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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.

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.”

Tony Curtis and Spartacus

Today I listened to a replay of an National Public Radio interview in 1991 with the late Tony Curtis. The actor, who passed away on September 29, was reminiscing about a strategy that director Stanley Kubrick used in adapting novelist Howard Fast’s Spartacus for the big screen.

Curtis, who played a young Sicilian slave in the drama about Rome’s Third Servile War, said Kubrick cast British actors for the Roman characters and American actors for the slaves to subconsciously evoke a sense of class and cultural differences between the two warring factions. The actor recalled that this was a trick often employed by Hollywood moguls who believed that Americans equated British accents and mannerisms with higher intelligence and superiority of class.

This casting choice is a variation on the mimetic theme that we’ve discussed previously. Historical novelists can never realistically recreate the language of ancient civilizations and keep the story accessible to modern readers. Instead, clever ones will subtly interject English words from the Victorian or other eras that sound archaic today, but are nevertheless still comprehensible. Doing so, they trick the reader’s eye and ear into suspending belief and entering what feels like an ancient mindset.