Gentle Reminder: Making Stuff Up Is Called “Fiction”

BBC Magazine, September 5:

A point of view: When historical fiction is more truthful than historical fact

“More truthful” are the key words in that headline. An historian would argue that mixing fiction with history is precisely where a great danger lies. However, according to Lisa Jardine, a professor of Renaissance Studies (in the Humanities) at the University of London, and writing at the BBC web site, there is apparently little to worry about:

….For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work – I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction. If historians could not fill the gaps in the record that made the knowledge I was after so elusive, perhaps storytellers less shackled by documented evidence might do so….

….Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

I am very uncomfortable with that “point of view.” Here’s why.

In the absence of their own words and thoughts, it is perfectly understandable some desire to invent words and thoughts in order to be better illuminate historical figures’ motivations. However, there is a line. Every writer must be cognizant of it.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of two medieval knights.

If you have seen the John Adams miniseries, you heard dialogue coming from historical figures. As something of a Thomas Jefferson hobbyist, I discerned just about everything the Thomas Jefferson character said on screen was something Jefferson had written at some point in his life. It may have not been written in the exact context used in the series, but Jefferson pretty much said it at some time or another.

Relatedly, coincidentally you may know I just decided to entertain myself with a read of The Winds Of War. Writing about the run up to World War II, Herman Wouk did not use his historical fiction to try to get “inside the heads” of historical figures. Insofar as I can tell, he leaves the “thinking” to the fictional characters he had created and 100 percent controlled.

Both are by far the sounder approaches. For if there are no words, well, sorry, there are no words. To pretend we can “read minds” is a profound disservice to history. I wouldn’t want someone 70 years from now trying to read my mind. Would you?

Oh, yes, when you as an author are giving historical figures dialogue “to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past,” you may know the line. But you’re playing with serious fire. Most readers and viewers probably will be unable to spot the difference between established fact and your storytelling that is, uh, “less shackled by documentary evidence.”

“Tough Without A Gun”

Having finished the sequel’s story, to clear my head for a few days before plunging into revision, corrections, etc., I’ve decided on some, uh, relaxing reading:

"Tough Without A Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart," by Stefan Kanfer. [My photograph.]

“Tough Without A Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart,” by Stefan Kanfer. [My photograph.]

That biography of Humphrey Bogart was a birthday present from my mother-in-law. She knows Bogart is my favo(u)rite actor. Technical assistance in making the purchase was provided by my wife: her mother barely knows what the internet is, much less how to use it. ;-)

About Bogart’s now by far best-known role, and his taking Hollywood by storm after over a decade of mostly second-rate (and often third-rate) parts, author Stefan Kanfer eloquently sums up on page 87:

….Rick Blaine was not just the fulcrum of a melodramatic movie. He was a symbol of the nation itself, at first wary and isolationist, then changing incrementally until he headed in the opposite direction. At the finale Rick Blaine had turned into a warrior. That was the way moviegoers, especially male moviegoers, saw themselves in 1943. That year they did the most unlikely, and unrepeatable thing in the history of American cinema. They made Casablanca a smash, which was not unexpected. But they also made the middle-aged, creased, scarred, lisping Humphrey Bogart into a superstar. No one expected that. Not even Humphrey Bogart. Especially not Humphrey Bogart.

From the profound to the decidedly less so. Here’s a distinctly lesser-known quote from Bogart himself, which appears on page 12. Years afterward, he recalled his own “lofty” eighteen year old’s motives for enlisting in the U.S. Navy in May 1918, during World War One:

The war was great stuff. Paris! French girls! Hot damn!

Hardly “Lafayette, we are here.” But that was how he saw the world in 1918. Clearly, by 1941, a more world-weary Bogart as Richard Blaine – having, as we know, previously fought in Spain and in Ethiopia for what had proven to be ultimately the losing sides (“and been well paid for it on both occasions,” as he also informed us) – was not nearly as easily wowed:

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Which is how we will always see him. He is Bogart on film, playing “Humphrey Bogart” in a variety of roles. It’s difficult for us to imagine the perpetually “middle-aged, creased, scarred, lisping” superstar ever having been eighteen and so immature.

Have a good Sunday. Kanfer’s book is excellent. So, today, for me, it’s back to more Bogart. :-)

Quai d’Orsay

I watched this on the plane over to the U.S. last week. Thoroughly entertaining, it even made me laugh out loud several times (embarrassing on a plane), and took my Dad’s illness – which was why I was flying to the States – off of my mind for a little while. As such, it deserves a post:

How to characterize Quai d’Orsay? In simple terms, it struck me as sorta loosely a combination of, say, Yes, Minister and The West Wing. Like the former, it satirizes a shallowness in politicians. Similar to the latter, it’s fast-paced, with lots of rushed conversations while walking through hallways at a retreating camera.

You have to follow along [read the subtitles] closely, or you’ll miss lots. Forget it’s about France. (If you feel you don’t know much about French politics.) If you like well-written, political comedy on screen, you’ll probably like this.

The ensemble contains an actor now likely most famous outside of France for a closeness to the, uh, current real French president. Leaving that aside, she’s at times hilarious in this fictional role as an adviser on Africa policy. For instance, when, during a foreign policy crisis, she’s drafted into keeping the Maronite Patriarch busy for an hour, the expression on her face, and her reaction, is priceless.

