It’s Oscar weekend, and in the desperate journalistic hunt for meaning in self-promoting spectacles – the Academy Awards, the Superbowl, political conventions – best-picture nominees have been criticized for straying from the truth.
“Lincoln” has a Connecticut congressman (falsely) voting against the amendment to end slavery. (First Hurricane Sandy, then Snowstorm Nemo, and now this!) “Zero Dark Thirty” suggests torture works, when it apparently played no role in finding Osama Bin Laden. And “Argo” turns what all of us have experienced – a tedious airport departure – into an exciting one.
In other words, these historical fictions have fiction in them, mixing up timelines, creating composite characters, and injecting drama.
Oh dear. I do that, too.
How do historical novelists sleep at night? Well we’re trying to inform and entertain by telling a story, drawing people to subject matter that might otherwise seem dry or distant.
We also put a thematic spin on events by interpreting history.
Hollywood has been a master at this, rightly and wrongly, going all the way back to 1915’s “Birth of a Nation.” It was adopted from a novel called “The Clansman” which celebrated the KKK. The film prompted protests for its racism and, at the same time, a revival of the Klan.
A jillion films have injected drama and spin since, such as “Silkwood,” “Reds,” “Patton,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Braveheart,” and on and on.
What little we know about Spartacus was written by Romans. That hasn’t prevented novelists and screenwriters from making the Romans the heavies in every recreation. The 1951 novel and 1960 movie had a deliberate leftist spin.
One reason writers have a license to do so is that history itself is a story, as the name implies. In reading Napoleonic histories for my Ethan Gage series, I find French authors will make Bonaparte somewhat heroic, British ones will make him villainous, and Americans will come down somewhere between.
In doing non-fiction research for a history of the Columbia River, I was dismayed at how much eyewitness explorer and pioneer accounts of the same event or tribe could differ. I felt like a judge with conflicting testimony.
I live near a peak with the aboriginal name of Koma Kulshan, and looked up yesterday just what that might mean. Turns out it is a moniker that has been given half-a-dozen translations, was an amalgam made by white men from misunderstood native words, and apparently was never used by Indians at all.
Chief Seattle gave a famous speech lamenting the passing of his people in 1854. There is whatever he actually said, what Dr. Henry Smith said he said in an 1887 newspaper story from incomplete notes, an amended 1929 version that added a Christian sentiment at the end, and an environmental rewrite by screenwriter Ted Perry in 1971 that is the version most people have heard.
Historians pursue truth, but it can be elusive. How many versions of Henry VIII have we seen?
More important to novelists and screenwriters, history can be a vehicle for entertainment and insight through dramatic storytelling. Where to draw the line is an artist’s decision.
I try to adhere to real events, dates, and environments in my Ethan Gage series, and base his quests for relics on research. The fun is injecting adventure while trying to make the novels plausible and instructive. Having a fictional character play a role in real events strikes some readers as clever romp, and others as dumb transgression. So be it.
My take? No one would have noticed the Connecticut vote if a modern congressman from that state hadn’t brought it up. “Zero” did more good than harm in again promoting serious debate about the utility of torture. And “Argo” played into that nagging ‘will-I-catch-my-flight?’ anxiety we experience at every airport.
Good storytelling, Ben Affleck.