|FACT IN FICTION
Should historical dramatizations hold accuracy above all?
March 19, 1998
in this forum:
What examples of fictionalized history have you seen recently? Can't viewers be trusted to separate fact from fiction? Is it necessary for a movie to be completely accurate? What about the role of technology in film making? Are movies held up to a higher standard than books? Viewer comments. The Online NewsHour asks: Many viewers said they were confident audiences could distinguish fact from fiction. Do you believe this to be the case? Can't viewers be trusted to take a movie or play with a grain of literary salt?
Cynthia Ozick responds:If you go to a movie or a play purporting to represent history, you have already made a commitment to fiction - i.e., you are going expecting to be entertained. I note a telltale verb in a review of the Anne Frank play, in the current (March 13) issue of "Commonweal." (Here I should warn you that I am somewhat implicated in what follows.) "Viewers made too uneasy, by Ozick and other commentators, to enjoy this watchable production's wry portraits of fidgety human beings," the reviewer writes, "may wish the director, James Lapine, had been able to synthesize forty years of mixed feelings about the play." But it's a play; how can the Broadway stage be asked such a thing! The mandate of a play is to entertain. The reviewer, all unself-consciously, agrees - why else would she speak of "enjoying" a drama about hidden prey?
Suppose we put it this way: if you "enjoy" it, you can be pretty sure it has nothing very much to do with real history. (Unless the subject is authenticated Roman orgies.) And audiences surely do know they are putting their money down for enjoyment, not for authentic instruction. The acquisition of knowledge, after all, means work.
Prof. Robert Toplin responds:
As viewers, often we are not in a position to distinguish fact from fiction. We hope, though, that the media will draw our attention to problems if the filmmakers take too many liberties.
Years ago, there was not much media attention to Hollywood's portrayal of history. Filmmakers could "get away" with just about whatever they wished to show. In the last decade, though, individuals from the press, television and the historical profession have been much more outspoken about the portrayals that disturb them. Back in the late 1980s a number of them complained loudly in the media regarding some the the interpretive liberties they saw in "Mississippi Burning." More recently they have written a good deal about "Amistad," expressing reservations. And, of course, the provocative film "JFK" excited considerable debate about history in the press and on the radio and television. This is a good development. The dialogue is useful -- not only to help us think about good entertainment but also to excite the public into thinking and reading about history.