Friday, November 14, 2008

"Borrowing" Fiction to Create Nonfiction?

While working out this weekend, I watched a children's DVD about an artist that I've been researching and writing about. To get into a writing groove, I love to jump on the elliptical and watch an inspiring art video. It was a nice story about a famous painter and at the very end of the long list of credits, I read, "adapted from the O. Henry story The Last Leaf".

"Interesting," I thought. "I guess I should check out this O. Henry story."

The story about this famous artist on the DVD was exactly the story, The Last Leaf. So, to understand this correctly, if showed this DVD to an art appreciation class, I'd have to say, "Well, this is a story about ______ but it's not true. The artist and other characters in the story actually knew each other, but what happens in the story never happened. They borrowed it from a fictional short story from another author."

Now, I'm all for great stories about artists that illustrate for children the power of art. I'm all for using literary techniques to help creatively tell the story; i.e. complication/resolution, flashback, foreshadowing, and pace. But, is it just me? I felt misled by the use of another author's fictional story. I believed the story to be true. It wasn't until I read the credit at the end of the credits that I learned that the story was untrue (by the way, there was no mention on the cover or the beginning credits... only the DVD author's name, not O. Henry.)

To illustrate, suppose I write a children's book about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Frida and Diego want to give each other Christmas gifts but they don't have any money. So (can you guess where this is going?) Frida cuts her hair to sell to buy a watch fob for Diego and Diego, in turn, sells his watch to buy a beautiful clip for Frida's hair. To be fair, I'll add some art to the book. Nice story, huh? Is it okay to then add in the fine print at the end of the book, "Adapted from The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry"? Wouldn't you assume that the story actually transpired between Frida and Diego? I mean, they probably did buy each other Christmas gifts. Right?*

To give credit to the DVD, it was a nice reminder of the the power of art and it had cool computer graphics. I've purposely not mentioned the title so that someday it might not come back and bite me. And, sorry, if any other of my INKmates have "borrowed" from other famous works of fiction to tell a nonfiction story. Heck, maybe there are some award-winners that I'm not aware of that are "adapted" from other works of fiction. I don't mean to offend. It is my hope that other sage nonfiction writers would weigh in on this topic.

Anna rant is over. Please leave a nice, constructive comment.

*Ha! As I reread this, way, way back in my mind, I vaguely remember that Frida and Diego never exchanged gifts, but I may be wrong. I thought that was a little weird. Now, maybe, that would make an interesting story?


teacherninja said...

I get your point and agree. They should have least made the Last Leaf reference more clear. Reminds me of a series in the NYT that Erroll Morris did on fictional techniques in documentary film, particularly re-enactments--what's ok and what is stepping over that line. Interesting to consider.

Unknown said...

If the story is fiction, it's fiction. For the DVD to not make it clear is deceptive. But hey, maybe you've identified a new trend to confuse reality with fantasy and “let the reader decide” what‘s true. For the author to be straightforward may be so 20th century, for all I know. And by the way, are O. Henry's stories out of copyright or did they get permission to adapt it, one wonders?