You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Fusing fact and fiction for art’s sake

Adaptations take the past with a grain of salt

Henry Ford said it is bunk. Napoleon said it is a set of lies, agreed upon. But history, as depicted in motion pictures, can revive interest in people and events that may otherwise remain generally overlooked.

Take, for example, the case of Akiva Goldsman who’s nominated for WGA and Academy Awards for his script about the schizophrenic, mathematical genius John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” based on a book by Sylvia Nasar. The biopic posed historical challenges, as Nasar’s book claimed that in reality, Nash divorced his wife, before returning to her, and had a child out of wedlock, as well as homosexual relationships.

Responding to criticisms about playing with biographical facts, Goldsman explains, “The architecture was really genius, madness, Nobel Prize.” As for the enduring commitment between Nash and Alicia, he acknowledges, “They divorced, then they lived together for decades. Then, they remarried. So, the fact of John and Alicia is that they started married and ended married. … He was in Europe for a year. That’s not the movie either, you know what I mean? There’s certainly compression.”

Perhaps Gregory Allan Howard had even more of a daunting task concerning economy of storytelling, as he is credited with the story and wrote the original draft for “Ali,” about one of the most recognizable people on the planet.

“What I wrote was a father- and-son story,” says Howard, one that concentrated on Muhammad Ali’s life from 12 to 40, as opposed to the decade covered in the film.

Howard prefers relying on interviewing to get at historical truth, a technique that proved quite effective when 60 interviews resulted in his script about a 1971 football team helping to integrate Alexandria, Va., in “Remember the Titans.”

But he feels that Hollywood generally fails at biopics. “If you have a true story, you should try to adhere to it above the 50% level, otherwise there is no point. You might as well just make everything up.”

When Richard Eyre co-wrote and directed “Iris,” he knew that most viewers would not be familiar with author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, her battle with Alzheimer’s disease or the book “Elegy for Iris,” which her husband, John Bayley, wrote about their life together. The film depicts Murdoch both young and old, with the help of Kate Winslet and Judi Dench.

“I never saw it as a biographical picture,” Eyre contends. “I saw it as a relationship and the story of the young and the old (Murdoch) was a necessary device.”

Eyre elucidated Murdoch’s views through a series of lectures in the film, but realizes that an emotional truth is often a substitute for a historical event.

“I’m not being entirely facetious where I say certain elements of it are not biographically true, in the literal sense,” he says. “You know, who knows what goes on in private in a marriage?”

As resident historian for the series “History Vs. Hollywood” on the History Channel, Steve Gillon gives Hollywood high marks on its recent biopics. “Historians have not been involved enough in using the opportunity of these historical films to engage the public in a larger debate about the events that are described in film,” he says.

History bears repeating

As an author specializing in post-New Deal America and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, Gillon has consulted on the History Channel’s examination of films like “The Patriot,” “U-571,” “13 Days” and its powerful two-hour doc “The True Story of Black Hawk Down.”

“The most difficult question a historian has to grapple with is causation, is what leads people to do the things they do,” he says. “When you take that 300- or 400-page book and try to turn it into a film that is dramatic and can reach a wide audience, you make further compromises to the complexity of the personality you can present.”

Gillon, whose books include “That’s Not What We Meant to Do,” examining legislation that achieved the opposite of its intended effect, lays out clearly the battle lines between historians and historical films: “I think historians have to understand the requirements of filmmaking, sort of the limitations … and the need and desire to reach a wider audience. And filmmakers also need to understand the importance of presenting as much as possible a portrait that’s historically accurate.”

More Film

  • Singapore Actor Aloysius Pang Dies at

    Singapore Actor Aloysius Pang Killed on Military Service, At 28

    Singapore actor, Aloysius Pang died Wednesday of injuries sustained while on military training in New Zealand. He was 28. Pang was best known for his appearance in movies “Young & Fabulous,” and “Timeless Love.” He also had a string of credits in Singapore TV series. Pang was involved in accident last week, while repairing a [...]

  • Alibaba Expands Film Investment, Loans $100

    Alibaba Expands Film Investment Plan, Loans $100 Million to Huayi Bros.

    Alibaba Pictures Group, the film business arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has struck a strategic co-operation deal with leading film studio Huayi Brothers. The deal terms include a $103 million (RMB700 million) loan to Huayi. Alibaba Pictures said the agreement was part of its recently announced strategy to be a part of major movies [...]

  • Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear

    Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear Ex'

    Netflix has added to its roster of Mandarin-language content with the acquisition of rights to Taiwanese dark comedy “Dear Ex.” The award-winning film will play out from Feb. 1. The story involves a recently bereaved widow and a gay man fighting over a dead man’s inheritance, with the woman’s teenage son caught in the middle. [...]

  • Audrey Wells

    Film News Roundup: Audrey Wells Scholarships Launched by UCLA, China's Pearl Studio

    In today’s film news roundup, Pearl Studio and UCLA start a “Say Yes!” scholarship in memory of Audrey Well; Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale are honored; and the “General Magic” documentary gets bought. SCHOLARSHIPS UNVEILED China’s Pearl Studio has made a gift of $100,000 for endowed scholarships to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and [...]

  • Honey Boy Knock Down the House

    Sundance Hot Titles List: 13 Buzzy Films That Have Buyers Talking

    There’s a good reason that much of Hollywood braves the thin mountain air each year to make the trek to the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not to check out the nearby ski slopes. The annual launch of the indie film gathering brings with it the possibility of discovering the next big thing in moviemaking. [...]

  • (L to R) VIGGO MORTENSEN and

    Will Oscar Nominations Give This Year's Contenders a Box Office Boost?

    With nominees like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “A Star Is Born,” the 2018 class of movies proved the Oscars don’t need a popular films category to recognize movies that also made bank in theaters. But now that the academy has selected this year’s crop of awards hopefuls, is there any green left to squeeze [...]

  • A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's

    Sundance: A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's Romance-Drama 'The Souvenir'

    A24 has bought the North American rights to Tilda Swinton’s romance-drama “The Souvenir – Part 2,” closing the deal on the eve of the Sundance Film Festival. “The Souvenir” is set to make its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 27, followed by playing in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival in February. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content