|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. Donald L. Platt of Mangilao, Guam writes: Since you started discussion of this subject with a supposed quote from Woodrow Wilson, I'd like to pass along the following message by Benjamin M. Primer, Princeton University Archivist.
The viewing before the president, chief justice and various cabinet members occurred in the evening of February 18 . There is the tradition that the President said to Thomas Dixon after the presentation, "It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." The problem is that this quotation first appears in print in 1937 without attribution. Dixon did not quote Wilson to this affect in his memoirs. The only surviving person at the viewing in 1977 told Arthur Link that Wilson seemed lost in thought during the showing, and that he walked out of the room without saying a word when the movie was over.
I thought you might appreciate this note since the topic of this discussion is historical accuracy.
Diane Morris of Costa Mesa, CA writes:I love to see historical movie free of the glamor, to me sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
I have seen the new movie "Titanic", it is a good movie, but the mixing of real and fiction only leaves you feeling something good came out of the movie and not the fact that 1500 people lost their lives.
The new "Anne Frank" play does not give you the feeling of the terror with which the people in the attic lived with.
It's not real.
Ed Hamada of Boston, MA writes:From the Bible, to Homer to "Primary Colors", society has not merely permitted but rewarded our societal recorders and historical rencounters for their imagination, wit, intelligence, and the ability to make complex relationships and events not merely familiar but explainable to the masses of us.
Somehow, throughout history, we listeners, readers and watchers have been able to sort out fact from fiction, with few exceptions and even they were leavened with time.
Whether Biblical or Greco-Roman, Shakespearian or Hollywood's rewrites, fact and fiction have frequently met, mingled, and re-written reality, say you. Yet reality has a way of intruding upon and altering fiction in unpredictable ways and who of us should be concerned that either will be con fused for the other. The humanity within us is doing a spectacular job of keeping history straight. It's just a matter of time.
Thus, no work of art in any format should ever be forced to proclaim what it is not. Ask Jackson Pollack or Wm. Faulkner of JD Salinger. Do they care what we think of the reality of their work? Only when sales are the goal!
Rich Mamolite of Syracuse, NY writes:I really believe that movies made about actual historical events, i.e. "Titanic" should reflect the most accurate data and information of the said event.
I say this because in today's culture people believe a lot of what they se on TV or in the theater so why not make the movies factually correct?
It's really elementary: Tell the story as best you can, but make certain is is with the correct facts as we know them to be. The film can be as extravagant, colorful, and emotional as it's director/ producer wants it to be, but it should reflect the accurate known to man.
Doug Waldo of Downey, CA writes:One of the things that I found "strange" in Titanic was the female lead "flipping off" the man who was chasing the two leads in the film. I may not know of the time but was this a standard practice or ladies in 1912? Or was Mr. Cameron making liberal use of "poetic license" to appeal to today's generation. Don't even get me started about the strobe lights.
James D. Duckett of S.Woodstock, CT writes:Historical Dramas have improved over the years, much more effort is made now to get the facts right as well as having every single correct prop. Many critics decry the film "Gettysburg" for not having every last detail exactly right, but it told a balanced story in human terms, and provided an inflamed interest in the history of the period.
I had not even HEARD of the story of "Amistad" before the film. If someone does some research and finds out some inaccuracy in the film, it has still served them well, they've learned something.
Lastly, only the present day Disney studios could take a tragedy like the Russian Revolution, and make it into a cartoon, mostly in order to sell toys.....other than that, I'd be delighted if every film were 100% accurate, but for now I will live with minor transgressions. The beast still outweighs the burden.
Bruce Halen of Terra Bella,CA writes:I think that the role of the video entertainment industry is to use their vast power and influence to teach history to a video-crazed culture.
Sure, liberties are taken with facts, but the value of exposing little known stories with historical significance overcomes the tweaking of some of the factual events that make up that history.
United States history textbooks, at least the ones that helped formulate much of my early world view, were wildly revised accounts of reality. Video has the capability and the responsibility to expose huge audiences to an education that they probably don't even know they're getting.
Norma J. Johnson of Amherst, MA writes:
Hollywood films are made, primarily, to entertain and to bring in the bucks. It is naive of the public to think that a movie based on some aspect of history will not be dressed up, altered, fancified, etc., to appeal to the general public. Are film makers obligated to include a disclaimer? Not if people remember that the industry speaks to one's fantasy life...not one's wish to know the truth. A film that is historically true is a documentary, n'est ce pas?
