The Italians have a phrase, si non e vero e ben trovato, which roughly translates as, “If it isn’t true, it ought to be.”
If only the critics who decry the inaccuracies to be found in recent movies could take that attitude. Whether dealing with outer space, the Southern slave trade, Somali pirates or Walt Disney, films have been called out this year for the least deviation from “reality” (a word Nabokov insisted routinely belongs within quotation marks).
Unless specified as documentaries, feature films are intended to be viewed as stories. Even films beginning with such disclaimers as “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story” are putting the viewer on notice that the truth has been dramatized, which usually means made more exciting.
To come along after and point out these liberties as if they were faults is to misconstrue the nature of fiction. All fiction is fact distorted, whether we are talking “Moby-Dick” or “American Hustle.” And there is always an agenda: the author’s. He or she may wish to advance a political view, a philosophical conviction or merely to improve on reality, but all fiction is reality reassembled.
When liberties have been taken in a novel with historic roots, the book is labeled historical fiction. Reading such a novel, we understand that real events have been recombined, manipulated and very possibly distorted. It didn’t happen this way, the author allows, but perhaps it should have.
Movies, it seems to me, should be judged by the same criterion. In David Lean’s masterful epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lawrence’s men cheer him when he returns from the desert, having single-handedly ventured back into that treacherous sea of boiling sand to rescue the unfortunate Gassim. With this act of derring-do, Lawrence’s reputation is cemented, his heroic leadership role assured.
In fact, as I have learned from Scott Anderson’s nonfiction account, “Lawrence in Arabia,” Lawrence (not the willowy 6-foot Peter O'Toole but the fireplug 5-foot-1 reality) was greeted with rage and derision by his troops for having foolishly risked his life to save a worthless ruffian.
Which version makes a better scene?
Lawrence may be the wrong height in the movie, but the imperial Western powers’ land grab in the Middle East, laying the groundwork for today’s mess, was spot on.
It is reasonable for reasonable people to call attention to gross distortions or omissions on the part of filmmakers, just as it is reasonable for historians to call into question Shakespeare’s version of Richard III. But pointing out that the real Capt. Philips may have brought disaster on himself by sailing too close to shore doesn’t diminish what ensued.
Walt Disney may have been an anti-Semite (he had a funny way of showing it; the greatest live-action film he ever made was directed by and starred Jews), but regardless, his anti-Semitism doesn’t figure in the story of obtaining the rights to Mary Poppins, so why fault “Saving Mr. Banks” for failing to depict it?
From time immemorial, we have made up stories to please ourselves with the telling. Yes, the Greeks probably sacked Troy for the gold, but is there any profit in picking holes in Homer’s (OK, Marlowe’s, if you’re going to be that way), version that includes the face that launched a thousand ships?
Did the astronaut in Apollo 13 say, “Houston, we have a problem,” or did he say, “Houston, we’ve had a problem”? In a movie, why on earth should this matter?
Scapegoating Hollywood is like scapegoating Homer.
In the movie (and play) “Amadeus,” the most famous and prolific composer of the day is completely absent from the tale. No mention is made of Joseph Haydn, whose presence would have completely unbalanced the film’s drama. It was Papa Haydn, not Salieri (or Mozart) who was numero uno.
“The Right Stuff” simplifies, condenses and propagandizes. So does Sergei Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” But both movies thrill, which is the business and point of movies.
In any event, time ultimately winnows the wheat from the chaff. Folks like President Wilson (a historian, no less) referred admiringly to “The Birth of a Nation” as “like writing history with lightning,” but it didn’t take most people long to identify the film’s grotesque racism.
If you want to read about the real Charge of the Light Brigade, historian Cecil Woodham-Smith has written it; do we begrudge the Errol Flynn version?
If we are honest, the only reason such grotesque distortions bend us out of shape is the belief — which may be true — that most people get their history from the movies.
But this cannot be the fault of movies. It is the fault of a country that has systematically dismantled and forfeited its educational institutions to the point that no one learns history (or civics, anyone remember them?) anymore.
Anyway, the best novels and movies frequently inspire people to learn the facts. After experiencing the visceral pleasure a movie provides, curiosity may be piqued. It needn’t diminish our pleasure or invalidate our feelings to learn after the fact that the Americans’ narrow escape from Iran at the end of “Argo” was not the nip-and-tuck affair depicted in the film. But weren’t we on the edge of our seats watching it? Such exaggerations (or, as Huckleberry Finn memorably called them, “stretchers”) need not diminish our enjoyment of the fictions they inspired.
Art serves many purposes, but among these, surely, is escape from reality. There ought to be room for fantasy in our lives. Stories, even when they aspire to what we term “realism,” are attempts to improve on reality, to sharpen and organize it, if nothing else. Goodness knows, we cannot escape “reality,” but movies ought to be entitled to give us a break from it now and then without the fact-checkers piling on.
Nicholas Meyer is a screenwriter, novelist and film director whose four-hour miniseries, “Houdini,” will air on the History Channel over Memorial Day weekend. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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