|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. Jill Kersey of San Francisco CA asks: What about the role of technology in filmmaking? For instance, a fictional character, Forrest Gump, shared the screen with a historical figure, JFK.
Cynthia Ozick responds:And Woody Allen did it first, with "Zelig." But here we know we're in fiction and fable and the Land of Play! No one claims that "Zelig" or "Forrest Gump" or "Ragtime" intends to represent any portion of real history. Tolstoy did the same with Napoleon in "War and Peace." No one can write a novel or make a movie or stage a play without the presence of the real world, after all. In fiction, though, whether it's a novel or a film or a play, the unqualified premise always is: This is make-believe.
Nevertheless there's a problem. The moment you present a historical event in film or on the stage, no matter how faithfully it adheres to the facts (and the new production of "Anne Frank" most earnestly attends to fact and faithfulness), you are entering the Kingdom of Make-Believe. Those people up on the screen in "Amistad" are not real slaves; they are acting. Those Jews in the Secret Annex aren't really under threat from the Germans; they are acting. We in the audience are aware of this every instant. We may admire the lifelikeness of it all; but it's a simulacrum we're admiring.
You want to invoke the famous Suspension of Disbelief? Fine; do it with movies like "Tootsie", or with "Good Will Hunting." What we want from history is trust.
And by the way: it's unrealistic to expect or demand that fictional forms - novels, films, plays - be utterly and undisguisedly faithful to history. These forms are, or mean to be, art, and they employ the means of art. Dialogue is not a transcript; it is a skill. Chronology is a tedium; narrative pace is a skill. The study of history is a study. If you try to sugarcoat it, all that you'll have is the taste of the sugar; and that is ephemeral enough.
Prof. Robert Toplin responds:
Technology can help wonderfully to recreate the look of the past in great detail -- as we saw with the amazing shots of the sinking of the Titanic.
In another respect video technology has taken us to the edge of what journalists and others consider acceptable. Trick photography began to show us Hollywood stars standing next to figures from the past. Woody Allen pioneered some of this presentation with "Zelig." "Forrest Gump" made the technique amusing and quite entertaining. Then came "Contact." That film took the matter rather far, inserting video of Bill Clinton in the story (without his approval) and leaving the impression that the President was commenting on a supposed contact with life in the universe. The movie also showed us a number of noted CNN newspeople broadcasting reports on the contact from space. Journalists leaped with anger. They protested, arguing that the distinction between news and entertainment was already quite blurred, and these latest tricks could open the door to future abuses.
I think there are potential problems with the manipulation of words and images, and the public and professional outcry probably helped to make today's filmmakers a bit more cautious about the liberties they take. We can probably expect plenty of amusing examples of such technological wizardry in the future but fewer efforts to give fictional stories the appearance of true news reports. Memories of the radio broadcast, "War of the World" remain with us.