Do the facts matter?

The discussion swirling around the propensity of this year’s Oscar-nominated Best Pictures to have taken liberties with the facts has me asking: Do the facts matter? and  How much do the facts matter?

Daniel Day-Lewis as president Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln." - 2012 Walt Disney Pictures

Daniel Day-Lewis as president Abraham Lincoln in “Lincoln.” – 2012 Walt Disney Pictures

In Oscar Best Picture winner Argo, the role of Canadians in a positive outcome of the Iranian hostage crisis was underplayed and distorted, intentionally for dramatic effect.

In Lincoln, the representatives from Connecticut were portrayed as against the 13th Amendment when they actually supported it. In an otherwise remarkably accurate portrayal of events, this bit of straying from the details bothers me.

It’s fiction. I get that. But as I write my own novel, historical fiction set during WWI, I have been diligent in trying to be historically accurate. The clothes they wore. The houses they lived in. The topics they’d have discussed. I’ve been particularly mindful of being accurate with any details about the real people of the time.

I am guided by something a speaker said about including real people in a work of fiction. The question was: Can you include a real person in a story when you don’t know for a fact that the real person would have been there or done that? 

This speaker said, Yes. As long as what you have the person do does not conflict with anything commonly known. So, for instance, if you want to write the person into your scene speaking at a conference in Nevada on a day when the person was commonly known to be vacationing in Europe with her children, that’s a no.

It’s unwise, but my guess is that many people today get their view of history from movies and novels. As writers, it seems that we bear some responsibility to be accurate when we can. Even in fiction.

As a reader, part of what I look for in good historical fiction is an accurate portrayal of the place and time and people. I know that doesn’t always make for the best drama. Ben Affleck decided downplaying the Canadians in Argo made for better drama.  He distorted the facts. But the logic behind Steven Spielberg‘s choice to portray the representatives from Connecticut as against the 13th Amendment when the opposite was true – and commonly known – feels like it crossed an unnecessary line.

What do you think? Do the facts matter to you as a reader or viewer? Do the facts matter to you as a writer? How much do they matter? Where do you draw the line?

Comments

  1. Personally I agree with you Carol, particularly when you touch on “The clothes they wore. The houses they lived in. The topics they’d have discussed”.
    I have read several historical novels recently where it felt like it was about modern people wandering round in old-style fancy dress. Somehow there was not (for me at least) a real sense of period, except maybe in the size of towns and a few old words thrown into dialogue! I guess there’s a fine line between showing something essentially universal about human nature, and making all of history populated by people with 21st century attitudes.
    As a UK viewer watching Lincoln I did not have enough knowledge of his era, or the specific standpoint of different individuals, to know what to make of some bits – it felt like the audience were just supposed to know what significance particular people or places had. Maybe all Americans would have that! But I had not realised that some representatives were portrayed as having the opposite view – like you say, there is a tendency to trust that the writer is presenting something basically true when it comes to factual details like that,

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      I really want the author or screen writer to help me live the period. Which I think Lincoln did admirably. The darkness of most scenes really made me think about living without electricity, as just one instance.

      I think most American viewers (myself included) would be right with you in terms of deep knowledge of the era and the specific positions of individuals. I learned about the Connecticut issue after seeing the movie twice. And then I was disappointed. I’d trusted the movie (even knowing it was fiction) and this error made me wonder what else I couldn’t believe.

      Thanks for commenting, Richard.

  2. Do the fact matter to the reader/ viewer?
    I don’t think the fact matter to most readers and viewers as long as it’s a good story.
    What is dangerous is when they start thinking that the film they just watched is factual. An example of this was “The Other Boleyn Girl”. This film was notoriously inaccurate but people who watched it were heard to quote from it as if it was a documentary.

    Do the facts matter to you as a writer?
    Yes, facts do matter.
    I could not believe the inaccuracies in films like Braveheart and the Patriot.
    The Tudors took far too many liberties with the recorded historical facts and the errors added nothing to the story being told.
    And the very worst:
    U-571
    The fictitious plot attracted substantial criticism as, in reality, it was British personnel from HMS Bulldog who first captured a naval Enigma machine, from U-110 in the North Atlantic in May 1941, long before the United States entered the war.
    The anger over the inaccuracies even reached the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that the film was an “affront” to British sailors.
    The real U-571 was never involved in any such events, was not captured, and was in fact sunk in January 1944, off Ireland, by a Short Sutherland Flying Boat from 461 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.
    My personal thought on this film was that if you want to make it at least be accurate in the history. I am sure there are thousands of Americans who now think that the enigma machine was captured by the US navy.
    I think that as part of the censorship regime then we should have an accuracy rating.