Naturally it also has a decidedly French flair and cultural grounding. The fictional French Foreign Minister fancying himself standing up for France’s “grandeur,” sharing his pretensions to personal literary and intellectual prowess with a patrician pomposity (that is somehow not ultimately off-putting), and topping it off with an “I know best” glint in the eye – while it often also seems he is about to poke himself in the eye – would not readily fly written for a U.S. on-screen politician. I don’t think U.S. audiences would buy it.

Meaning I suspect it would be close to impossible to portray a U.S. Secretary of State in a manner similar to that French minister. Yet you have to believe someone in Hollywood has already optioned the rights to this (because *it’s French*) to try to concoct some U.S. version. And they’ll probably eventually produce some predictably weak, watered down film, over-straining to be funny.

The “Fifty Shades” Universal Trailer

Get ready. Uh, brace yourself. Variety:

On Thursday morning, Universal Studios debuted its first trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the highly anticipated film based on the erotic novels by E.L. James.

The movie stars Jamie Dornan (who appears san [sic] shirt) as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as his inexperienced lover Anastasia Steele….

We don’t know yet if the film will be “decent.” (If that’s the right word?) But the quality of the book and its film adaptation are not really the concern here; those are for others to argue about. I’ve not read the book and have no plans to see the film.

I will say this, though. While you might dream a novel you write will one day find itself a film, if it were to do so that film’s actual quality is mostly out of your control. I suppose the bottom line is if you found yourself paid (especially if you were paid “big”) for film rights, I suspect as a writer you would be thrilled to take the money and run. ;-)

But, privately (between just us here…. and the internet), I’d hate to see my book(s) theatrically ruined.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….

"I'm the money" - from Casino Royale, 2006.

A James Bond Moment

Sunday, after the World Cup final and the awarding of the trophy, my wife was channel surfing for something to watch next, and found a film on BBC America. (It’s one we have on DVD, so why bother with on TV, right? But don’t we often do that? Accidentally find something you like on TV and which you own already, and you end up watching it on TV anyway?)

I happened to be upstairs. So I was unable to see the television in the lounge. Hearing the movie’s distinctive score between scenes (but no dialogue), I still knew which one it was immediately and blurted out, “Casino Royale!”

She replied instantly, “I know you love this one!”

I may be in the minority on this, but I don’t care. I believe Casino is the “coolest” James Bond film since Sean Connery’s time. It’s my favorite.

From Chris Cornell’s crashing rock opening credits theme song, to the chase in Madagascar, to, uh, well, I don’t want to spoil anything if you’ve never seen it….

I will share this, though. The dining car scene between Bond and Vesper? That has to be one of the wittiest extended exchanges in any Bond film:

That post’s just a non-literary aside. I hate talking TOO MUCH about my writing on here. (Don’t we despise those who only yammer on about themselves?) We need a break sometimes – myself included!

Hope you have a good Tuesday. :-)

“Portraiture? A splendid idea, Mr. Selfridge.”

Here’s a trip down British memory lane. My mother-in-law found a sheet of various, tiny photographs of herself taken, uh, rather a while ago. Studying them, my niece (her 16 year old granddaughter), asked, “Is that you?”

We all change of course. ;-) Anyway, starting with the cover, here’s the brochure. My mother-in-law was given this in the hope she’d order enlargements; but she did not. However, she happened to have kept the clean brochure ever since. Click on them to enlarge my iPhone photo of each page. A bit of history:

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Note the date. It’s for April 1961:

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From our 2014, the rather “highbrow” language used to describe the products can be a rather amusing read. To get the full impact, you really must speak “plummy” and read it aloud. My wife did so – and did it so well, we all almost fell over laughing: “‘En Vogue’ is the new style that has met with so much favour on the Continent and in America.”:

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Note the currency. It was before UK decimalization. There were still shillings:

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Finally, notice also where she had her photo sheet taken. It’s stamped on the top right hand corner: Selfridges, on Oxford Street. :-)

Mumbling Inn

Our friends at the BBC told us yesterday:

Monday’s launch episode of new BBC period drama Jamaica Inn sparked more than 100 complaints, after sound issues left viewers struggling to understand what was being said on screen.

The three-part adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel stars former Downton Abbey star Jessica Brown Findlay.

Some viewers said they had to use subtitles to understand the “mumbling”….

The BBC blamed a technical problem:

….The BBC later apologised to viewers, claiming the “issues with the sound levels” could not be altered while the drama was on air….

What a relief! We had thought it was us. Apparently we were among the millions sitting there also asking ourselves, “What are they saying?”

My mother-in-law was particularly scathing: “I don’t understand a word of this rubbish. And everyone’s so dirty. I read this book, I don’t remember this like that.”

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While a sound issue may have been the culprit this time, interestingly the BBC a year ago addressed the issue of mumbling actors:

The BBC’s new director general Tony Hall has complained that actors aren’t speaking clearly enough in TV drama. Is it time to cut the mumble, asks Ben Milne….

Sorry, what was that you said? My wife and I had been wondering also how Jamaica Inn would, uh, play in America? If UK viewers had struggled to understand the dialogue, US viewers probably would have been totally lost: “Oh, look, it’s Lady Sybil! Hey, where’s Carson? Gee, Downton Abbey has really fallen on hard times, hasn’t it?” ;-)

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UPDATE: April 24: The BBC reports the “technical problem” did not apparently improve when it came to the second and third episodes.

Six million viewers had tuned into the first episode. Only 4.1 million watched the third (and final) one.

We’ll see if PBS buys this “atmospheric adaptation”….