Sunday, 23 January 2011

Fact v. Fiction

Should fiction writers take liberties with historical facts?

This is a hobby horse of mine, possibly because I love history. There is nothing more satisfying than discovering someone's story among the obscure historical details. And the stories of our past are as heroic, dramatic and thrilling as any fiction.

So it does bug me when someone comes along and tries to rewrite history to make it more palatable or interesting. Airbrushing out the warts and flaws takes away the realness of the situation. Maybe a young swarthy King Henry VIII makes better eye candy, but the fact is by the time he married his fifth wife he was a prematurely aged, overweight, diseased wreck of his youthful self. He bore about as much resemblance to his characterisation in The Tudors as my dog does a porcupine.

One of the biggest hit movies of all time, Titanic, was ruined for me by the fictionalised story at its centre. Read anything about the victims of that disaster and you will discover a wealth of real heart wrenching personal tragedies which deserved to be told. But no. Instead we get a completely made up lot of nonsense about two fictional characters played by Leo de Caprio and Kate Winslet. Nice eye candy, but I'd have preferred a bit of truth.

Because it's truth that brings a story to life. The real conflict happens under the surface, and that's what ultimately draws people in. We want to see how others have suffered and struggled, won or lost.

I recently revisited one of my favourite films, Downfall. This two and a half hour romp through the last days of Hitler as Berlin falls to the Russians is about as gripping as any film ever made. It has no swarthy, sexy airbrushed characters. It has no silly made up love stories. It is bleakly, unrelentingly honest about the terrible situation faced by the people in dire circumstances. But it is that truth that grips us.


Aimee Dearmon said...

You're as good at commentary as you are at five word ticklers in never-ending stories!

I agree with you, except for Titanic. Although it wasn't my favorite movie either, the back story is for the most part, historically accurate. When a story is fiction based in fact, too many facts can make the storyline didactic rather than adventurous, romantic, etc.

Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks Aimee. Yikes, you don't mean to say that Winslet/Di Caprio tosh was true??? That's even more depressing.

Aimee Dearmon said...

Absolutely not! Only the history, the back story was true, men dressing as women to enter the boats, the several warnings of ice that were ignored and the captain's order to speed up in spite of them, how the "watertight" compartments filled up. The back story was accurate. The characters were obviously fictional and hard to believe in my opinion.

Jen said...

I feel your pain with Titanic. Enough with the love story - when does the ship hit the iceberg? I think the biggest problem I had was that it should have been First Class and Steerage and never the twain should meet. I'm also with you on the Tudors...although I enjoyed it. Probably because Jonathan Rhys Meyers is so damn pretty. I think the enjoyment I can get from "historical" novels or television is proportionate to what I actually know about the history. The Tudors, not a lot, so I liked it. Rome, while I loved the colour and the noise of it, I kept having to force myself to stop saying "That's not how it happened!". Scary true story: my sister, a history teacher, had to explain to some of her students (after they saw Inglorious Basterds) that no, Hitler didn't really die in an explosion in a Paris cinema in 1942.