Saturday, 12 April 2014
Based on a True Story...
Adaptations are very interesting. It's not hard to find a great deal of intrigue simply comparing two versions of the same material. Adaptations in film come in all kinds, though the most obvious type of source material would be literature. When adapting a book to screen, a lot of changes have to be made. Certain things that might have worked on paper in the book don't translate so well to the screen. Details have to be simplified to work in a two-hour running time.
Naturally it is common for plenty of changes to take place. If there's too many characters for the screenwriter to handle, they may try to make things easier by combining two or more people, so that one character fills multiple roles. They may have to simplify certain details to make the narrative flow better on screen. Sometimes creative liberties have to be taken to make the story seem more interesting or exciting on film. These types of changes are common in adaptations of literature, but also extend to any other type of adaptation: video games, theater, and of course history.
This brings me to an interesting question: is it possible to make a true historical film? The short answer is simply no, it cannot be done. You might be able to capture the spirit of an event, emphasizing an amazing triumph or terrible tragedy, and you may be able to create an approximation of what could have happened. You can do piles and piles of research all you want but most likely you'll still make a mistake somewhere down the line.
Gettysburg, for instance, is a movie that proudly displays its extensive research, to the point where the production crew even went out of their way to ensure the actors all closely resembled the people they played. They seem to have done a pretty good job making it seem authentic, but there probably are mistakes, if very small ones. For instance, while there may be detailed records of the battle's key events, we can't really be sure of the exact words used by the people involved. Maybe during one of the skirmishes the real Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was actually standing a few inches to the left of where he is shown standing in the movie.
In other cases, there is the issue of how reliable the information available is. David Lynch's The Elephant Man is said to be based strictly on the memoirs of the real-life Dr. and Fredrick Treves. By most accounts the movie follows the book quite closely, but when compared to real life has a number of differences. One that I've heard brought up frequently is that the real Joseph Merrick was said to have actually been employed at two different freak shows run by different people, one Belgian and the other English. In the movie, they're both combined into the character of Mr. Bytes. The movie also simplifies the extensive surgery Joseph Merrick went through to be able to speak into a series of therapeutic sessions in which Treves helps John Merrick work up the confidence to talk to people.
They actually do manage to make John Hurt resemble the real Joseph Merrick (using prosthetic designed from a cast of the real person), though in keeping with Treves' writing the name Joseph is replaced with "John". It's likely that the source material in this case was extremely biased, and thus not necessarily accurate.
To bring up another example, A Night To Remember was an attempt to depict the sinking of the Titanic as realistically as possible (yes, there were actually several films about the sinking of the Titanic long before James Cameron came along with his version). The movie was based on various accounts from survivors of the disaster (which were much easier to find in 1958), but when asked about exactly how the ship sank, most of the survivors insisted it remained in one piece rather than breaking in two. Naturally, this is how it is shown in the film, but once we found the actual wreckage of the Titanic it became clear that it broke apart in the process, something that would be depicted clearly in Cameron's version.
Now in this case, while the survivors were giving accounts to the best of their knowledge, they also were probably not thinking straight when it happened. It is one thing to describe the experience of being on a ship and knowing that the majority of the people aboard are going to die, but the actual sinking happened quickly and was probably such a shock that anyone who saw it might not have remembered it clearly. After all, it's not like there was anyone photographing it step by step or some person in the lifeboats who thought "I think I'd better make a bunch of notes just in case someone decides to make a movie about this."
Of course, with any story about the Titanic we do have something to go on. In other instances that's not always the case. To bring up a film based on a more recent nautical tragedy, Wolfgang Petersen's The Perfect Storm had even less information available on the actual events than could be found by anyone trying to film the sinking of the Titanic. The reason for this is that, while it was based on a book, none of the actual crew of the Andrea Gail survived its sinking, which means that the filmmakers had no reliable witnesses, eliminating any way to find out what really happened aboard that ship outside of rough extrapolations from perhaps radio transmissions and accounts of the individual people from anyone who knew them. Though the movie is based on real events and most of the people seen did exist, the drama aboard the Andrea Gail is little more than an educated guess as to what could possibly have happened, since there is no way to be completely sure.
The truth is, it is impossible to make a perfect rendition of history. Adaptations of history are no different from adaptations of any other medium. In fact if you pay attention to the opening credits many historical movies are in fact based on books detailing the event in question. You can do all the research you want, you can capture key moments of the event and present characters who closely resemble the real people, but no matter what you do there are bound to be mistakes or creative liberties taken in some form.