Issue 3: Feature Article—Who Cares About the Truth?

Let’s face it, we don’t go to the movies for a history lesson. When the lights go down, or we hit ‘play’ on the DVD, we want to be entertained, moved or otherwise emotionally engaged. So, why should makers of fact-based film bother with the facts?

As long as the film is an effective piece of cinema, surely that’s all that counts? Following on from last issue’s exploration of authenticity, we move to the other side of the debate to examine whether the fact-based film needs to bother with the truth at all…

Google the phrase ‘films that got history wrong’ and you’ll get all kinds of lists that take great pleasure in pointing out the most staggering historical inaccuracies committed to film (our list will be in the next issue!).

Among them you’ll find Hollywood blockbusters, such as Braveheart (1995), alongside true classics, such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The former made an estimated $200m at the box office and won five Oscars; while the latter won seven Oscars, including adapted screenplay. Both won Best Picture.

Examples like this beg the question: what’s the point of getting the facts right as long as the movie is successful. As Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, says that for the writer:

“Allegiance is to the movie, not to the source material.”

Michael Hauge, Author,

Writing Screenplays That Sell

After all, there are stories that work on screen and those that don’t – however great the source material. If the idea is to write a script that piques a studio’s interest to the point they buy it and put it into production with a view to making millions of $$, then the writer’s job is to ensure the script has a strong narrative with a charismatic protagonist who chases after a clear goal and encounters plenty of conflict along the way. If the source material is a story from history, then it is the writer’s obligation to shape the facts until the story fits into this ‘screenplay’ mould, i.e. “finding the screen story inside the real story”. As Richard Krevolin, author of How to Adapt Anything into a Screenplay, emphasises:

“You really don’t owe anything to the source material…you will be judged by how you choose to tell your tale.”
Richard Krevolin, Author,
How to Adapt Anything into a Screenplay

When adapting a story from history, this means the writer is tasked with assembling all the facts, filling in the blanks and crafting the most effective dramatic structure for the story he/she wants to tell.

There are very few real life stories that lend themselves to easy adaptation. In fact, transferring real life on to the screen is problematic for various reasons. Real life generally doesn’t happen in the right dramatic order; it doesn’t always lend itself to high drama; and historical events can often have conflicting accounts. As such, all fact-based films are inaccurate as they all go through a process of transformation and adaptation, to varying degrees.

However, whereas the makers of the films we referenced in last issue’s feature article strove to tell their stories as far as possible ‘as they happened’, sometimes filmmakers focus solely on making the best film, regardless of the facts.

We come back to those ‘films that got history wrong’ lists. Review any of these lists and you’ll find all manner of accusations, ranging from the lazy – such as putting in stuff that hadn’t yet been invented (like models of airplane in Pearl Harbour (2001)) – through to the egregious – such as completely bulldozing historical fact (like U-571 (2000) suggesting it was the US rather than the Brits who recovered the German Enigma machine during WWII…when the Americans weren’t even in the war at the time!).

The makers of films at this ‘egregious’ end of the scale would argue that they were just trying to create the best possible cinematic experience. But what about the actual people involved in the historical event? Does their legacy not matter?

Further, could obfuscating historical fact have an even wider impact?

While this week’s analysis delves more fully into Selma (2014), it’s interesting to note the comments of historian and author, David Kaiser, in an article that appeared in Time magazine.

Selma, which tells of Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for equal voting rights, caused much controversy over its depiction of the US President, Lyndon B. Johnson. In the film, he’s portrayed as being against King’s crusade until the very end when he gets through the equal voting rights legislation King wants passed. A former Johnson aide, Joseph Califano, disputed this depiction, suggesting LBJ was enthusiastically instrumental in the process throughout.

Of this depiction, Kaiser believes misrepresenting the ‘facts’ goes further than just raising questions over historical accuracy in film:

“[Selma’s] portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and his role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act could hardly be more wrong. And this is important not merely for the sake of fidelity to the past, but because of continuing implications for how we see our racial problems
and how they could be solved.”

David Kaiser, Historian and Author

Kaiser goes on to argue that ‘misrepresenting’ LBJ suggests he was one of the “white villains” King had to contend with, when in fact the President was an ally who himself had to contend with the realities of politics and the minefield of getting contentious legislation passed.

Kaiser says that by showing LBJ in this light, it ignores the fact that making social progress, in this case the civil rights movement, requires action in lots of different areas: activism on the streets, widespread support, and policy change by government.

Therefore, Kaiser says the film “not only leaves out much of the story of how the Voting Rights Act was passed, but also fails to illuminate how further progress might be made in the future”, with regard solving the problem of ongoing US racial tensions.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? Well, it’s true that we don’t go to the movies for a history lesson and we certainly all want a satisfying cinematic experience. However, if you’re dramatizing a real life events and depicting actual people who lived and breathed then it seems only right that you assume a duty of accuracy, even if it’s just a moral duty. (But then again, since when did Hollywood put any stock in morals!?)

As we discussed in last issue’s feature article, authenticity can be achieved on film in any number of ways. One of these ways it to retain the spirit of the source material, even if the material has to be transformed considerably in order to make an effective screen story. The key is to achieve, in the words of Linda Seger, author of The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film:

“…the balance between preserving the spirit of the original
and creating a new form.”
Linda Seger, Author,

The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film

Films that manage to achieve this balance can even reach a higher level – rising above mere entertainment and dramatic satisfaction to become a legitimate chronicle of history and a fitting tribute to the people they portray.

So, to sum up, while there will always be someone popping up to point out historical inaccuracies in the fact-based film, the question that should be asked is one that brings us back full circle to where we started:

“Does the film adhere to the
spirit of the truth?”

Reel Screen Life

For more, check out our analysis of Selma and next issue, as promised, we take a look at some films that got history dead wrong.

Next issue, we also start a short series on the screenwriter’s role, starting with the idea of the ‘screenwriter as historian’.

Issue 4 of RSL is out on 6 July.

Additional sources:

  • Quote from Michael Hauge taken from How to Adapt Anything into a Screenplay by Richard Krevolin (Wiley, 2003), p198, with additional Krevolin quotes taken from pp 9 and 135
  • Quote from Linda Seger: The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film (Holt Paperbacks, 1992), p9