Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- There's a sad irony in the fact that one of the great tests of America's freedom of speech should involve a movie that, according to some reviewers, utterly sucks.
Variety calls "The Interview" an "alleged satire that's about as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted." Yet this "comedy" about two TV guys tasked with assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has sparked a cyberterror campaign that amounts to extortion.
What is being threatened? Well, it started with the leaking of Sony emails by online hackers, which has caused tremendous embarrassment to the company and a little humor for the rest of us. But now hackers claiming to be the "Guardians of Peace" -- the group that said it was behind the Sony hack -- seem to have quashed not only the New York premier planned for Thursday, but caused Sony today to announce that it would cancel the film's December 25 theatrical release. The hackers had threatened the lives of cinema-goers and those within the vicinity of theaters, and actively invoked memories of 9/11.
Is this assault on artistic license coming directly from the North Korean regime? We don't know. But it should never be forgotten that North Korea has financed terrorism in the past, including the bombing of passenger jets. Why would they take such offense at "The Interview"? Probably because it goes directly after the image of Kim.
North Korea isn't your typical atheist communist dictatorship. It's far more like the religious-nationalist regime of Japan during the Second World War, in which the leader is elevated to the status of a living god.
Put it all together and it's understandable why theaters chose to take the hackers seriously and pull the movie. Of course, it would be nice if they could take a stand for freedom of speech, but they have a wider responsibility to the physical safety of the public.
The tragedy is that all this fuss isn't about something approaching a serious work of art. But aside from being trashily commercial, modern Hollywood also has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to making movies about bad people overseas. We often see evidence of greedy capitalists on Wall Street, or nasty homegrown Christians attacking gays and lesbians. But serious films about the shocking homophobia of the African continent, anti-religious persecution in China or the obvious evil of North Korea are strangely few and far between.
This may well be because the marketing people calculate that something so depressing won't exactly be box office gold. Thus totalitarianism crops up in U.S. cinema either as fantasy (the Empire in "Star Wars") or as something to laugh at ("Team America" also tackled North Korea, albeit with genuine wit). Proof positive of the essentially cowardly nature of Hollywood is that executives reportedly screened the ending of "The Interview" for the State Department -- and won official blessing.
Perhaps this cyberterrorism will convince Hollywood that there are wicked people beyond their shores and that it is worth making far more intelligent movies about them -- movies that go beyond cartoon stereotypes of East and West and deal with the realities of authoritarianism.
Until then, there are so many questions about the consequences of the recent threats: What happens if someone advertises a private screening of "The Interview"? If Netflix decides to make it available for home users, what would the terrorists threaten to do?
If the threats are the offspring of the regime's fetid imagination, perhaps it reveals something about their limited understanding of how the modern world works. In the age of the Internet, you can't easily censor a movie or withdraw it from the public domain. And do they really expect U.S./North Korean relations to hinge on the willingness of Washington to try?
There is something depressingly farcical about this whole story. Hopefully, it won't turn violent.