Artistic License

February 10, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: Today the film “Titanic” was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations ever. The film from Director James Cameron is one of many recently released movies and plays that blend history and fiction. “Titanic” tells the story of the doomed ship, which hit an iceberg and sank in 1912, killing some 1500 people.

The movie weaves back and forth from fact to fancy, cutting from actual footage of the Titanic on the bottom of the ocean–to the drama of a made-up romance taking place on board just hours before the ship sinks.

The saga of another ship, the Spanish slave vessel, the “Amistad,” received four nominations. Steven Spielberg’s $35 million movie dramatizes the uprising which occurred on the “Amistad” in 1839.

The film tells the story of Sin-Kay and 43 other Africans who were imprisoned in Connecticut after the mutiny and put on trial for murder. The case was ultimately argued before the Supreme Court by former President John Quincy Adams.

SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS, actor: I’m explaining to you that the task ahead of us is an exceptionally difficult one–

DJIMON HOUNSOU, actor: We won’t be going in there alone.

SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS: No, indeed not. We have right at our side. We have righteousness at our side.

JEFFREY KAYE: Spielberg used some artistic license in telling the tale. This scene, for example, could not have taken place since Adams never met personally with Sin-Kay. Recently, Fox released an animated version of “Anastasia”–a story about pre-Leninist Russia–and a young princess whose family was killed during the revolution. In reality, Anastasia was murdered along with her family.

Later an imposter claimed to be the young princess. But Fox took some historical liberties to make the tale more appealing for kids. In the movie version, Anastasia survives, falls in love with a young palace servant, and lives happily ever after.

LINDA LAVIN, actress: It’s a new crossword puzzle book. Thank you, Anne!

NATALIE PORTMAN, actress: It’s not new. It’s yours. I rubbed it all out. But if you wait a while, you’ll forget and can do it all over again.

LINDA LAVIN: It’s wonderful!

JEFFREY KAYE: “The Diary of Anne Frank”–the story of the Jewish girl hidden in an Amsterdam attic during World War II–has also been controversial. Some critics charged that the original stage version was portrayed in an unrealistic, upbeat manner. A new version, which is now playing on Broadway, has added some of the harsher realities of the Holocaust. But some critics say the play still puts too much emphasis on Anne Frank’s universally romantic ideals.

Also on Broadway is Paul Simon & Derek Wolcott’s “Capeman.” The musical depicts the real-life story of a Puerto Rican gang member convicted of killing two white youths in 1959. Ultimately, the young man served his time and was released from jail. Family members of the victims worry the musical may glamorize the gang member, while some Latino groups object to the stereotyping of Latino boys as hoodlums.

Controversy over how the entertainment industry portrays history has a long history itself. In 1915, the movie “Birth of a Nation” was attacked as a racist portrayal of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Filmmaker Oliver Stone has frequently been assailed for the way he alters historical characters and events, most notably in his film “JFK” about the Kennedy assassination.

Disney’s Pocahontas was also criticized. According to history, Pocahontas was actually a young girl when she met the English settler John Smith. In the Disney version she’s a curvaceous grown woman with a romantic interest in him.

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY, actor: This case is about knowing the difference between here and there.

JEFFREY KAYE: Invariably, defenders of historical drama argue that no one portrayal of an event can ever be completely accurate, and that the films educate, as well as entertain. For example, the story of the “Amistad” affair of the 19th century was not widely known in this century until Steven Spielberg brought it to the big screen.