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2 November 2015updated 03 Nov 2015 10:05am

From You’ve Got Mail to American Beauty, how communication today undermines yesterday’s films

A look at how You've Got Mail and other films couldn't work with modern technology.

By Emad Ahmed

We all know You’ve Got Mail is the best romantic comedy ever. Well, it’s a claim I confidently made during an office meeting, but it got me thinking about how much the internet has changed potential meet-ups in so many ways.

The film, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, follows two business rivals who are unknowingly communicating with one another privately through the world of email and IM services provided by AOL. Hello product placement!

You’ve Got Mail

The film was released in 1998 when the internet was much more innocent, with its nefarious potential not yet understood by the mainstream. Microsoft Paint was the most interesting thing in Windows 98 for the minority of households who were purchasing giant desktop computers for their homes, itching to make use of those free AOL internet trial discs. Thankfully, our love interests in the film have trendy IBM ThinkPad laptops, which of course look comical by today’s standards.

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Surely these characters wouldn’t be able to meet in today’s world, at least not in the same manner. Anonymous chatrooms have been replaced by Tinder swiping, and tech nerds have a catalogue of podcasts and live gaming streams to engage their eyes and ears. Meanwhile, the rest of us are senselessly uploading pictures of our poached eggs on Facebook or spitting out aimless thoughts on Twitter.

The characters would also have to adapt to today’s societal expectations and norms. Hanks’ Joe Fox, a book business magnate, could still be a millionaire but we’d have to swap out his boathouse for a grotesquely sized (or, let’s face it, expensive) Manhattan apartment. Hopefully the New York City setting will keep him grounded to the centre-left. And Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly would receive abuse just for being a woman, both in reality and online.

However, the business dynamic would need to be adjusted, with the Kindle and e-book market probably pushing Joe’s Fox Books chain to remain relevant. Kathleen’s small, independent children’s book store would still be a unique gem in the bustling city today, catering to, as Joe’s dad says, “West side liberal, nuts, pseudo-intellectuals”. I think the word “hipster” would be a perfect replacement in today’s rewrite. Gentrification won’t be pushing this store out, which is odd as I’m still recovering from the tragedy of my local (and once colossal) non-hipster Borders store closing down years ago. I find solace knowing it’s been replaced by a Home Sense and its neon lighting.

The Truman Show

I’m not even sure the two lovebirds could chat to each other anonymously for too long, whatever digital platforms they’d end up using. We’re all busy creating artificial “brands” of ourselves online for strangers and future employers on Twitter and LinkedIn, everyone can immediately become an online stalker. Smartphones exacerbate this problem even further, as everyone communicates constantly at lightning speed, even if some of us remember the sounds of dial-up internet fondly. After all, everyone knows that one person who’s constantly fixed to their phone screen (if you don’t, it might be you) which makes sneaking around easier than ever before in this Truman Show-like world in which we live.


Although You’ve Got Mail might seem quite dated when thinking about people connecting with each other online, the use of tech in films has also been misguided. Take American Beauty and the girl who finds it creepy that the boy next door constantly videos her family. At first, she’s alarmed by this but eventually falls for him. I’m not sure if such a past-time would be welcome today, given the camera in everyone’s pocket is connected to the internet through YouTube and Periscope. A variant of this character can be seen in Nightcrawler, where Jake Gyllenhaal films the direct aftermath of crimes in order to sell footage to his local TV station.

An extreme example like Her goes too far into believing humans will eventually end up ditching the need for true, three-dimensional bonding, and instead seek praise from Siri-like virtual assistants.

The Social Network

But it’s refreshing when films can capture the range of emotions felt with using technology, even if it will look silly in five or ten years from now. The Social Network is the perfect example which embodies the frustration, excitement and thrill experienced by programmers.

That’s not to say some portrayals of tech can look stupid. Think about all of those films that suddenly don’t make sense to younger filmgoers, especially the modern horror cliché of poor phone reception. It’s silly, especially considering Ryan Reynolds was able to upload a clip using his crummy BlackBerry of cutting one of his fingers while stuck in a coffin underground.

Yet there are other films that would benefit immensely by incorporating better tech. Just think about Eat Pray Love, the film version of Tumblr, and how Julia Roberts would benefit from Google Translate and a good data plan.

You’ve Got Mail

And let’s not forget the most important element of today’s flirting, which can involve swapping, er, detailed photos of individuals. It might not be as extreme as Jason Biggs in American Pie but you get the idea. However, as Christina, Kathleen’s employee (played by Heather Burns) says about cybersex, “the minute you do, they’ll lose all respect for you”. Which is weird, as George, the other worker (played by Steve Zahn) replies, “the internet is just another way of being rejected by a woman”. Don’t worry dude. In 2015, that rejection can be provided to you instantly.

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