|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: Russell Banks' new novel, "Cloudsplitter," is a fictionalized account of John Brown's life. Writers fictionalize history as well, and yet there seems to be less debate about the print world's interpretation of history. Do you think this observation is true? Are movies held up to a different standard for accuracy because the medium is so visually striking and lifelike?
Cynthia Ozick responds:A serious novelist using historical materials is subject to some of the same strictures under discussion here - with this difference. Russell Banks lets us know right away that we are being made privy to Russell Banks' imagining of John Brown, and that we are being invited to enter that imagining. And in a serious literary novel, we are anyhow in the world of metaphor. Movies are literal things, they are incapable of metaphor; a teacup is always that thing, a house is always that thing. (Whereas the house in "Howards End," while it is a real house, also means much more than merely this one physical thing.) In movies we're limited to seeing only the house, the thing; it declares its rounded and absolute "reality." But we would be fools to take the literal thing for the literal truth.
If you go to the movies, or to a Broadway play, you're going for a good time, to have a thrill or two. You're not going for an education. Who doesn't know this?
Prof. Robert Toplin responds:
Finally, the question that compares written fiction with movie fiction. We have long enjoyed historical fiction -- from books like "War and Peace" to the James Michener novels to the current hit, "Cold Mountain." The questioner raises a very interesting point: we do not usually get into long debates about historical accuracy regarding such books. Yet we do sometimes raise a few concerns when a book is supposed to be very close to the truth and is featured in the bookstores as nonfiction (yet it contains some inventions on the part of the writer). Such concerns appeared in relation to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and for the more recent work, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Generally, I think the public worries that a Hollywood movie attracts very large audiences and has the potential to influence many minds. Many worry about that "emotional hook" I referred to earlier. They wonder, for example, if an extraordinarily clever film such as JFK can "brainwash" youths who are not very informed about historical issues. Critics are especially harsh with movies that attempt to depict real people and real historical situations. They are tougher with "JFK" and "Nixon" than with a movie that is only generally historical, such as "Dances With Wolves."
We probably worry too much about the persuasive power of movies over naive minds. Often movies that are controversial stir useful debates and challenge the public to consider what constitutes fair and sophisticated historical interpretation. We ought to keep the market free for artists' interpretations and attempts at persuasion, and we ought to argue loudly and vigorously when we do not agree with their spin on history.