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Social alienation proves popular in Hollywood's fall lineup

By Piya Sinha-Roy and Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - After a summer of superhero action and feel-good animated comedies, Hollywood has turned to forlorn figures to head fall-winter fare at the box office with films that explore existential dilemmas faced by isolated characters.

The fall-winter months are traditionally when film studios release their top dramas to beat the end-of-year Oscars deadline and build buzz heading into the Hollywood awards season. This year, Hollywood is banking on the socially alienated.

Loners, dreamers, misfits and outcasts show up in fantastical comedy such as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller "Gravity," Kimberly Peirce's remake of Stephen King's high school horror "Carrie," and the big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card's 1985 sci-fi tale of young people in warfare "Ender's Game."

Walter Mitty, a fictional character from a 1939 short story by James Thurber, defines a person not comfortable in his own skin or surroundings, alienated by idealistic aspirations.

Ben Stiller, the actor and director of "Walter Mitty," due in theaters on Christmas, said he felt people would latch on to Mitty's inability to connect to the world around him.

"There was something very accessible and relatable about the idea of a guy who exists more in his head and isn't able to be who he wants to be," he said.

Stiller's Mitty is a Life magazine employee, handling the film negatives of Life's photo archive and embarking on a fantastical journey to find a missing photograph that would go in the final issue before the publication moves online.

"He's an analog guy in a digital world. That change is something generational, I can relate to that and I feel a lot of people will relate as well," Stiller said.

Mitty's challenge in accepting a changing world is echoed in Spike Jonze's "Her," due out in limited theatrical release in December. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely writer who develops a relationship with a female-speaking computer system. The film highlights the increasing disconnect among people as technology brings people together virtually, but segregates them physically.

The social insecurity and alienation also reflects the financial and economic insecurity that occurred in recent years and has worked its way into today's films, said Jack Epps Jr., screenwriter of blockbusters "Top Gun" and "Dick Tracy" and a professor at the University of Southern California.

"A lot of these films represent the cubicle man and the repressed individual" Epps said. "That's thematically America pushing against these things, this small person in this global corporate workplace."

LONELINESS IS 'FERTILE GROUND'

"Carrie," out in theaters last week, is a classic tale of social isolation and revenge as misfit student Carrie White wreaks havoc at her high school prom after being bullied.

"I'm drawn to an alienated character, because if they're alienated, they have a huge need generally to find love and acceptance, to find normality, to find their way back to the human community," Peirce said.

The journey of a lonely character continually offers fertile ground for Hollywood writers, Epps said.

"From a screenwriting point of view, a lead character who is trapped and breaking and finding themselves is always a good story to tell because the characters are relatable," he said.

In Cuaron's "Gravity," which has topped the U.S. box office since its release this month, social isolation is taken to a whole new dimension. Astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is tumbling alone through the vast expanse of space and forced to come to terms with her withdrawal from life back on Earth.

Isolation also defines the leading figures in recent young adult films, including "The Hunger Games" with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) fighting opponents in a battle to the death, and upcoming "Ender's Game," where Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is selected for his high intelligence level by an army and manipulated into warfare against an alien race.

Butterfield said that making a character an outcast among their peers provides an opportunity for the character to overcome challenges. In Ender's case, he uses his intellect to command a formidable authority over his peers and elders.

"One of the reasons why he succeeds in the battle is his ability to be both empathetic and be able to see from the enemy's side, and at the same time, be brutal enough to do what's needed to be done," Butterfield said.

Peirce said bigger audiences are being drawn to stories about isolated leads, and can be connected to the popularity of recent comic-book blockbuster films such as Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy and Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" Superman reboot.

"In most people's lifetimes, they have been the outcast or the marginalized or the alienated ... I think we're all constantly in a state of being alienated and wanting to come back into a state of wholeness," the director said.

(Editing by Mary Milliken)

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