Larry Henikoff of East Middlebury, Vermont writes:If a screenwriter does not want to present an historical event as an historian, but rather as a profiteer, should she make a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that states some events in this film may not have historical accuracy, but are portrayed solely for entertainment purposes. And do you think that major film productions like Titanic or Amistad are made to enrich American's historical sensibilities or to enrich the pockets of the producer, director, and starring actors?
Richard Miller of Beloit, WI writes:I confess, I'm a "factican," madly in love with facts. I work in an office that puts out several dozen facts each day. I even married a statistician.
But in my opinion, if we want to know and understand more about life, we need to do more than just "stick to the facts." We might well learn more about life by reading Shakespeare's MacBeth than Holinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare, unlike the historian (or researcher, such as myself) does not claim to do the impossible -- namely, recreate reality. He flagrantly changed "who," "what" and "when," and "where." Some of his changes are out of necessity: a drama takes place with limited space and time. Some changes represent artistic (or perhaps more accurately stated, political) license.
In the end, however, Shakespeare creates a new reality. In doing so, he provides us with a work that compels us to think, consider, and explore, far more than any fact ever could.
Pat G. of Atascadero, CA writes:It has bothered me for while when the young adults I know talk about the impact a so called historical movie has made on them and really believe what they see. Apparently, having been raised on T.V., movies and computers they haven't read very much. Their simplistic attitude about historical events told in 2 hours is truly scary.
My concern started with Oliver Stone's JFK I guess because I was a young adult when he was killed and the director's licenses really touched home. If a director must embellish historical events because history itself will not sell movie tickets then a VERY LARGE DISCLAIMER before the movie starts to roll should do the trick. And then refer the audience to some good reading regarding the historical facts.
Elinor Zetina of Baltimore, MD writes:I have always found that Hollywood has taken liberties with hair styles and fashion for period pictures. British films seemed more attuned to what really was the fashion. It has also bothered me when film events are not chronologically accurate. I realize that so much has to be shown in two hours that characters and events get chimerized. One thing about watching a "historical movie" is that I do want to know more about the story and will read reference books on the subject.
Susan Thomas of Mauldin, SC writes:What happens if we place our current experience with fictional history in a larger time line of public discourse and understanding?
Is it a human phenomenon? a U.S. phenomenon? How did it emerge? What are its patterns? How, if at all, has it changed as we have passed from oral to electronic transmission?
What supports the existence of fictional history? and what would improve the presence and availability of alternative forms of being together?
The steps taken to illuminate the phenomenon are the very ways in which it our cognitive deficiencies in this regard may begin to be remedied.
Carolyn of New Brunswick, NJ writes:I think its important for movies to be about historical figures. For some its the only way they will ever get to know anything about certain topics. But just as important, that facts should not be romanticized for the sake of ticket sales.
Sara Haselman of Roanoke Rapids, NC writes:I feel that it is OK to use poetic license regarding historical fact/fiction. If it is a movie that I like, then I will usually research the event on my own. Watching these movies motivates me to try to learn more about them.
Marcia E. Barber of Grand Rapids Michigan writes:I'm just starting a project detailing the lives of women pioneers in rural Michigan from 1860 to 1900. The basis for the story is a real family and the chronology will be similar; but in order to create a readable story, their lives will be a composite of many events and details of everyday from a variety of resources.
This is not meant to be a novel, but people ask me what it IS going to be -- is this "faction" or pure fiction, or a corruption of history? I see the same problems coming up in the creation of this book as all the movie makers have encountered. How much of the material must be historically accurate to be believable, and how much can be imagined?
Cliff Foreman of Lookout Mtn.,GA writes:It is simply part of human nature to interpret and to revise the past, our personal past and our culture's past. While facts might be distorted in this process, truth can be discovered. That truth might not necessarily be truth about the past; it might be truth about the present. Because of this unavoidable and even beneficial human tendency, historians need, among other things, to keep us honest. They need to be more than just story tellers. Artists have a different responsibility, however. Artists may choose to be more or less historically accurate, depending on their purposes. People simply need to learn not to go to art looking for facts. I don't go to "The Scarlet Letter" to learn historical facts about the Puritans (it contains some fact, but it also contains some fiction); however, studied in the right context, "The Scarlet Letter" might give me concepts that would assist my thinking about the Puritans. The vividness and the physical presence of motion pictures makes them more capable of deceiving the naive. But it doesn't seem to me that changes their basic purpose and their legitimacy as historical fiction.
