Creators of “The Kennedys” Miniseries Strike Back Against Claims of Bias and Historical Inaccuracy

In a revealing Question and Answer exchange on March 24 with Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, both the producer and the writer of “The Kennedys” vigorously countered charges that the project had strayed from the historical record.

The controversial miniseries about the famous political family was dropped by the History Channel in January amid reports that members of the Kennedys had tried to halt it. ReelzChannel, another cable network, picked up the series and will run it starting April 3.

In the interview, producer Joel Surnow and writer Stephen Kronish–both veterans of the popular television show “24”–explore the usual flash points that arise in any artistic endeavor that seeks to recreate history, particular of events still relatively recent: Political and ideological leanings of the creators; the use of composite characters and imagined dialogue; the compression and rearrangement of time to accommodate the demands of the mythic structure an audience subconsciously expects.

Kronish rejects the notion that a liberal should not be allowed to write about conservative icons, and vice versa.

Both Kronish and Surnow agree that biopics by necessity have to use some reconstruction for gaps in the historical annals. But they insist that the scenes created for their series had links to documented incidents, even if the exact words used and reactions of the participants were not recorded verbatim.

Surnow denies the History Channel’s assertion that the “dramatic interpretation” of the miniseries ultimately delivered “is not a fit for the History brand.” He said that all eight scripts for the series were approved by the historian hired by the network to consult on the project.

The Itzkoff interview with Surnow and Kronish is sobering reading for any historical novelist or screenwriter who hopes to recreate an event from American history that is still charged with political overtones.



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 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.”