12 December 2007

Taking liberties

I am inspired by a comment on my blog. [Thanks Madhuri] The comment stated: “Fiction set against the backdrop of a history often gives a much better perspective of that history than a historical discourse/report.”

I agree. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction, particularly historical fiction. Whether a book or a film, the filling in of the details by the author/filmmaker adds colour and makes everything more interesting. Normally, responsible authors and filmmakers stick close to what is known and fill in the details between documented facts. However, on many occasions, authors and filmmakers present an alternative which disagree – or, is in conflict – with documented facts.

These interpretations of facts, these liberties that authors and filmmakers often take, can confuse readers and audiences. Although there is freedom of speech (in most countries in the world) that allows this, conservative schools of thought say that inaccurate representations of facts in the guise of fiction can be misunderstood by people. That fiction can often become fact. That, historical inaccuracies, particularly when well presented, can often change what we believe to be the truth.

A case in point is Oliver Stone’s 1991 Hollywood film ‘JFK’ about the controversy behind US President John F Kennedy’s assassination. Director Oliver Stone had used a cinematic technique in his film ‘JFK’, mixing actual B&W newsreel footage with his personal version of the mystery behind the Kennedy assassination by depicting these (i.e. the make-believe) portions in colour. On seeing the film, many viewers actually believed Stone’s version to be the real thing.

Thus, Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’ created a huge controversy, and came under attack from the media as well as historians. As people lined up to see ‘JFK’ (which did rather well in the box office and later won two Academy Awards), the US media and several historians went overboard criticising the historical inaccuracies in Stone’s film. They all said that, in ‘JFK’, Oliver Stone has tricked his audience.

Criticism aimed at Stone derided him for taking liberties in interpreting historical facts; using pseudo-documentary footage to represent fiction as fact; using the fictional character ‘X’ (a colonel in the US Air Force played by actor Donald Sutherland) to explain/justify Stone’s myth of a conspiracy; and, more importantly, implying a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination involving President Lyndon B Johnson and other senior US government officials.

Of course, Stone defended himself. In an interview with Mark C Carnes in ‘Cineaste’ (Fall 1996) Stone says: “…we as dramatists are undertaking a deconstruction of history, questioning some of the given realities. What you call ‘sneaky’ is, to me, an ambivalent and shifting style that makes people aware they are watching a movie and that reality itself is in question. JFK was the beginning of a new era for me in terms of filmmaking because it’s not just about a conspiracy to kill John Kennedy. It’s also about the way we look at our recent history.”

And, I think, therein lies the truth (and the beauty) that authors and filmmakers pursue in their craft.

[Citation: ‘Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (interview with film director Oliver Stone)’, by Mark C Carnes, Cineaste v22 n4 (Fall 1996)]

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