students who had been there. Something did happen that got written up in the student paper. There was a room available that would hold 100-150 students, and a meeting did happen there. There was a blank TV and a presentation about Nazi Germany at the meeting. There were students who got thrown out of the class, and a reactionary group called the Breakers put up posters opposing the Wave. There were students who were aggressive about recruiting new members, to the point that one student nearly got into a fistfight with them. And some students later said it was all a joke, that they were jokingly going along with an oddball professor.

    Very hard to tell afterward what it really meant, and how much it meant at the time. I was impressed with the author’s analysis. But then it appeared he had some good things to say about Germany. And he had some good things to say about some things that National Socialists did. He said there were some details about the Holocaust which are probably false, notably some things about gas chambers, though it’s clear a lot of Jews and others got taken to concentration camps and many of them died, and many were shot and buried in mass graves.

    He said that people didn’t let the police take their neighbors away because they were Nazis. People let the police take their neighbors away everywhere. They do it here. We kind of know about the things that happen in US prisons — homosexual rape etc — and we do nothing when the police take our neighbors for drug offenses.

    Is there really anything about people who practice Strength Through Discipline and Strength Through Community that would make them kill Jews? The idea doesn’t really make sense. There’s no direct connection, at least.

    He said there used to be a link from Wikipedia about the Third Wave to his site. But it got removed because his site was considered to be a hate crime and was morally offensive to western sensibilities. I didn’t understand that.

    Then I looked back. He had said there was reason to doubt some minor details about the Holocaust. Saying that could get him arrested in europe. He said there was nothing wrong with people forming coherent communities where everybody learned together, and implied that the social togetherness fostered by the early Third Reich was not a bad thing in itself. Oh! He said so many things that were important, why couldn’t he be more discreet? If he had simply avoided anything that sounded antisemitic his important stuff could get a much wider hearing. Why didn’t he realize that people who sound like they’re antisemitic get punished and censored? How could he be so smart about some things and so utterly stupid about others?

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