I came across this article today (and saved it as a PDF, to chew on and pass around when I feel like it) and as I just watched Argo (and loved it) last night and BECAUSE I AM ME, I am fundamentally interested in the question of how much responsibility writers have towards fact.
I started thinking about this quite awhile ago, when I watched A Beautiful Mind, and found out that liberties had been taken with the information, and that the wife character was a composite. I didn't particularly enjoy the movie (but I blame my mom - who accidentally gave away the ending - though Mom, it's totally all good, of course :), but finding out that the central thematic concept of the movie (love triumphs, and possibly some other theme about intelligence/perseverance/what have you - it's been awhile) was not really true bothered me immensely. (Though finding out recently that it is a composite tempers this somewhat.) It reminded me somewhat of my disappointment when I read up on one of my favorite movies, Chariots of Fire, and found that a pivotal moment, when one of the main characters receives encouragement from a fellow star athlete, was fudged in that the real encourager was sort of a plebe, if you'll forgive the term.
I suppose these examples highlight the gradations of acceptability when it comes to fudging facts for storytelling's sake. I'm not hardcore about stringent factuality, partly because I've done some historical writing and have a concept of the slipperyness of facts and the recording of facts, but also because I recognize that myth, oral tradition, and narrative have never been beholden to stringent blow-by-blow comprehensive historiographical methodology. Such things serve a variety of purposes. Though of course many humans tend to want to make words and images immutable; I understand the impetus for this, but I don't ultimately relate to the product.
Yet as I was reading the various responses in above-linked article, I was struck by screenwriting professor/chair Richard Walter's response (which I am quoting, and note that I am taking it somewhat out of the context of the rest of his comments) about historical films: "People going for a history lesson are going to the wrong place."
I beg to differ. I BEG. I'm willing to go so far as to posit that a considerable amount of the information we receive about historical people and times is through cultural osmosis, and movies and television play a huge role in this. Granted, so do news programs, magazines, commercials, literature, scholarship, etc. But I do think that it is unwise to assume that there is no contract between filmmaker and audience member to fulfill some sort of factual expectation.
Although "based on a true story" should be enough, I don't necessarily think it is. We see this and it signifies "true story", though it could be close enough to the mark (Argo) or something ridiculous like certain horror and exorcism movies I've looked into recently (The Possession, Silent House). A better use of these, uh, pre-scripts (I'm sure there's a word for it, I'll find out what it is eventually) is exemplified in the movie Fur, which makes no claim for utter factuality (and let me state right here that when I read Mahnola Dargis' review of it I pretty much lost all respect for her, I feel so strongly about her misinterpretation of what was OVERTLY STATED FROM THE OUTSET) but does show respect and studied understanding of the original subject, photographer Diane Arbus.
Viewers, unless they already know a lot about the subject, will accept what they see as accurate enough, just as readers of Wikipedia will consider most of what they read on it accurate enough. It will stay that way in their brains until they learn better (if that happens). Once again, I'm not hardcore, and I'm not even positing that this is necessarily bad. Or good. I just think it happens. And movies that draw on facts/events/individuals that can be accessed easily better be open to being criticized/questioned, because they mess with historiographical methodology AND myth.
There is no rubric for these things, though. It's every author for themselves; it's up to the producers, and of course, the audience, too, in how the information is transmitted and received. Performativity and performative artistry (I include storytelling and oral tradition in this) has never been strictly or even clearly about the division between entertainment and edification (or enlightenment, or education - whichever you prefer), though ideologues and theorists have been battling over this delineation for ages. (See: Aristotle, Shakespeare, Renaissance, etc.)
But going back to my two initial examples, the question of responsibility remains. I tend to think that if you betray the source material, you betray the audience. You can be true to it without having to be painstakingly factual, I think; you have to care as much for the source material as you do your own storytelling methods (including theme and craft choices). At least, that's what I think. Crafting a historical tale based on facts is a tricky task. It's better to be clear up-front as to what you're doing, and I pretty much feel that "based on true events" doesn't cut it, not if you're going for a considerably realistic style (magical realism and fantastical elements are helpful signifiers that the world and facts are being bended, I also think). Another option is to just create something distinctly apart from the source material while referencing it. In the case of A Beautiful Mind, I still think that the composite characterization for the sake of thematic resonance is cheap. In Chariots of Fire, the change in character is kind of disappointing, but I don't feel it's cheap, because it's just one moment in the film, and using the real person would've been effective as well, but kind of a pain to thread into the narrative. It sold out the facts but maintained the essence of what happened.
I don't know if I could do that. Not because I am a paragon of scholarly virtue, but because I prefer to handle my facts differently. I'm not comfortable with changing something I know has veracity for the sake of dramatic oomph. I like to keep a distance between my creative manipulation of culture/history and reality. I go to the movies, yes, for entertainment AND enlightenment, but I am also a human being who absorbs information in a messy way; I can suspend disbelief, but I'm going to get crabby when artists MESS with me. The article also mentions that movie-going is an emotional experience, not really a factual one. Yes, to a degree. But there is padding the harsh truth of existence with the many things we use to make it more interesting, more understandable, more connective; then there is the blatant lying to our faces for decent-to-terrible reasons. Who is a fan of that kind of treatment?
I'm just repeating myself. There are some good checks and balances in scholarship for these kinds of issues. I haven't even touched fiction, but I think there are some checks there, too (Introductions! The ability to put a book down and reference! Et cetera! A different social contract! Et cetera!). I have REALLY chewed on this regarding plays, though so MANY of the historical plays I've read have been turned into movies... the two are more related than not. But films tend to have such a strong commercial component that I tend to think the responsibility level is even greater, but because of it being so commercial the accountability is even less important to the filmmakers. AUUUUUUGH I REPEAT: it is the responsibility of the filmmaker/storyteller. And it is a worthy thing to keep discussing and investigating. Because I don't really think that we generally go to art to be offered some sham version of the human experience; that's just emotional propaganda, honestly.