Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oscars and the Truth

As the Academy Awards approach--they're now only a breathtaking few hours away--it's interesting to consider that four of the ten nominees for best picture are, as they like to say, "based on a true story."

Or are they? Two of them--The Fighter and 127 Hours--are presumably pretty accurate, or at least pretty close to the way the central characters' remember the experience, since we see the real people on whose experiences the stories are based on screen at the end of the movie.

But the other two--The Social Network and The King's Speech--appear to have taken some liberties with the truth. In today's Washington Post, film historian Jeanine Basinger dismisses what she acknowledges to be historical inaccuracies in The King's Speech as "nitpicks." What difference does it make if films get the historical facts wrong, she asks, as long as the end result is a good movie?

Okay, let's go through the inaccuracies she lists. Colin Firth is taller and more handsome than King George VI. Okay, fine--that's Hollywood. Winston Churchill wasn't as fat as the actor who portrayed him. No big deal. The King didn't actually stammer that badly. Hmm, well, that's a pretty central element of the plot, but exaggeration in the pursuit of a good story is a minor sin. And Churchill didn't really think it was necessary for Edward VIII to abdicate before marrying Wallis Simpson. Whoa. That seems like a pretty big nit to me. In fact, that seems like a distortion of the historical record. And was it really necessary to change that fact in order to make a good movie?

The Social Network, from what I've read, is even worse in terms of hewing to the truth. For instance, according to the movie, Mark Zuckerberg's motive for inventing Facebook was to impress and/or avenge himself on a girlfriend who had dumped him. But in fact, Zuckerberg still has the same girlfriend he had at the time he started what became Facebook. Beyond that, the movie portrays Zuckerberg as a socially inept, social-climbing, obnoxious, opportunistic (albeit smart) nerd. Given that they changed the girlfriend thing, I don't have too much confidence in the rest of the portrayal. And yet Zuckerberg, who isn't even thirty yet, will have to spend the rest of his life living in the shadow of a fictional portrayal that I would bet the vast majority of moviegoers accept as the gospel truth.

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed and admired both of these movies. But I have to admit that when I learned about their cavalier attitude towards the truth I felt a little uneasy. Kind of the way I've felt about books that purport to be "true" but turn out to be largely, or entirely, fiction. If that sort of thing bothers people--and given the furor surrounding the revelation that James Frey's "memoir" a few years ago was more like a novel, that sort of thing does bother people--why shouldn't it bother them when the medium is a movie?

Maybe some people will say that it doesn't really matter what Churchill thought about Edward VIII's abdication, or that Mark Zuckerberg has enough money that he shouldn't care how he's portrayed in a movie. I happen to disagree with both those observations, but the question is, where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide? Do we really want our understanding of history, or of the characters of real people, to be determined by movie studio moguls whose primary concern is "telling a good story"? I'm pretty familiar with the story of someone named Betsy Bonaparte, a 19th-century celebrity who married--and then was abandoned by--Napoleon's youngest brother. Back in the early days of Hollywood, two movies were made "based on" her life. In both of them, her errant husband returns to her. That may make a better story in the eyes of screenwriters (or at least it did then), but it's about as far from the truth as you can get.

The thing is, stories get a boost from their association with reality--which is why that "based on a true story" label gets slapped onto whatever seems to qualify. We get a little added frisson from the idea that "this really happened." But are movie-makers--or writers--entitled to take advantage of that frisson when they've rearranged the facts? Yes, it's true that real events don't always naturally fall into a convenient narrative arc, and that people don't always behave quite the way fictional conventions would dictate. But that, it seems to me, is part of the challenge of writing about real people: you need to make sense of them and their lives, not just convert them into characters who follow the path that you'd like them to.

This may sound strange coming from someone who has written a novel--A More Obedient Wife--based on the lives of real people. But I chose to write about people who lived so long ago, and who were sufficiently obscure, that I didn't have to alter the historical record to come up with a decent plot. All I had to do was fill in the many gaps in the record with my imagination. (Okay, I did eliminate a few of the many siblings a couple of my characters had, but given that so few people have heard of these historical figures, let alone the siblings I killed off, I don't really see that as a major problem.)

I've heard other authors of historical novels make a similar point. Even if they write about well known historical personages, they often choose to write about parts of their lives that are cloaked in obscurity. Otherwise there's nothing to play with.

There's another way to write about, or portray, real people without confronting this dilemma: make them relatively minor characters and embed them in what is clearly a fictional narrative. A case in point is the current Masterpiece Theatre presentation, Any Human Heart (which, alas, conflicts with the Academy Awards tonight). Its central character, a sort of British upper-class Zelig figure named Logan Mountstuart, interacts with a delicious array of real personages from the 20th century--Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming, and a corrupt and vengeful Duke and Duchess of Windsor. We get that added frisson that comes from watching "a true story," or at least a story peopled with real individuals, but at the same time we retain our awareness that what we're watching is fiction.

All that having been said, I'll be perfectly happy if either The King's Speech or The Social Network wins the Oscar for best picture, because both of them were terrific movies. I just wish that when Hollywood powers-that-be are looking for a good story, they would either find a true one that doesn't require tampering with significant facts, or else come up with something that's NOT "based on a true story." After all, although it's probably true that the number of basic plots available to mankind is finite, the number of variations on those plots is pretty much unlimited. You just have to use your imagination.

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