Dale Jennings of Overland Park Kansas writes:I love literature. I think that the written and spoken word are art forms that have been passed on since the beginning of time. But accuracy and art form are not always a happy marriage or veritable separation.
I personally thought that Spike Lee could have left himself out of his adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as cut out a good twenty minutes of fluff. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read as a teen, does not come off well when one tries to lighten the subject matter. As much as writers are apt to quantify their out takes on a key historical figure or event, it is a literary crime to butcher it to death. As much as I admired Amistad, I left thinking "Hmm, weren't Cinque and the captured Africans supposed to be the central characters?"
Let the historians write the history and note it. Let the artists formulate their OPINION on history, write it, and disclaim it if it meanders from accuracy. When all else fails, head to the book store or the library and form your own opinion.
Rachel Kirst of Burbank, CA writes:In a day and age when children are exposed to so many forms of media, I think it is critical for writers and producers to keep story lines as close to the truth as possible. How hard it must be for teachers to have to compensate for the "artistic" errors of the industry. When a child is exposed to a situation that is based in history and yet not historically correct, it gives them a distorted view of the events that actually took place. In a story like Titanic for example, I think that the addition of fictional characters and story lines can actually add some interest to the event rather than distract. In a case where the writers have taken some liberties, however, they should not be liberties that change actual historical documentation. The addition of a lovelorn couple on the Titanic, though fictional, still does not change the fact that the events that took place actually did. The reference to the Santa Monica pier in the movie, for example, does change the history (though slightly) because, hello, there wasn't any pier until years later. Big oversight in a film that worked very hard on authenticity. I think that the media, knowing the effect they have on the way that the population at large thinks, needs to strive towards making the facts that they already have as interesting as possible without distorting the fact for their own artistic gain.
Jennifer Louiso of Chicago Illinois writes:I think that if a film is using the name of a historical event or a historical person as a selling point then that film should be historically accurate. I believe that many people go to a film, "Malcom X" for example, and believe that what they are seeing is an accurate reconstruction of history. This is not always the fault of the viewer, many times (maybe even most of the time) the films are advertised as if they are an accurate reconstruction of history. When in reality they are only slightly accurate (sometimes hardly accurate at all)and this is the problem. The advertisers of these Hollywood films want to get peoples attention and it doesn't seem to matter to them if in this process they deceive people. I think that this is turning into a big problem with young people. They are looking at these movies as a history lesson and they come away with a lot of false information. I'm not saying that all films should be historically accurate. There is nothing wrong with a film that is not historically accurate and is just fun to see. But in these cases the advertisers, producers, actors,etc.etc. should not get an audience by claiming to tell some kind of historically accurate story. Well, that's my opinion.
Melody Paradise of Dallas, Texas writes:I believe that the telling of a story is just that -- a story. To be a master storyteller, the use of dramatic license is required. In these "stories" history is oftentimes "revised" for the sake of entertainment -- and entertainment is the key word here. I know from the onset that any story I may be listening to, reading of, or watching on a big screen is simply for my entertainment. I know better than to take such stories at face value and view as factual depictions. I am an educated person and can differentiate between fact and fiction. And if it matters to me, I can determine for myself whether an event was depicted accurately or not. And if I have questions as to the accuracy of a particular portrayal, I have enough sense to go to other sources and conduct my own research. To consider anything assembled by a "dramatic artistic storyteller" to be simple truth would be absurd. I expect such people to use their imaginations to put forth a story that will be gripping and attention getting -- in other words -- to use dramatic license freely.
However, for any such portrayal based in any way on factual events or historical figures, great care should be taken to inform the audience that indeed such a portrayal is a depiction based upon fact, fiction, and the imagination of the portrayor -- and for further information on the subject, anyone interested in pure historical fact can look to the history books.
David of San Jose, CA writes:I vote for truth above all.
But the recent movies, "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet," raise some questions. How much truth will be shown when powerful economic forces are at play? Even Disney seemed to buckle when threatened by China and the vast lure of that market. These accurate films will never get to many because of pressure by the government of China. Truth is not served. I bet these movies never are shown on prime time TV.
And how much truth will be shown when it goes against the popular thought control system? The myths of a more popular religion, "Ten Commandments," "Moses," etc., etc, are shown and re shown again and again in the USA. Is this media brain washing / reinforcement of a local culture OK? Powerful economic, social and political forces push Christian illusions constantly just like China and Iran. How much truth and accuracy is there in myth or religion?
