‘The poet’s truth': Questions of accuracy in historical drama
Three of the films up for best picture in this year’s Oscars were re-creations of actual historical events, from the 19th century bio-epic Lincoln, to the tracking and capture of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, to Ben Affleck’s Argo, which dramatized the plan to rescue six American hostages in Iran in 1979, undercover of making a film. All three movies have received their fair share of criticism for historical inaccuracies, with commentators and experts condemning Lincoln for suggesting that Connecticut congressmen opposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution (they didn’t), Argo for showing British officials refusing to help the American diplomats (they didn’t), and Zero Dark Thirty for showing torture playing a direct role in tracking the terrorist down (it didn’t, or at least that’s what we’re told).
The directors involved have responded in various ways – Stephen Spielberg has offered to send free copies of Lincoln to American schools, while Kathryn Bigelow has insisted that her movie does paint an accurate portrait, saying “If we had omitted that [torture] sequence we would have been whitewashing history”. But for me, Ben Affleck’s response has been the most eye-catching: he defends Argo by asserting that his film presents “the poet’s truth” – in other words that the “niggling details” matter less than the overall impression. In other words, it’s the big picture that matters in a Big Picture.
I was intrigued by Affleck’s comments not so much for what he said as how he chose to say it – in invoking poets as the unacknowledged legislators of Hollywood. In using that phrase I am, of course, echoing the assertion famously made by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also happens to be the subject of a recent historical recreation of my own. And in bringing that particular poet back to life I came up against many of the same questions that the directors of this year’s Academy award nominees must have faced. Is it realistic for us to demand that dramatisations of real events should always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? What is the ‘truth’ in such a context, poetic or otherwise? And given that the whole truth is never going to be feasible in any work of art (and a film is an even more compressed form than a novel), when is it legitimate to abridge, and how do you decide what to shelve? And as for nothing but the truth, surely any subsequent account – whether documentary or drama – is always going to be a partial perspective?
There are certainly some intriguing variables at play here, ranging from the time elapsed, to the genre chosen, to the effect intended. There’s no question that the further back in time you go, the easier it is to justify extrapolation from the known facts. Indeed, if you go back far enough, the known facts can be precious few and far between, meaning that any dramatization is always going to contain a hefty proportion of guesswork. Though the important point at play there is the unspoken contract with the audience that gives you artistic carte, well if not blanche then at least a shade of grise. To cite only one obvious example, no-one ever expected Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy to be an accurate account of the siege (if indeed any such a siege actually took place), but we do expect films dealing with events set in the last half century to have access to – and respect for – documentary evidence, especially when those films incorporate real footage, as both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty do. Given the 19th century setting of Lincoln, Spielberg’s audience were always going to allow him rather more room for manoeuvre, but there’s still a difference – surely – between basic facts we can expect a film to get right, and scenes of ‘unreported’ history that we all accept can only be supposition.
I referred only to films in that last paragraph, and that was quite deliberate, because I think there’s a marked difference here between the visual and the verbal – between the movie and the novel. One reason for this is that the border line between fact and fiction seems to be much more robust in the written word. Genres like biography and history are clearly signposted and carefully segregated from the ranks of fiction and drama, both in bookshops and in our brains. But that doesn’t seem to apply in visual media, or at least not in such a categorical way. Yes, there are classes of film labelled ‘documentary’, but none of the three Oscar nominees ever claimed to be that, and yet their directors still found themselves judged by almost exactly the same criteria as those up for Best Documentary Feature.
Of course if you claim – as Bigelow does – that your film is ‘based on first-hand accounts of actual events’, then you must clearly expect and accept the consequences, but I think there’s something subtler at play here too. I suspect, in fact that it’s the overwhelming ‘reality effect’ of film that makes it so hard for us to allow movies to be fiction in the same way as we allow novel like Bring Up The Bodies to be fiction. Compared with watching a film, the process of reading a novel is a much more self-conscious process, and one in which the reader’s imagination is required to collaborate actively with the writer’s to create the book’s ‘reality’, whether that reality is ancient Rome, 1960s London, or sixteenth-century Florence.
Why, wherefore, and what if
One thing fiction can always do is present alternative versions of history. At its most extreme this takes you into ‘what if’ territory – what if Hitler had won the war (as in Robert Harris’ Fatherland), what if JFK hadn’t been shot (as in Stephen King’s 11/23/63). But you can also use fiction to explore alternative explanations for the past, as well as alternative trajectories.
The lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary have been thoroughly raked over in the last 200 years, both in biography and fiction as well as in film (most notably in Ken Russell’s Gothic), but there are still many things about them that we don’t know, many events we can’t explain, and many questions even the most diligent biographer cannot answer. When I first started work on the book I had no notion that it would be anything other than fiction, but in the course of my research I developed a theory about Mary Shelley, in particular, which I now believe to be ‘true’ in a literal as well as a literary sense.
Several people have asked me why I didn’t change course at that point, and write up my hypothesis in a non-fictional form. It’s a very good question, and the short answer is that it would have been almost impossible to make my case with the rigour required by biography: had documentary proof existed to support my theory, someone else would already have found it long ago. My deductions, by contrast, are based on a combination of circumstantial evidence and judicious deduction. There’s little place for that in non-fiction, but a novel provides the perfect vehicle for such creative conjecture, opening up space for speculation, and – I hope – debate. What A Treacherous Likeness offers is a ‘poetic’ truth, of exactly the kind that Ben Affleck spoke of. And for that reason alone, I’m glad he won.
The original version of this post was written for the www.culturekicks.com website