    A Accurate to known history.
    E Accurate with some errors of fact.
    F The fiction is greater than the fact.
    T Totally erroneous

    U-571 would obviously be a T.

    How much do they matter ?
    I can understand it if a writer makes a change in a time line for plot purposes.
    Or as Bernard Cornwell has done, takes an action of another regiment and give the honour to the “South Essex” his fictional regiment. However, he always explains what he has done in his author notes. And he gives you further reading where you can read up in the actual action.

    Where do you draw the line?
    If we had the above categories I could watch film or read books in the A & E catagories and ignore them in the F & T Categories.

    • Carol Bodensteiner says:

      You’ve put a lot of thought into this, Edward. You’ve touched on a point I think is really important – when readers/viewers begin to accept what they’ve seen as fact. I think many do. Your proposal for an “accuracy rating” is intriguing. I don’t know if I’d necessarily ignore the F & T categories – since, as you point out a good story is a good story. But it would be nice to go in with eyes open, knowing how to think about what I’m seeing.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. In my opinion, a fiction writer has a duty to make sure the facts are as accurate as possible unless you are writing an alternative history version of a story such as Robert Harris’s Fatherland. As a writer, one should never underestimate the intelligence or knowledge of the reader. You may have your heroine picking lilac in an English garden in August, but hundreds of readers will know that’s not possible. Fiction writers can make things up, but that doesn’t mean they can be sloppy with their research.

    Screenwriters have a more difficult task – Apollo 13 included a scene where the astronauts lost their temper with one another, a plot device which apparently infuriated Lovell, Swigert and Haise. The screenwriter’s justification was that without the benefit of internalization, there was no other way to portray the stress they were under.

    The upside for a fiction writer is that when your research shows a particular plot line is impossible, you need to flex your imaginative muscles even more in order to weave the right facts into your story. This in turn can take you down routes which you couldn’t have imagined when you first conceived your novel.

    • Sorry – sloppy research! Swigert couldn’t have been furious – poor fellow lost his life to cancer thirteen years before Ron Howard’s film was released.

      • You’ve touched on the credibility of the author, and I think that’s critical. Your lilac example is perfect. If I see something like that, I wonder what else the author was got wrong.

        I’ve found that research can turn up avenues may far more interesting than what my imagination could have developed. One example: I’ve been back and forth in establishing the timeline of my novel in progress. Wilson is president, then he isn’t, then he is again. My head is spinning as I try to get it right! But when I learned Wilson’s position on women’s suffrage – and how it changed over the years – I found it so helpful to my story!

  4. A.D.Trosper says:

    They matter to me a great deal. And I have been known to check the facts in historical fiction books against reality. If they don’t mesh, the book goes in the “whatever” pile. I read a lot of fantasy, so it isn’t that I can’t take a purely fictional novel. That said, even a fictional novel, if set in a historical time period needs to have a certain amount of reality attached to it. Everything from that time including clothing, mannerisms, slang, housing, historical events, etc needs to be accurate.

    I love history and I hate seeing it mangled in the name of fiction.

    • I think it’s the premise the author establishes in the beginning, Audra. Like you, I read across genres, and I want to feel comfortable and confident the author is delivering what they say they are.

  5. If, when writing historical fiction the author embellishes or creates something that is knowingly not true to the time period or famous character’s story, but the inclusion of the fictitious information enhances the story, I, the reader appreciate the writer pointing this out to me: in a footnote or in the author’s notes at the end of the novel. Fiction is fiction. Historical fiction tries to recreate the time period and to educate, but in the end it is fiction, with the liberties that come with it. I do find it hard to continue reading a novel where the setting is in the past but the verbiage and dialogue are contemporary, and a contemporary character shows up, because the writer is breaking one of the golden rules of fiction – believability ̶ despite whether or not it is true, it is fact. Breaking the flow of the continuous fictional world is jarring and distracting to the reader. The facts matter to me as the writer, but for the reader and story’s sake, if something, unknown or magical becomes included in the prose which there is no proof of fact, but keeps one in the dream state – do it, just let the reader know at some point. “History” has many holes, gaps, missing parts; as writer do everything in one’s power to honor the time period, but in the end what we all love is a good story.

    • It is one of the delights of historical fiction to fill in the “holes, gaps, missing parts.” I agree, Stephanie. As long as the reader knows what s/he is buying into. Diana Gabaldon does a great job with time travel in her Outlander series. Fantasy? I suppose, but when I’m in post WWII England, I’m seeing that actual environment. When I’m back 300 years, that world is just as real. She’s taken lots of liberty but delivered reality. And a great story. That’s what I aspire to do!

