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?