With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and a bundle of movies based on historical events up for Best Picture – including Selma, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and even American Sniper if you want to count the Iraq war as “history” this soon after the events of that story – everyone’s in a snit over the historical accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of their representations.
For those of us who include real historical figures in our storytelling, this is familiar territory. Here’s my take:
I have included historical figures in my work, both as significant characters (the Missouri guerrilla Sam Hildebrand) and as cameo players (William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Nordhoff). Actual events play meaningful parts in the plot. I’ve always felt that it was all right to fictionalize around the edges of a character or event, but not to distort the essence. Thus my Garrison meets with fictional people, and says made-up things, but I was careful not to put him in a location where he had not actually been or to have him express himself in ways that I thought were contrary to what I had read about him. I have the Battle of Fredericktown occur at the time and in the location it actually did, but I felt free to have a completely fictional skirmish take place in association with that battle involving my characters.
Some authors and filmmakers feel much more free to take liberties with real figures than I do, and I have no argument with them. They’re engaged in a different kind of story-making than I am. The issue comes when readers or viewers believe the fictional version to be the “real” one. We all know that there are multiple perspectives to any event, so claiming one perspective as the “real” one is an error. In Selma, the controversy stems from the movie’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. But let’s face it, by all accounts Johnson was an extremely complicated man who acted from a variety of motives both selfish and noble, and any portrayal of him is going to simplify him. So I don’t think the criticism of Selma‘s version of Lyndon Johnson is especially persuasive.