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Truth vs. fiction

A source of persistent tension in Hollywood

TRUTH CAN BE stranger than fiction, but it’s seldom as entertaining — a source of persistent tension in Hollywood with regard to the liberties taken when adapting fact-based stories for movies and TV.

An intellectual debate about the practice ensued last week over “Green Zone,” director Paul Greengrass’ political thriller, which indulged in considerable leaps (albeit to little avail commercially) in order to transform the hunt for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction into a vehicle of mass diversion.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott articulated what might be called the “Nearly true can be A-OK” hypothesis, writing that while “Green Zone” “may not be literally accurate in every particular, it has the rough authority of novelistic truth.” He added that the movie seems to epitomize mainstream cinema’s ability “to streamline the complexities of the real world without becoming overly simplistic, to fictionalize without falsifying.”

But how, exactly, do you “fictionalize without falsifying?” That was the conundrum the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern couldn’t quite get his head around, concluding that the movie’s slapdash relationship with reality “weakens its claim to authenticity with fictional fudgings” and simultaneously “pollutes” its appeal by encumbering the action with “real-world meaning.”

Both have their points, but I’m far more with Morgenstern than Scott , especially when movies deal with hotbed issues and subject matter still fresh enough to be in the headlines.

If a film derives its power in part from being billed as “based on” or “inspired by” a true story or actual events, a lack of fidelity does tend to undermine its power. Moreover, the “We’re seeking larger truth” argument sounds especially flimsy when such dramatizations invade the political realm, as was the case with “The Reagans,” “The Path to 9/11,” “W.,” and the History cabler’s upcoming (and already controversial) miniseries “The Kennedys.”

Others had similar problems with “Inglourious Basterds,” which dared rewrite World War II as revenge fantasy. Yet that seemed easier to swallow than “Green Zone,” inasmuch as its war is still being fought. Even so, let’s hope Quentin Tarantino’s lark doesn’t unleash a wave of revisionist war stories, a la “Apocalypse Now: Victory in ‘Nam,” “Coming Home: Hero’s Welcome” and “Gone With the Wind: President Robert E. Lee’s Revenge.”

More troubling, potentially, are projects dealing with ordinary figures where the facts are less well known — and less likely to produce advocates to champion the truth. Often, such changes don’t seriously detract from the story (“Changeling,” a remarkable tale even with the movie’s alterations, comes to mind), but I confess to feeling a little cheated upon learning that Michael Oher — the offensive lineman featured in “The Blind Side” — wasn’t some sheepish behemoth before the Sandra Bullock character tutored him on the finer points of pass protection.

The uncomfortable process of straining facts to fit a dramatic mold occurs even more frequently in TV movies, which still revel in dramatizing sensational stories while reshaping reality with composite characters and invented sequences. In Lifetime’s recent “The Pregnancy Pact,” for example, the movie somehow claimed to be both “inspired by” a true story and that any resemblance to actual persons is “purely coincidental” — the sort of mealy-mouthed qualifier likely attributable to a phalanx of lawyers. Similarly, the upcoming “Amish Grace” takes a sobering tragedy — the shooting of several schoolchildren — and significantly amends its aftermath.

As for small details, it was difficult not to wince seeing “Green Zone’s” disgraced reporter morph from the real New York Times scribe Judith Miller into a fake one (played by Amy Ryan) employed by the Wall Street Journal. Embracing this logic would be a bit like constructing a subplot around a bearded, middle-aged Variety hack and calling him Joe Wallenguider of the Hollywood Reporter.

In laboring to rationalize such flourishes, producers begin to resemble the newspaperman in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” who, when presented with a story that isn’t as satisfying as the popularly held hero myth, concludes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Or just rewrite history. If the movie flops, nobody will care. And if it’s a hit, hey, we can always sort out the details and damage later on “Larry King Live.”

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