      • Well said, I agree. That is why it is important for the author or filmmaker to disclose what is not based on fact, somewhere where the reader or viewer will take note.

        • I’m always interested in what the author has to say about what’s real and what’s imagination. I’m equally fascinated when someone like Erik Larson uses only dialogue in The Devil in the White City that is part of the public record (non-fiction that reads like fiction) and when someone like Jim Fergus in A Thousand White Women weaves an incredible tale of the American West and Native Americans on one sentence of fact. There’s room for us all!

  6. annamaria says:

    great blog… many times when i see a movie or read a historical fiction, i wonder about the facts i’ve read.
    i’ve learned never to trust a writer or a director, which always leads me to go look up the fact after enjoying a movie or book.
    my girls instictevely believe what they see in movies and all too many times i need to set them straight about the real facts. this is very disconcerting to me and leads me to believe that many build a distorted view of history because of inacurate movie and novel details.
    in my opinion, the sad part in all this is the acceptance of the audience. why doesn’t anyone questions things anymore?

    • Good points, Annamaria. Of course some directors have a point of view they want to give the audience and intentionally include facts that support their POV and leave out others that don’t. The movies I enjoy most are the ones that inspire me to want to find out more about a topic. Lincoln was one of those, which is why the unnecessary distortion related to the Connecticut representatives distressed me so much. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book is on my TBR stack now.

      Your girls illustrate the bigger problem. My guess is that a great many people, particularly younger viewers/readers, accept what they see/read as fact. Very important to have the “novel=fiction” discussion!

  7. I think it is important to get your facts right. I like a story that has an accurate historical framework from which you can hang your characters and weave them in and out of real events. As a writer I find that to be a challenge; as a reader I find it brings me closer to the story and makes me believe it more. Of course, you can have all the accuracy you like but if you can’t have an engaging story then all of this is for nought. At the end of the day, the story is king (and queen) but it is vital, too, to be fateful to the history.

    • There’s the rub, isn’t it, David? The story has to be a good one. I’ve read that’s why Argo veered so far from the facts – it was more dramatic. One might also assume it was because they saw their audience as largely American, too. Wonder how they’d have don the story if they saw the audience as mostly Canadian?!

      You strike the balance beautifully in TAN – great story woven into real events. Loved it!

  8. For me personally, if a writer is sloppy with historical facts I just tend to throw the book into the corner and it goes straight to the charity shop as it loses all credibility with me. I concede that I’m probably too tetchy about it as history has been something I have loved and studied all my life, but if an author can’t be bothered to do at least some basic research and fact checking then I don’t think that they really care too much about what they are writing.

    I also get annoyed when authors impose 21st century beliefs and ideology onto historical characters. We are all products of our age whether we like it or not and although there were certainly many strong women in the Middle Ages there were no feminists as we understand it. The historical fiction writers who have the most authentic voices understand the way that things like religion and the social order shaped the thinking and behaviour of their characters.

    I read all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels when I was younger and they were enjoyable because they took you back to Georgian England completely and there were no incursions from the time that Georgette Heyer was writing.

    • I, too, admire authors who present characters who successfully embody the religion and social order of their time. As I write my first historical fiction – set “only” 100 years ago – I can see what a challenge that is! Thanks for commenting, Cynthia.

  9. Great points made by commenters. I’m with Annamaria, I don’t trust writers and directors of historical fiction to tell the whole truth – especially film directors. They are allowed to take plenty of artistic license to tell the story that will be more “fun” and to even throw in their political agendas. Commenters here seem to be astute and care about portraying facts, but I don’t think the general public is like this. They are gullible, equating these fictitious works as documentaries. I mean, people were thinking the Disney Pocahontas cartoon was the real story! I really wish writers and film directors who do alter the truth would put in a disclaimer “based on a true story” or “based on historical events,” because obviously people need to be reminded of this.

    • That seems to be the consensus of the commentators, Linda – that the writer/director needs to make some indication that they may be starting with fact but going from there. It be implicit in the fact that the piece is not a documentary, but many in the general public breeze right past that.

  10. I agree with David – “an accurate historical background from which you can hang your characters and weave them in and out of real events.” If gross distortion of the historical facts is needed to create drama, go back to the drawing board – choose another subject for your screenplay, or book. I’m writing a historical novel too now, Carol. Getting the historical facts right is time consuming and requires meticulous attention to detail. But it can be done. And I think an accurate portrayal of the times enriches the story.

    • I think screen writers are given (or feel free to take) greater latitude in bending the facts than novelists. Which is why I always try to read the book before I see the movie. I expect the author to get it right, plus the author has more time and space to give us the rich portrayal of the times. Thanks for commenting, Joan.

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