I have been writing a lot these days about the truth in nonfiction books. One of my older posts (INK, August 2008) was about the power of movies based on true stories. The power to appeal is unquestionable, but the issue of how “true” a “true” movie is becomes a bit more complicated, as the medium obviously lends itself to dramatization. Feature films are not documentaries, but perhaps the difference between them should not be as vast as that between fiction and non-fiction.
My most recent conundrum was with the movie The King’s Speech. First, I loved this movie (as did the kids—10 and 14—I took to see it; pretty high praise). It swept me right up. I was engrossed, taken by the characters, rooting for the King, admiring of the Queen, amused by and enamored of the speech therapist. But there were liberties taken, as has been noted. An article from the New Republic called it “a royal mess,” the UK’s The Guardian said it took “pointless liberties,” and the title of Slate’s article sums it up: “Churchill Didn’t Say That.” Yet even in the face of criticism, there has been praise for how the writers handled much of the history, as in a piece in the Telegraph.
I love the details with which the Guardian takes issue, as they are exactly the kind of questions I ask myself when I come across articles or books that contain “facts” that strike me as slightly off. I begin to wonder what research process was behind the end product of whatever I am reading. How deep did the researchers dig? Did they change things to suit their needs?
Michael White writes, “The absence of deference [in The King’s Speech], stifling and awful though it must have been, is inherently wrong. So I would need evidence that therapist and patient were on "Lionel" and "Bertie" terms. And royal dukes, monarchs and their spouses/squeezes did not wander around London in taxis unsupervised or use creaky Harley St lifts alone – any more than they do now except (so it is said) when Di gave her minders a slip. But that's a quibble…”
And it IS a quibble, but, as they say, the devil is in the details. Small liberties perhaps lead to larger liberties, as was the case with the movie’s portrayal of Edward VIII and Winston Churchill.
It’s an interesting problem that is posed when making a movie versus a documentary, but there are choices to be made, as in any creative endeavor. Some choices sit better with my nonfiction sensibilities than others. For example, there is much more to the story of Edward VIII than his just being somewhat of a self-centered romantic who put his love interest above the throne. He was a supporter of fascism and sympathetic to Hitler. However, it does not much bother me that the filmmakers mainly left that out (there is brief reference to it, but if you blink it is over, and if you don’t know what you’re looking at it may not even register). It’s the same when researching a book. You can’t put Everything in. You have to make choices governed by the overarching question: What is the story I am telling here? To bring that whole story line of Edward’s into the script would have taken it too far off the point of the movie—the relationship between the King and Mr. Logue.
But the choices in portraying Churchill fall into a different category, in my opinion. Here, the creators are not choosing to leave something out, they are choosing to manipulate the truth to make it fit their story. When that happens, I wonder why. How would the script have played out differently if they had either gone with the truth—that Churchill was fine with David’s (King Edward) relationship with Wallis Simpson—or not chosen to have the opposite opinion come out of Churchill’s mouth? What is gained from doing this? Perhaps the truth was just too difficult to manage in the scope of the story—the heroic Churchill had his own dark moments in real life. But this is NOT an option in nonfiction books. We must show our daring historic figures with their flaws in tact.
So where is the line when it comes to the movies? All in all, I thought the writers did a splendid job depicting so many things well and accurately that it made me wonder even more about the choices they made when there were factual discrepancies. Was there a way to handle some of the history better? Or does this issue simply not bother people when it is in the form of a feature film due to those two little words--"based on"? Please weigh in—I would love to hear your opinions.