It’s a movie, not a documentary!


Warning! Long post alert!

Have you seen the new movie The Greatest Showman? It looks like a visual treat. There isn’t just dancing, there’s dancing in the air on the trapeze! There are beautiful costumes and misfit characters! I love all these things! I love musicals! I’ve loved lots of movies that are not historically accurate.

Take 2001’s Moulin Rouge. The music is is out of its time, but I love that. The tango scene is perfection. Of course, the movie doesn’t claim to be biography.

The movie version of Grey Gardens is one of my favorite movies. The filmmakers adhered fairly close to the documentary of the same name, but obviously they took liberties. I read they used letters and diaries and interviews to get things as accurate as possible, but they admitted that the scene when Cap gives Little Edie the fur coat was something they imagined. But she did receive a fur coat, so it wasn’t completely fictional. Cap did give her things and she was given a fur coat by someone. So narrative arc wins this one.

If you want to make a movie about someone’s life, certain choices have to be made, right? You have about two hours to work with, so clearly you can’t include everything. It needs to fit a narrative arc (arthouse/experimental films notwithstanding), so some events may need to be condensed into one scene. You can focus on only so many characters; therefore, you might choose to have composite characters. Sure. Understandable.

But which characters can you combine into one? Minor ones make sense. Though I’m fine if you combine let’s say two office workers who generally have the same impact on the hero’s life, I’d have qualms in some other contexts. Let’s say one of those office workers was a concentration camp survivor and the other was a neo-nazi. It feels criminal to take those two actually-having-existed people and making them into one character to fit your movie.

I don’t get too troubled of someone in the biopic is eating a cereal that wasn’t yet available in that time period or uses an idiom that hadn’t yet been coined. Those sorts of things may signal a lack of research or they may be conscious choices due to budget or tone. But if the movie is otherwise terrific, I let those things slide.

I like to feel that the film captures the essence of the person being depicted. “It’s a movie not a documentary” feels like a poor excuse for getting this wrong. Of course, “It is a movie not a documentary” is true. Sure. Obviously. But what is the responsibility of the movie maker? What does a creative mind owe an audience?

Movies are different than books or songs or paintings in that they require tons of money and involve loads of people. Executives have to finance them and actors have to agree to be in them. It’s usually a collaborative art, especially the films that get mass distribution and marketing campaigns.

And what is the danger of the movie supplanting the history? How many people will go on to learn the story of Joice Heth, one of P.T. Barnum’s oddities? Does it matter?

I admit to some frustration with people who learn all their history from Hollywood. Sometimes it seems harmless enough, but then you have people voting or supporting causes based on what they saw in a historical film. When you walk out of the theater, you might know it was a movie not a documentary, but five years down the road when your kid asks you a question about so-and-so, how much of your answer will sound something like, “I heard so-and-so did…” and what follows will come from that movie you saw?

Numerous times in adulthood I’ve come to realize something I thought was true in history was in fact not true. And my misunderstanding can sometimes be traced to inaccurate textbooks and teachers and sometimes to a movie I saw but then mostly forgot about, except for absorbing its inaccurate message. How many people still think Gone with the Wind is a completely trustworthy depiction of the Civil War and slavery? How many people think they understand William Wallace because they’ve seen Braveheart? How many people think they know what it was like in the so-called wild west because they’ve watched John Wayne movies?

But does this matter?

Maybe I’m more bothered by the question in the world of fake news. The fake news of today is the fake history of tomorrow. When is fictionalizing harmless entertainment and when it is it a problem?

I’m fine when the Doctor ends up landing the TARDIS in Hitler’s office and the Doctor’s companion locks Hitler in the cupboard. I’m fine with the crew of the Red Dwarf convincing JFK to assassinate himself. Those are fantastical what-if scenarios. It’s not as if I believe the Doctor ever married Marilyn Monroe (though I did see that some intrepid fan tried to edit such a marriage into Monroe’s Wikipedia page).

I suppose the next question could be that if you want to fictionalize an event so much, why not just make it fiction? Don’t use real people in your story. What would be wrong with a story about someone else creating a magnificent circus?

The common answer to this often annoys me. “Because true stories are more interesting!” I hear some variation of this frequently. Sometimes in regard to biopics but just as often to the question of whether or not someone reads fiction. “No. I don’t read fiction because it didn’t happen and I’d rather read something where I learn something.” Or “I only like to read stories that can really happen.” Sigh. While I’m all for people liking what they like and I understand not every manner of storytelling will appeal to everyone, it’s an answer that still drives me mad.

Well, it would. I’m a fiction writer, and not just a fiction writer but a writer of fairytales and magical realism. It is hard not to take such statements personally even though I know I shouldn’t. When I hear, “I only like stories that are real,” it’s hard not to hear it as a rejection of my imagination.

The imagination is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? As far as we know, we’re the only animals that imagine. We can imagine life different from ours, we can imagine things that do not exist! A rabbit might imagine a wolf in the woods, but it doesn’t imagine a blue wolf with antlers and wings flying in from Saturn. And without imagination, what inventions would we have? Someone looked at fire and looked at potatoes and imagined the first French fries. Imagination is a wonderful gift and a curse. After all, I can imagine the beginning of WWIII and that’s not so much fun. Though it may motivate us to prevent such a thing.

Then what is the harm of imagining a different life for a person who really existed? Where is the line?

P.T. Barnum was a complicated, mixed bag of a human being. The trailer doesn’t suggest the film goes into his darker aspects at all. The trailer makes me think the film shows him in glorious, feel-good light. Does he deserve that treatment? Do we?

I imagine a future where someone makes a movie about a big-hearted, charming real estate investor turned reality TV show star who becomes president of the United States. And some of us survivors of this era, living our final days in underfunded nursing homes will cry, “But what about the racism? What about the sexual harassment? What about the mocking of the disabled?” And some people will reply, “What’s the big deal? It’s a movie not a documentary!” Indeed.

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