Maybe life after death, heaven or devil exist only within the Mind? There is no logic or truth in these ideas - only hope, faith and control of the masses. It is more difficult to disbelieve than to have blind faith. But in our present condition, and with peer and social pressure, most need illusions to enjoy or accept the human condition.
Cara of Alabama writes:My question is this: Has the dramatization of history perhaps given rise to the so-called 'true crime' industry of books written in novel-styles and fictional movies supposedly based on facts? And if so, do the majority of readers/viewers think these dramatic creations are more truth than the facts? Naturally, the more educated/intellectual people are skeptical of the dramatic re-enactments, but the average person...isn't it possible many take these altered versions as reality? This issue has concerned me for a very long time, and the impact it may be having on the average person's perception of truth/reality Vs. facts/fiction.
Brian Gilfeather of Virginia Beach, Virginia writes:It would be best to remember that history books are written by those who (also) take poetic license. Film makers merely apply that license to a more visual medium.
Andrea Carlson of Seattle, WA writes:As a high school history teacher (U.S. and European histories), I find the historical inaccuracies of Hollywood and other popular media to be somewhat frustrating to my content goals; however, I appreciate the springboard for class discussion that the media provide by making history entertaining to my students.
"Pocahontas", "Anastasia", "JFK", and even "Forrest Gump" come to mind as films which have portrayed historical events and have been very popular. Generally, it is not difficult to correct the factual errors of a film, and, in fact, it is helpful to have a movie topic to use as a "hook" to engage students in discussion about that topic. As well, sometimes a movie can provide an informal visual aid to recall in class ("Remember in 'Far and Away' when the Irish political boss provides housing and jobs for the main characters in turn-of-the-century Boston?").
Sometimes I wonder why the truth of history isn't left in the story. Rasputin (of "Anastasia" fame) was an odd, colorful figure in real life who would make an intriguing central character in his own movie. And while the love story aspect of "Titanic" is engaging, it probably skews the positions of the people that the characters represent: would a debutante like Rose have been such an egalitarian feminist from the upper class in 1912? Does this representation send a historically incorrect view of the time and environment? In any case, when producing a historical film, the studio should include some sort of disclaimer (at the beginning) if there are inaccuracies in the movie.
On a different note, I would love to see some sort of index of all of the feature films which have been produced which depict a historic story/era, historically accurate or not. This would be invaluable to use in clips to allow students to see what life was like "back then" as opposed using documentaries, which tend to portray history with still photographs, documents,and drawings.
Eileen Stringer of Salt Lake City, Utah writes:Although retelling history through the means of fiction may be a good way to expose more people to the event being dramatized than would normally be acquainted with it, I believe that great care should be taken to be accurate about events when using actual people...regardless of the necessity to "tell a good story." For instance the depiction of 1st Officer Murdoch shooting passengers and then shooting himself, has never been accurately documented and that bit of "fiction" may be quite traumatic to family members and/or friends/associates still living. Considering the "feeding frenzy" of the masses who will devour and digest as the truth almost anything viewed on the screen, big or small. Once these lives are depicted onscreen we also feel we own them and we have some right to intrude upon them, so the least we can do I feel it to get it right. We should tell the truth and if it is boring then it is boring, but we should not really embellish, especially if there is a chance that there are those still living that it may affect.
Allen Casad of Saco, ME writes:The comment, "fact in fiction" seems to be at the heart of the matter. While I often enjoy fact in my fiction, I always feel a little betrayed when I find fiction in what proports to be fact. How about some truth in labeling. If it is a historical subject,then tell me if it is fictionalized or an accurate refection of history(as best the truth can be discerned). In this new media world there needs to be integrity, a clarity of intention.
Dave Chipps of New York, NY writes:Watching TITANIC, I experienced the wonder of witnessing history recreated. The knowledge that this ship actually sailed - just once - is at the heart of my fascination with the tale. The further a fact-based work like TITANIC drifts from historical accuracy, the more it becomes just another story anyone can think up, and that's what fiction's for.
William Behrens of Champaign, IL writes:Movie directors are artists, and as such have the responsibility to express the world as they see it. Using significant or insignificant historical events as a basis for art has been common for centuries. A musician, painter, sculptor, and the like all have pulled their own thoughts out of history, both contemporary and ancient.
