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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

What's Wrong with the Truth? by Carla Damron

My recent movie-going experiences have triggered a question: Why isn’t the truth enough to hold our interest? I watched the film Selma. I loved it, and hope it will educate a new generation about the sacrifices made for our civil rights. That said, I was bothered by the film’s portrayal of LBJ, which oversimplified a complicated man. Did it make the drama more engaging to depict him as an enemy of MLK until the very end? Not to me. That film, like that time, had plenty of drama without polarizing Johnson into a two-dimensional politician. Selma did such a fine job of portraying King as a brave but flawed man. Why not depict LBJ as a well-rounded human being, too? In my opinion, it would have only strengthened the film.

I also saw The Imitation Game. I loved it, too. So much so that I wanted to read more about Alan Turing, the amazing man who saved millions of lives through his invention during World War II. Turns out, the film exaggerates Turing’s role; he adapted and improved a device that had already been invented. Its portrayal of him as an autism-spectrum genius was brilliantly acted by Benedict Cumberbatch, but it is PURE FICTION. Why did the filmmakers do this? From what I read, he was quite interesting enough. For example, he wasn’t a very closeted gay person—imagine that during the 1940s. Also, why were certain key figures omitted, and others added who weren’t there? Why so little regard for the truth?

Do we have to be manipulated in order to be sympathetic to certain characters? Would I have loved King less if LBJ wasn’t trying to shut him down, but was struggling with civil rights in his own way? Would I have had less of a connection with Alan Turing if he didn’t need to separate his carrots from his peas? If he was less of a Big Bang Sheldon and more of a charming genius?

One could argue that the filmmakers took creative license. I would argue that I am ready for the truth. I’m hungry for it, in fact. I’m capable of appreciating a world that isn’t completely polarized into good/bad, black/white. Complex, real relationships are far more interesting.

As a fiction writer, I sometimes set my novels and stories in real places. When I do this, I try to be loyal to fact. I don’t move towns or restaurants. If I need to change something in a setting, I rename it so that it is fiction. Some would argue that this is what the filmmakers attempted.  

If I could speak to the directors and producers of these films, I’d say this: Fox News attracts viewers by skewing fact and playing on emotion. I wish you, instead, would trust us, your audience. Despite what someone in some movie once said, we can handle the truth.

Your thoughts? 


E. B. Davis said...

I agree, Carla. When the truth is embellished it detracts.

Ian Rankin did the opposite in a novel (I can't remember it's name). He wrote a plot that paralleled a little known element in a real cloak and dagger plot. After his plot culminated in a reveal, he wrote an afterward that further revealed where he'd taken the plot element from--the Iran-Contra Scandal. The plot element: Fawn Hall, Ollie North's secretary, transposed numbers of a Swiss Bank account, in which the money from the arms sale was place until it could be transferred. For a while, all of the ill-gotten gains were lost--ten million dollars.

By using the truth in his fiction, and then revealing where he borrowed it from, Rankin made the absurdity of the Iran-Contra Scandal all the more real.

Sometimes the truth just makes us shake our heads and wonder. We figure truth is stranger than fiction. But then, sometimes fiction is the truth and that's the genius of a writer.

Jim Jackson said...

Complex does not work well in short periods. We rely on white hats and black hats and stereotypes to convey the essence. To get at the truth requires the in-depth reporting done in a Ken Burns-type series lasting many hours. And even those will be skewed by his perspective; what he is trying to accomplish.

I am sympathetic to your plight, but my solution is to rarely watch “based on the life of” movies. In those the only thing I can generally count on being true are the character names.

~ Jim

Anonymous said...

I truly appreciate your piece, Carla! Very well put and intersting to (re) contemplate.
I also appreciate the comments of Jim and EB Davis.
I will admit - that I am one of the people who lots and LOTS of historical information has passed (and continues) to pass me by. When it is written in history books and newpaper articles, it somehow reads as math problems to me --- I get it all mixed up.
Getting history in story form is much more appealing --- characture driven.
Maybe it's simplemindedness - I'm not sure.
The masses ------ catering to....sigh
But - even I notice that there is often "appliance" white and dark as pitch hats - and would prefer some more subtle shading ---- we can still get the history and the "message" with more hues painted in.

carla said...

Good points, y'all. Complex does take more time and thought, and filmmakers want a large perhaps impatient audience. Truth can be stranger than fiction--plus, fiction is supposed to make sense! (Clive James said it first!)

Gloria Alden said...

Carla, I agree with you. Selma and The Imitation Game are both movies I haven't seen yet, but want to. I wasn't aware of their faults, but now that I am, I might view them a little differently. I think that's why I'm usually disappointed in movies if they're based on a book I've read. There are few if any people who have made their name in history, who aren't complex. Fiction should be that way, too, which is why I love your Caleb Knowles series and am longing for another one.

Warren Bull said...

Sadly, people tend to believe in what they saw in movies rather than what really happened. The History Channel is now running a series on the American revolution using artistic license throughout. What really happened is fascinating. It does not need embellishment.

Bobbee said...

It seems to me that people just HAVE to put their little fingerprints all over something they're working on, even if it's pretty nearly perfect. It might be a way to justify their salary, or it might just be ego.

Shari Randall said...

Some filmmakers, I'm thinking of Sofia Coppola's MARIE ANTOINETTE, take such an over-the-top approach to a historical figure that we understand that they are not giving us a history lesson. I haven't seen SELMA or THE IMITATION GAME but have heard a lot about the historical inaccuracies. It sounds like the directors just didn't delve deeply into the history, which is too bad. I've been surprised by what I have learned about the way LBJ and Dr. King worked together.

KM Rockwood said...

I see a vast difference in documentaries and movies for entertainment.

I like documentaries to be accurate.

I assume movies for entertainment, even if based on a real incident, have played fast and free with the facts.

The movies you cite are based on historical facts, but I would expect them to be no more "true to life" than Forrest Gump, which also uses some historical incidents and inventions.

CharlieSC said...

I somewhat guiltily confess a love for docudramas and biopics. Even average ones teach me something by motivating me to read and think about the subject matter. While I agree with your blog post, it is more important for some movies than others to have truthiness. I downrated Selma for the mess it made of LBJ; yet, I didn't really care that American Sniper distorted facts (I still appreciated the emotional truth it conveyed). Theory of Everything falls in between those 2; I loved Redmayne's performance. My favorite of the 4 Oscar-nominated docudramas: Imitation Game, even with the gross distortions. Go figure.