Obviously, Salieri is long past being hurt by anyone's opinion of him, but though I like the movie very much I can't help feeling a bit odd about the ethics of producing such a work. On the one hand, the movie simply wouldn't work with made-up composers. It works precisely because it's about a real person who is synonymous with youthful brilliance, and because it's full of Mozart's music. And yet, I can't help feeling as if there's some sort of ethical issue with an author intentionally giving his readers a false vision of real people or events.
Of course, any fiction is "not true" in some sense, definitionally. And an author who is writing about real historical characters or events will necessarily fictionalize: Combine people, arrange meetings that didn't take place, make up details that aren't known. None of these bother me in the least.
I think what it is that bothers me is when an author takes a historical person or event and intentionally represents it differently than it was in order to write some other story or convey some other point -- using the established cultural meaning of a real person or event to lend color to his fiction.
Amadeus makes a pretty good example in that some of the changes to history are pretty blatant. For instance, in the movie, the motivation for Salieri's hatred of Mozart is that he as a youth made a vow to God that he would commit to a lifetime of celibacy if God would give him musical genius in return. He thinks he's got a fairly good return on his bargain until Mozart shows up: He's a popular composer and he has a beautiful young opera singer as a student who he covets but doesn't touch. Then Mozart arrives and is clearly more brilliant than Salieri, and sleeps with the opera singer to boot. Except that, in history Salieri was married and had a number of children, plus that opera singer was rumored to be his mistress. Nor is this change in Salieri's character peripheral to the plot of the movie -- it provides the key motivation for Salieri's plan to destroy Mozart, and for Salieri's own apparent loss of faith and descent into madness. The made up personal history for Salieri fuels a made up rivalry: There's very little evidence that Salieri disliked Mozart, much less that he was seeking to destroy him.
Even as I express this, I imagine the reader replying: So what? Everyone knows it's fiction. What's wrong with making things up?
In cases where we're talking about obvious fiction (say, Agamemnon and Napoleon in Time Bandits or Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) this strikes me as true. But in a lot of cases, fiction isn't "just" fiction. Rightly or wrongly, Amadeus represents a lot of what many people know of Mozart's life. Gone With the Wind formed a lot of people's impressions of the old South and the Civil War. Downton Abbey, even though everyone knows its a high class soap opera, still informs people's ideas of what the English class system was like.
Historical fiction has a fair amount of power. We often remember characters from books and movies better than we do anything we read in a history book. As such, it strikes me a problematic when historical events are treated as cultural short hand for some big idea rather than being portrayed in human terms.
I was also reminded of this recently when I came across a review/interview with Mark Helprin about his novel, A Soldier of the Great War:
Mark Helprin does not let too much of the outside world into his fiction -- certainly not impersonal facts. "Research kills a book. It makes a book like a historical romance," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Seattle. "An Italian who fought in the First World War or was a historian of the period" who reads his novel, "A Soldier of the Great War," "would probably become apoplectic," Mr. Helprin said.
I had a highly mixed reaction to A Soldier of the Great War when I originally read it some years back, and as time has passed my negative impressions have persisted more than my positive ones, and I think most of the reason had to do with what struck me as the basic historical dishonesty of the story. Helprin wanted to write a novel about various moral and aesthetic ideas, and he used a highly impressionistic (and thus simplistic and inaccurate) version of the Great War as a background for it. This example, perhaps, especially bothers me because it seems to me that with the Great War in particular the legend has in many ways consumed the reality. It's become such a cultural short hand that a work which portrays it accurately would run the risk of being laughed off the stage for being "inaccurate".
And that, I the end, strikes me as the danger with knowingly inaccurate historical fiction, it runs the risk of obscuring from us the real human events and dramas that people experienced in the past. And when we don't know what really happened in the past, in a certain sense, we no longer know who we are or how we got here.