However there is a line between an artists expression, and an attempt to recreate history as one sees fit. If an implicit or explicit attempt is made to change a documented historical event it should be disclosed. This disclosure is most important in today's Hollywood productions, which have multi-million dollar budgets and are seen by millions of people. The mechanism for disclosure may be debated, but as long as it is not misleading, or a direct attempt by a director to mold people's thoughts around their underdeveloped/uneducated perceptions of a particular event, then one could truly be enlightened while being entertained.
Ashley T. of Stone Mountain, Georgia writes:It doesn't make a difference.
I may be young but as far as I know movies are for entertainment not reference.No one really goes to a movie and takes notes on it to put in a book! Just think how interesting a movie would be if it was all facts? It be like sitting in another boring history class! I don't see what the big discussion is about. If you want to know the facts read a book, do research who cares! But a movie is a movie not a live encyclopedia!
Anne Brickman of Wheatland, WY writes:Yes, I think the producers should try very hard to remain true to the facts and also should try to keep the setting and reactions of the characters true to the time period. We of this decade tend to look to the visual media for our interpretation of the world around us: news, entertainment and arts. When we see a movie about history, subconsciously we assume that the movie is "right." I am concerned that many of us are developing a sense of history that is very far removed from the way things really were. When a movie is produced that assumes our social milieu and our cultural mores applied to another era, it fosters an erroneous view of history.
Maureen Butler of Lake Charles, Louisiana writes:As a schoolchild in the Fifties & Sixties, I was fascinated by old black & white films that depicted "history." The past did not seem boring when "movie stars" played the parts. I decided then and there that I liked "History" after all and I became a lifelong convert. I paid attention to my history teachers, started reading history books, and became addicted to documentaries. The visual images fed my curiosity to learn more. (Last year I even obtained a B.A. in History.)
Today everyone has become accustomed to learning via sound bites and visuals. Those that are inspired to read & verify are probably fewer than ever. So, I feel that the responsibility of the film maker should be even greater to make sure that essential truths are preserved. If he or she fails to accomplish this in the film, there should be a statement in the credits to set the record straight.
Jack Peterson of Roseville, CA writes:I think that your statement "as film makers and playwrights increasingly assume the role of history teacher" captures the essence of the real tensions between entertainment and historical revisionism. In and of itself, being loose with historical facts in the presentation of a dramatic story is not harmful, and is a necessary literary tool. Composite characters, inaccurate representations of events, and even anachronisms can be overlooked when the meaning behind the story holds a greater insight to our past and ourselves.
The harm is released, however, when the audience of the story doesn't know the history themselves. Their reliance on the storyteller to provide both the historical and dramatic interpretation of events leave the audience vulnerable to revisionist propaganda. To answer your question, dramatic license becomes revisionism when an audience member bases their understanding of history on the drama itself. When the movie Anastasia must assume for its own existence that Anastasia survived the assassination of the Romanov family, how many people will now be inclined to believe Anna Anderson was Anastasia? How many people who saw the movie as children, in 20 years, will know that DNA testing has proven that Anna Anderson was in fact a fraud? What harm will this cause these people?
The answer is not much. But not much is still greater than not at all. And the problem that it presents to us as a society is when we lose our sense of history (and the work of determining what history is). Our rapidly moving, rapidly transforming society has many great challenges ahead, not the least of which is the preservation of our history. On any variety of issues, our history faces an uncertain future. Whether from degradation and obsolescence of the media on which our history is recorded, or the ability of powerful political and cultural forces to rewrite history for their own purposes, we are the only defenders of our history. The strength of our defense is in our own knowledge of our history.
Dale Davis of Senatobia, MS writes:
To the point of the matter, however, I do believe that film makers should strive to be as accurate as they can with historical facts. Disney's Pocahontas is a complete fabrication. Pocahontas and John Smith are simply Barbie and Ken in 17th Century get-up. The producers could have made a much more inspiring story if they had ditched the romance and portrayed Pocahontas as the brave, selfless 13 year old who saved Smith's life, as Smith describes her in his writings. Talk about girl power! Instead we get the hokey colors of the wind, noble savages, and bloodthirsty colonials, cute fuzzy animals. And instead of a rousing true-adventure story that strives to portray events with the best possible accuracy, we get an extended commercial for the endless products that Disney forced down parents' throats--Pocahontas dolls, underwear, band-aids, bubble bath, etc.