Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Truth and Lies in Historical Fiction

Peggy Noonan has an interesting piece in the WSJ this week discussing truth and falsehood in historical fiction. This was of double interest to me, in that the ethics of historical fiction are something that I've often thought of and also because one of the key pieces she discusses is the Netflix series The Crown which a number of friends have been watching and talking about over the holidays.

There’s dramatic license, which is necessary or nothing’s fun, and historical truth, which is necessary or nothing’s understood. Ideally in any work they more or less coexist, however imperfectly. But in “The Crown” and “The Post” the balance is far off. A cheap historical mindlessness marks much of the first, and there’s a lie at the heart of the second.

I couldn’t help like “The Crown”: it was so beautiful to me. The acting, the stillness, all the money and thought that went into making the rooms look right, the period clothing, right down to the cuff links—in these matters the creators are deeply faithful to reality. In its treatment of history, however, there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.

Example: The treatment of future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is churlish and unknowing. He was not a sallow, furtive weasel of a man, which is how he is portrayed; he was a politician whose humanity, courage and wit even his adversaries acknowledged. He did not deviously scheme, during the Suez crisis, to unseat Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who did not throw a pen at him and call him a liar in a cabinet meeting.

As prime minister his weekly meetings with the queen were not testy, marked by condescension on his side and strained patience on hers. He respected and admired her; she became his confidante. In his diaries he called her “a great support because she is the one person you can talk to.” He would not have taunted her with the glamour and intelligence of her supposed rival, Jackie Kennedy. He would not have taunted her at all.
More absurd is the series’ treatment of President and Mrs. Kennedy. JFK was not, as “The Crown” asserts, enraged with his wife for dazzling Paris on their first state trip to Europe. He was thrilled at her success; it elevated him on the world stage. Suddenly he saw her as what she was, a political asset to be deployed. She transfixed Charles de Gaulle, that stern and starchy old man who was always mad at America, often with good reason. Biographer Richard Reeves quotes JFK to his wife: “ ‘Well,’ he told her, ‘I’m dazzled.’ ”

There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in “The Crown” that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife.

Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

[Note: Apparently JFK smoked cigars often but almost never cigarettes.]

Of course, many would say, everyone knows a show like that is just fiction. Yes, but fiction is a powerful tool which can make us feel like we know the characters we meet. When we portray real people or events in fiction, and do our job well, it's hard for people not to think about people and events through the lens of that portrayal. And as such, I think there is a fiction writers ethics which requires that we not give a consciously false portrayal. When not all facts are known, we might choose to fill in the blanks in a way that leans things one direction or another. There are also many ways in which an author might simplify or combine events while remaining true to their basic spirit. But to knowingly portray someone as something other than they are in important ways seems to me to a great disservice.

The most egregious examples of this sort of thing I'm sure most people would agree with. Holocaust denial, for instance, would not be excused on the theory that "it's just a movie, so everyone knows it's fictional." Portraying a real person as having committed some major crime they did not commit (say if a TV series portrayed Bobby Kennedy as plotting the assassination of his brother JFK) would also be widely rejected.

Those examples sound silly and obviously offensive, but here's one which is so well done that it's hard to dislike: Both Peter Shaffer's original play "Amadeus" and the movie based on it and bearing the same title deviate flagrantly and knowingly from the actual characters and events in the lives of Mozart and Salieri. They're good art, but they're terrible history. In some sense, that almost makes it worse. I know that Shaffer's Mozart bears little resemblance to the real composer, and yet the false Mozart is just so compelling as fiction that it's hard not to think of him when listening to the real Mozart's music. Shaffer wrote really well, he wrote compelling characters and a conveyed a compelling set of ideas. The problem is that he exercised those writing talents in intentionally misrepresenting real people.

Noonan points out that this is doubly problematic in an age where many viewers of these dramas don't know that they're peddling inaccurate portrayals.

Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.

When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

This strikes me in particular when you have shows which put huge amounts of work into historically accurate production design, but which then get historical characters or event glaringly wrong. If it's a matter of ignorance, then it's odd to have a production in which it's worth researching cars and costumes and tableware but not people. If it's intentional misrepresentation... Well, as I said, I think that at a certain level that simply become wrong. If we're going to use the names of real people and events, we should strive to do them justice with our fiction.


Foxfier said...

There's even a place for incredibly false "historical" stuff-- say, "Inglourious Basterds," where it's quite obviously AU. You *can* tell an awesome "inspired by" story without lying, by making it clear it's just a story. (I would utterly adore a show called something like "What If?" that did nothing but changing aspects of history and seeing where it goes, probably with no over-arching plotline, no more than three episodes per what-if.)

Otherwise, if you are going to maim what is known and falsely defame someone, just bleepin' change the names and tell the story you want to tell. When asked, say something like "Well, I thought that the history of so and so was interesting, but I wanted to take it in a different direction, so I changed the names instead of distorting history."

Darwin said...

That's a really good point.

bearing said...

I love the movie Amadeus, and unfortunately changing the names won’t work unless you also change all the music, which is a big reason the movie’s so fun to watch.

What Amadeus needs is a big old disclaimer at the beginning (“What you’re about to see is fiction”) and another at the end.

For the latter: I suggest adapting the trope of “parade of frreeze-framed characters with text appearing pn the screen explaining what happened to them after the events of the film” to include a brief summary of historical deviations.

Jenny said...

I love Amadeus, but the world is definitely full of people who think Salieri offed Mozart out of professional jealousy.

TheOFloinn said...

Leon Uris used to do that with his historical novels, such as Trinity, which peopled the Rising with a different set of actors.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

This is why I really like Guy Gavriel Kay who writes historical fantasy not historical fiction. It's often quite obvious which historical events he's retelling, but he does just bleepin' change the names and tell the story he wants to tell. It's a much more honest approach to historical fiction, and just plain fun to read.

Julia K. said...

I enjoyed Amadeus but didn't know how much real history to expect from it. In comparison, I loved Lisztomania and was pleasantly surprised how much real history and music was in it - despite obvious absurdities like vampire Nazi Wagner creating a Valkyrie golem ubermensch. Really.

Foxfier said...

It's often quite obvious which historical events he's retelling, but he does just bleepin' change the names and tell the story he wants to tell.

I enjoy that, too.

Could even, to use the Amadeus example, use the identical music and everything-- but different names, and then any details that did match would be a "hey, I learned enough to tell what wasn't fiction!" rather than "hey, wait, I thought this was historical, but-"

mandamum said...

Yes, Foxfier! Like recognizing carefully described real locations in fiction or fantasy where the names have been changed - ie Harvard Square in The Handmaid's Tale. More fun to play recognize the match (positive!) than grumble about the mismatch.

Finicky Cat said...

Yeah, I had to stop watching "The Crown" because having to parse all the possible inaccuracies drove me absolutely flippin' BONKERS. So disappointing, since it's so beautifully made. The whole thing, start to finish, just makes me mad.