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

Torture and ‘24’: Popular Opinion is a Fickle Mistress

While fans continue to wait for the movie based on the hit television show ’24’ (now in syndication), they would do well to revisit a fascinating case study on the combustible mixture of leavening history and effervescent public attitudes.

Scholars and authors have long debated when events mature into “history” and thus become fair game for historical novelists and screenwriters. Some have suggested that at least fifty years must pass before an adequate perspective can be gained. Yet in a global society that has seen communication time accelerate, an argument can be made that history now congeals much more swiftly.

In a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, reporter Rebecca Dana described the serpentine story trajectories taken by the writers on ’24’. In the process, she provided a fascinating glimpse into how our collective view of the past is molded by national opinions that can turn without warning.

Because of this acceleration in the formation and alteration of what might be called “viral opinion”, studios and other media, now more than ever, step into the minefield of current events and emerging history at their own peril.

The television series ’24’ followed the often-brutal undertakings of special agent Jack Bauer, who was not above using torture when necessary to keep the country safe from terrorists.

Dana recounted how the producers and writers of ‘24’ had to reinvent the show on the fly when the country’s mood suddenly turned from an impulse for revenge after the 9/11 attacks to an abhorrence of torture and a shoot-first mentality. The reason: The unpopularity of the Iraq War and revelations of  cruel treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.

The creators and writers became mystified and then angered when the show was suddenly turned into a scapegoat for these dark and shameful impulses.

Anyone who thinks Hollywood is insensitive and unresponsive to the mood of Middle America should read Dana’s still-timely account.

The Perils of a Revisionist Historian

Historical novelists are often taken to task for straying from history—as if there exists an accessible equivalent to the akashic records, the one true account of all that has ever transpired.

Imagine the outcry, then, when a historian, not a mere writer of fiction, has the temerity to challenge the sacred mythology of a nation’s past.

Thaddeus Russell’s account of his tribulations at Barnard College, where he taught American history, provides a cautionary and sobering tale. Five years ago, Russell was denied tenure and asked to leave the institution, he says, after some colleagues and others in high places objected to his iconoclastic interpretations.

Russell taught, and continues to argue, that the low elements of society in the United States—including drunkards, prostitutes, and pirates—played a crucial role in championing the freedoms we now take for granted. And they did so, in some instances, confronted by opposition from the Founding Fathers.

Russell received support from students and fellow professors, but  the reaction from those who disagreed with his teaching he describes in a Huffington Post article as follows:

. . . [E]mails came into the hiring committee from “important places,” I was told, calling my ideas “improper,” “frightening,” and “dangerous.” They said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors — “shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized” — even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.

In the end, Russell found an audience beyond the classroom by writing a book titled A Renegade History of the United States.

Aaron Sorkin on the Nuances of Historical Accuracy

Be sure to check out Mark Harris’s profile of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in the September 17 issue of New York Magazine. Harris gives readers a fascinating glimpse into Sorkin’s mindset and philosophical approach to squaring the facts behind the birth of Facebook and the story he wanted to tell about its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, in the new movie, The Social Network.

Every historical novelist and screenwriter who adapts true stories to film will empathize with the issues that Sorkin had to wrestle.

For a critique of Sorkin’s approach, see Luke O’Brien’s post on Slate.com titled Facebook Fakery: The alternate reality of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network.

And so, the time-honored fight rages on between 1) those in the balcony who cannot understand why reality–whatever that is–cannot be neatly fit into the Procrustean bed of mythic structure for two hours in a film or 400 pages of a novel, and 2) writers in the trenches who struggle daily with the irreconcilable demands of art and “facts”.

I have no doubt that Homer was pestered by some gadfly in the agora who kept pointing out that neither Helen nor her beauty really launched a thousand ships, and that Shakespeare suffered cads in the cheap seats at the Globe who kept insisting that Sir Henry Percy was never called Hotspur, nor was he rash or impetuous.

Perhaps Sorkin can take some small solace from the English historian John Julian Norwich, who summed it up best in his study of Shakespeare’s factual inaccuracies: “Whatever liberties Shakespeare might take with strict historical truth, in the essentials he was almost invariably right.”