By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It was a disastrous attack that played out live on television 10 years ago, riveting a horrified nation for days.
But the thought-provoking films and TV shows that followed, depicting the fiery attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath, have mostly been shunned by American audiences who favored escapist movies and almost-reality TV while wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan in the decade that followed.
Culture watchers and media pundits say U.S. audiences are not yet ready to relive a memory that remains painful, and some experts note that this particular chapter of American history is still unfinished.
"Films about 9/11 run the risk of being exploitational because they deal with such an epic tragedy and they don't have a resolution. One of the things Hollywood wants is a happy ending, and you are not going to get it," said Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of "Film and Television after 9/11" and a professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Ten years on, the trauma of September 11 and the ongoing U.S. war against terrorism have left their mark on pop culture in subtle yet omnipresent ways. And perhaps surprisingly, Muslims have escaped the widespread demonization on screen that many feared when followers of Osama bin Laden crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"After 9/11, I was terrified of the direction this country was going to go toward Muslims," said Kamran Pasha, one of the few Muslim screenwriters in Hollywood.
"But in many ways, Hollywood is showing more sophistication and empathy toward the Muslim community than I think a lot of people in America are," Pasha said.
BOX OFFICE FLOPS
Just two mainstream movies, "United 93" and "World Trade Center", attempted to recreate the events of 9/11, both with strongly patriotic overtones. But the 2006 films together took in less than $250 million at global box offices -- about the same as "Avatar" grossed on its opening weekend in 2009.
Stories dealing directly or indirectly with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fared even worse, despite sometimes boasting A-list stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon.
Whether telling of heartbreak among U.S. troops and their families ("Brothers", "Stop-Loss"), conspiracies and cover-ups ("Body of Lies", "Rendition") or politics ("Lions for Lambs"), Americans stayed away in droves. "Over There", the first TV series to depict an ongoing war, was axed in 2005 after just four months.
"I don't think audiences have wanted to relive one of the most painful chapters in our nation's recent history. At least, not so soon," said Claudia Puig, film critic for USA Today.
Even 2010 best picture Oscar winner "The Hurt Locker", about a bomb disposal team in Iraq, brought in only $49 million at box offices worldwide -- a decent sum for a low-budget picture but nowhere near blockbuster status.
Instead, one of Hollywood's favorite genres, comic book flicks, soared with audiences in movies like "Iron Man", "X-Men" and "Spider-Man".
Television, with its quicker production times and lower budgets, was first off the mark on 9/11 with White House series "The West Wing" providing the perfect showcase in October 2001 for a discussion on terrorism, religion, race and intolerance.
Although created before September 11, counter terrorist agent Jack Bauer arrived in 2001 in TV thriller "24". The series quickly embodied America's post-September 11 state of mind, particularly in Bauer's hard-hitting methods to get the bad guy and the show's initially negative depiction of Muslims.
Yet "24" ended in 2010 with Bauer praying on his deathbed with a Muslim Imam. Pasha called that "a quantum leap from where the show started."
WHO ARE THE BAD GUYS?
Screen villains have become more rounded and more diverse than pre-2001, when Arabs were already Hollywood's go-to bad guys after the Middle Eastern plane hijackings of the 1980s.
Lawrence Wright, screenwriter for the 1998 movie "The Siege" about a radical Islamic group attack on New York, said that after September 11 "the world became a lot more complicated. It was indelicate to attack Muslims."
Pasha said the 2005-06 Showtime TV drama "Sleeper Cell," which he co-produced, was a "pivotal change" in the depiction of the Muslim community. It featured a Muslim American undercover agent who infiltrates a terrorist cell whose members include a white European woman, a gay Muslim and a Latino man.
"It tried to show the perspective of the al Qaeda guys, showing them as human beings and what could make them do these terrible things," Pasha said.
Puig said Hollywood is now adapting its viewpoint, with villains in several recent movies being Russian or South American. "Some of that may be due to profiling concerns or political correctness, but it also reflects an expanded outlook on the terrorism genre in films," she said.
Television also is moving forward.
New York firefighter drama "Rescue Me" began in 2004 and became the only long-running TV series to deal with the human toll of the attacks. The series ends on Sept 7, in what its co-creator and star Denis Leary calls a fitting conclusion.
Upcoming Showtime drama "Homeland" is a political thriller about a U.S. soldier who is suspected of having been turned militant by his captors in Iraq.
"Things have become deeper and more complex. And the heart of this show is really psychological -- how America is dealing with the 10-year period post 9/11," said "Homeland" executive producer Alex Gansa.
Yet, there remains at least one final look back. TV networks will revisit September 11 with numerous news specials and documentaries to mark the 10th anniversary.
Dixon doubts many Americans will be tuning in, even given the killing at U.S. hands in May of Osama bin Laden.
"I don't think (the TV specials) are going to do well," he said. "I lived through it once. I really don't need to live through it again, because there is no happy ending in sight."
(Additional reporting by Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and David Storey)