Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Truthiness Tour—the Movies; Again

I don’t mean to beat this topic into the ground; really, I don’t. It’s just that I keep thinking about the difference between nonfiction books and movies “based on” nonfiction, and my perspective keep broadening. Part of that has to do with the fact that one of my friends is a very successful screenplay writer, and hearing his perspectives about movies “based on” the lives of real people has got me thinking in new directions.

For anyone who reads my blog entries, it won’t come as any surprise that I am usually treading the purist line of nonfiction. Don’t make anything up, ever. But this “based on” the lives of real people issue in the movies is complex. Some of it even has to do with rights. For example, I recently learned from my friend that there are varying degrees of situations in which a writer either needs to, or does not need to, secure a person’s life rights. If it’s a public figure, and it is long enough ago, it is considered public domain. But the length of time does not necessarily matter if it is a private figure (such as a specific hero or heroine in a story who is not well known). Interesting, right?

Now I find myself thinking about all kinds of distracting things while watching films such as The Aviator, The Conspirator, The King’s Speech, The Blind Side, and the list goes on. Wikipedia tags The Blind Side as “semi-biographical,” in fact. I didn’t even know that was a category! If all the facts about the family in The Blind Side were known, would the story have come across in the same way? Maybe, maybe not.

I wrote a lot about the Fine, Fine Line of truth in nonfiction books in my recent Horn Book article. But in the movies, that line seems not to be so fine at all…and people seem fine with it. I wonder why that is?

My filmmaker friend believes it may be because the truth isn’t dramatic enough for a blockbuster movie. I argue with him about this, of course, but his points have at least made me not be as stubbornly rooted (momentarily). For example, I said to him, why did The King’s Speech need to make Churchill appear against King Edward’s relationship with Wallis Simpson when in fact Churchill was fine with it? More dramatic, my friend said. Perhaps, I replied. But why not just leave that bit out and leave well enough alone, I pushed. He ventured a guess about people being hesitant to expose the flaws of giants such as Churchill, which might have been distracting to the main thrust of the film. Again, that may be. But why twist history?

I have some more thinking to do about this, it seems. My opinions hold fast when it comes to truth in nonfiction books, but perhaps this movie thing is too slippery for me. Or just slippery enough. I certainly enjoy watching these “based on” movies, but I can’t help feeling duped once I discover which facts have been altered to fit the script. Where do you stand?

7 comments:

Jeannine Atkins said...

A movie must be "as based on" from the get go, since dialogue has to be invented. Perhaps it's that initial move from adherence to documented fact that makes other changes seem okay to the film writer and then other collaborators down the line who are asking does this seem real, does it seem exciting, and lose sight of asking is this completely true. Some are going to feel duped. Some are going to say, "That's Hollywood." I tend to be glad that interesting figures and events can be brought to a bigger audience, who then may go on to learn more about the original figures and events.

Vicki Cobb said...

Perhaps the way to handle this conundrum is to make it a teachable moment. Movies that are "based" on real events might publish a list of resources so that students can read the truth for themselves and discuss why certain liberties were taken to "improve" the story. Someone could create an online forum to discuss these issues. Just pondering.....Thanks for the post, Tanya.

Jim Murphy said...

This is a very big subject and one that prompts lots of heated discussion. Sometimes -- not always -- the people involved in these movies want very much to be taken as truth tellers. They want viewers to realize they may have played with this fact, that detail, probably invented dialogue, etc., all for dramatic effect, but that they have gotten to the 'truth' of the person or event. I always feel that when you move away from the established, accepted history you have entered the world of historical fiction (which, by the way, I love). But it's fiction. Now if it's done well, it might just prompt viewers to become readers. Unfortunately, most simply misinform viewers and complicates our lives as writers of nonfiction. Of course, no one said life or nonfiction was easy or uncomplicated. I would hang on to your faith in accurate information and enjoy those movie productions for what they are. Gee, I hope I don't sound too negative here; I like walking on red carpets as much as anyone.

Sue Macy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue Macy said...

Your post brings to mind the movie A League of Their Own, which helped the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League enter the annals of popular culture. The movie took some liberties, condensing many seasons into one, allowing a male manager to come into the women's locker room for comedic effect (the players will tell you men NEVER came into the locker room), making all of the players heterosexual. It was far from a documentary, but its impact was HUGE. It created a consciousness of the league far beyond what even a library shelf full of books on it could do, and made the players celebrities again in their senior years. Witnessing all this as I was writing my book about the league taught me a dramatic lesson on the impact of film. The movie also gave rise to need for nonfiction authors to tell the true story of the league and created a market for their books. I know I owe the sunroof of my 1995 Toyota to Penny Marshall.

Tanya Lee Stone said...

I love all of these comments!

Tanya Lee Stone said...

League of Their Own is on right now, and AMC has added a feature called Story Notes, which is giving all kinds of nonfiction tidbits about the real facts!