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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

The Decline and Fall of the Writing Life

For those of you in need of a good dose of melancholy, take a glance at an essay recently penned in The Los Angeles Times (Feb. 7, Books) by novelist Dani Shapiro.

Read it with the job ads on Craigslist nearby.

How Realistic is ‘The Hurt Locker’–and Does it Matter?

It’s an occupational hazard for any fiction writer who tiptoes into the minefield of history. Inevitably, critics will muster to decry the lack of historical accuracy.

And the more recent the history, the more hazardous the occupation.

The most recent exhibit is a Washington Post article by Christian Davenport (Feb. 28, E 1) about the backlash being launched by some Iraq soldiers and veterans against the Oscar-nominated movie, ‘The Hurt Locker,’ a gritty drama about a bomb-defusing specialist who becomes addicted to the adrenaline rush of his near-suicidal job.

The story compares soldiers’ reactions to ‘The Hurt Locker’ and “Generation Kill,’ an HBO drama set in Iraq, adapted from a book by Evan Wright.

The article recognizes that filmmakers often worry that maintaining “spot-on” accuracy in depicting modern military life would leave audiences “cold.”

When Davenport posed the conundrum of accuracy to Dr. David McKenna, the Columbia University film professor said that the movie “isn’t as much about Iraq as it is about one soldier’s addiction to war. It’s a character study, an exploration of courage, bravado and leadership told through ‘a series of suspenseful situations. I suppose it could have just as easily been set in outer space.”

McKenna added that if veterans have a problem with such interpretations, “well, this is an opportunity to go make your own movie.”

‘The Pacific’: Finding the Narrative Thread in the Epic

One of the most difficult challenges for a historical novelist is the weaving together of disparate events, places, and characters over a great sweep of time or space to evoke the sense of connectedness and perhaps even causality.

This is tough enough to accomplish in a novel; the author has a few more tricks and a bit more license to take his time in developing the story. But in a movie or miniseries, the task is  even more daunting. A screenwriter has to quickly capture and hold the attention of the audience while at the same time avoid confusing it with front-loaded images and dialogue needed to slip in essential background information.

History on the ground rarely unfolds in the traditional mythic structure. Thus, it as always been the bard’s job to sift the grains of history into a mandala of sorts that will satisfy our yearning for a sense of fate, inevitability, and meaning.

In his preview of the new HBO miniseries, ‘The Pacific’ (The Los Angeles Times, Feb. 28, D1), David Ferrell offers a fascinating glimpse into how the creative team solved the problem of relying on true-life accounts of the bloody World War II campaign against the Japanese while carving out a narrative that could be sustained over ten hour-long  episodes.

Bruce McKenna, the primary screenwriter, chose to apply what he called the ‘Traffic’ approach, a reference to the 2000 movie that explored the war on drugs with a collage of four separate stories.

Inundated with research material and hundreds of interviews with veterans, McKenna related to Ferrell how he finally gravitated to the stories of three soldiers. Yet he faced a conundrum: All three men fought in different battles. How could avoid writing what in essence would be three different movies?

McKenna did what all great writers do–he kept digging, determined to find a thread. His luck turned when he discovered from interviews with family members that one of the featured soldiers, Eugene Sledge (who fought on Okinawa) had a best friend who served in the same company on Guadacanal as another of the series’ heroes, Robert Leckie, a Marine machine-gunner.

McKenna discovered what he calls his “handoff” from scene to scene. “They weren’t buddy-buddy, but it was a good-enough connection that I knew we had a miniseries,” he told Ferrell.

HBO is taking a big gamble with the Spielberg/Hanks project, which premieres March 14 and has a production tab of $200 million. Yet if it meets the high standards set by its predecessor, ‘Band of Brothers,’ the miniseries will be one for the ages.