Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How much can we lie?

Ever since I heard a cool story at Alcatraz I've been working on researching a screenplay I want to write that takes place there. I bought a book on the island about Robert Stroud, the Birdman, the subject of the film Birdman of Alcatraz. I read the book, which was largely a scholarly examination of his life in as accurate detail as possible. Then I watched Birdman of Alcatraz.

In a college French class, I decided for my project I would research the Three Musketeers and see how close the novel came to depicting true events. Eh. Kind of close. Then I watched the Disney movie. That film couldn't have had more contempt for historical accuracy if it made the Musketeers Portuguese aliens living on Orion's belt. I'm not sure anyone involved with that film actually read the book.

The Three Musketeers was a much bigger violation, but Birdman of Alcatraz takes a lot of liberties with the truth in order to make the guy look like a hero. Did you know he was not only gay, but wrote kiddie and incest porn and passed it around to all the prisoners? Of course you can't have a gay would-be pedophile as your star in 1962 so you have to give the man a love story, created from a real relationship he had with a woman he manipulated to his own ends. In the film he seems quietly heroic, but in real life he was an asshole who felt like everybody on earth owed him because his daddy didn't love him.

And because this film made Stroud look like such a great guy unjustly treated by the evil inhuman prison system, people made a big hullaballoo about getting him out of prison. Because of this film, people wrote angry letters and he was very nearly released into our midst - a man who murdered two people and didn't feel the least bit bad about it.

We take liberties with history. Hell, I'm doing it right now in my current script. We have to be able to do it because nobody wants to watch a movie about a murderous pedophile who uses everyone who cares about him and stinks up his cell with bird poop. It's hard to root for that guy. So we change things. They didn't change the story too much in the film; the events are fairly accurate. But they changed the man's entire personality.

So I guess the question is, how much should we change things? Should we be able to change a man's entire character? Should we be able to make the impossible possible? What do you think?


  1. Okay, with "Joan The Maid," my Joan of Arc epic, I tried to get to the core of her personality.

    Events can and sometimes should be altered. Personalities, however, should not. What's the story about, after all, if not the person.

  2. Anonymous9:41 PM

    Didn't the film "A Beautiful MInd" cause a hubbub because of this very thing? Interesting point to make, Emily.

  3. That's definitely a good point, domremy03.

    And yeah, Anonymous. I hadn't thought about A Beautiful Mind but that's a perfect example. I liked that film, but was indeed disappointed to learn the truth about the man. I'm torn on that.

  4. I wanted to make a film about a German film-maker. He made a fairly innocent movie and Joseph Goebbels re-cut it and added footage...to make the Holocaust seem like a good idea, to help it find public support.
    I really thought I could make the guy a hero. I tried for years! But, when my research showed that he didn't save anybody, that he wasn't particularly noble, I dumped it.

    A little naughty business is one thing; giving fucking Hitler a hand in wiping out 6 million people? Naw.

    However, Thomas Alva Edison WAS a total fucking asshole and I'm still developing that project.

  5. Worse, for me, is when many seem to believe in the fiction of something like "The Da Vinci Code", and would never have an interest in the actual man, who was a genius.

    Killer box office though!

  6. As long as you don't kill Hitler off, I'm down.


  7. Hah. I'm right there with you, Unk.

  8. turns out i have a lot of strong opinions about this. i realized it as i nearly wrote an essay in response to your post.
    but it boils down to this: truth shmruth. art is about greater truths than facts.
    so is commerce.
    write what is awesome. if need be, use the truth or the facts or whatever. they are but a tool in the old arsenal. and that's it.
    the end.

  9. I hate these dilemmas.

    Sometimes history isn't filmable without changing MAJOR STUFF.

    The BIG lie may then attract attention to the real thing, which in turn helps people see the truth.

    Without the lie, they wouldn't have taken note in the first place.

    For instance, I would have never heard about John Nash.

    On the other hand: if for me A BEAUTIFUL MIND is a powerful journey from hubris to humility, does it matter what the real man was like?

    I have no answer to the question, but sometimes I believe "as much as it takes".

    About Hitler etc.:

    IF lying about the war (i.e. building a workable metaphor) could prevent the same horror from happening again by giving people an awareness through fiction, would you?

  10. This is a tricky one . . ..

    "A Beautiful Mind" is a great film. And I don't think it suffers because the real life story on which it is based is quite different. But it also doesn't hurt anyone if a general audience assumes incorrect things about this man's life because of the film. The film is about schizophrenia, and it was quite accurate about that experience.

    But instead if you make a film that is going to make the Holocaust look justified or get someone out of prison who shouldn't be . . . then I think you've gone too far. If you want to tell a story 'inspired by' the events of the Birdman of Alcatraz's life . . . well, if you're really recasting his personality then you're probably better off making up a new, fictional, person who experiences all the events that the real person went through. Otherwise you're manipulating your audience in a way that is likely to have harmful effects on the world.


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