Friday, 4 March 2011

Yes, but is it TRUE? - Sue Purkiss

I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see 'The King's Speech'. It had been so highly praised that I feared it couldn't do anything but disappoint. In fact, I loved it. For anyone who hasn't yet seen it, it's beautifully written and incredibly well acted. It illuminates a very particular and specific area of British society - the royal family; but it also explores what it is like for any human being who has to struggle against a profound difficulty or disability - or even a relatively slight one: who among us who has on occasion to speak publically has not felt cripplingly nervous at the thought?
You're presented with the horror of it right at the beginning. Here is a stadium full of people waiting expectantly for a speech from the King's son: a man who suffers from an appalling stutter. He cannot refuse to do it: everyone is waiting. He knows that humiliation awaits: he has no choice but to endure it. Why, he must think, why did I have to live in an era when someone invented the microphone?
I won't go on - there can't be anyone who doesn't by now know the story. The reason I'm writing about it here is because of something my husband said after we'd seen the film. He's a history teacher, and he noted that in fact, Winston Churchill would not have been so prominently involved in the abdication as he was in the film. And it struck me that - in fact - Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth would have been older at the beginning of the war than they appeared to be in the film.
There may be lots of other factual inaccuracies or grey areas - I don't know. But it made me think - does it matter? I write historical fiction. I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching, but I'm not a historian so I generally start from a position of profound ignorance. I try to check facts which seem to me important - but then I make up conversations, I ascribe thoughts and motives, I imagine how that place looked, at that time, to that person; how this one felt, what that one dreamed. I imagine these things - I don't know them. I have written about real people: in Warrior King, I was writing about Alfred, a Dark Age king. I found out a lot, but there was a point at which I realised that some very basic stuff - how old he was when his mother died, how his brothers died, for example - was shrouded in mystery. I contacted an academic historian, who cheerfully reassured me that as it was all in the Dark Ages I could really make up what I wanted - and I did. And I think that's okay.
But is it okay when you're writing a book or a film about people who are still alive, or only recently dead? I felt uneasy after I'd seen the film about the founder of Facebook, The Social Contract. It had a very clear narrative, which was not complimentary to the young man at the centre of it. And he is still young - very young. How must it be for him to see writ large this version of his own life?
Is it enough for us to say - well, everyone knows it's fiction? Isn't it natural for all of us to assume that if we see something or read something, it's largely true? - even for picky individuals like me, who always want to know what the evidence is?
I don't know. I really don't. It's not going to stop me writing historical fiction, or reading it - to me, it's such a brilliant way to explore the worlds of the past. But - what do you think? Am I right to feel just a little bit uneasy about what I'm doing with the truth?


catdownunder said...

I believe it took Cynthia Harnett two years to research each of the books she wrote. There is a wealth of detail in them but she still had to "make things up". Historians have probably argue over whether she is right or wrong about certain things. (She mentions pressure-cookers as being an Italian invention and I would still like to know whether it is true!)
But I think that, for the sake of the story, it is sometimes necessary to move a little distance from the facts. That does not mean changing the facts so that the story becomes something different but allowing Churchill to take a larger role does no harm and "little princesses" were probably seen as more attractive - and possibly easier to write into the script. Their role is secondary. What matters (to me)is the King and Logue - and they were outstanding,
Incidentally I have a great deal to do with people who have serious and profound communication disabilities and the film has had a positive impact on them and for them.

Charlie Butler said...

I've not seen either The King's Speech or The Social Network, so caveat lector, but given Facebook's attitude to its users' privacy I don't think I'll be crying too many tears for Mark Zuckerberg.

I'm not sure I agree that increasing Churchill's role necessarily does not harm, though. I absolutely see why you might want to do it, because he's good box office and everyone's heard of him. But that of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy: after this film everyone will have heard of him even more, to the exclusion of whoever it was who did historically the things he's shown to have done here.

To those that have, more shall be given; big planets suck little ones into their gravitational field. I sometimes wonder how many of the quotations attributed to Churchill (or to Wilde, Shaw, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker or the other gas giants of the Dictionary of Quotations) were actually coined by some more obscure figure, lost to posterity because one of the Big Names came more easily to hand. Maybe it's not a great loss, but I feel that it's a loss nevertheless.

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely, Cat - I think it was absolutely fine for the film to take whatever small liberties it did take. It's subtler stuff that I'm thinking about, really. For instance, at the moment I'm writing a book which is largely set in prisoner of war camps in Europe in the second world war.I began with the recollections of a former POW - my father. I didn't have much, just a few intriguing anecdotes. So I began to read factual accounts, both first and second hand. And I realised that my dad's truth, or experience, wasn't necessarily the same as
other people's. The same event, described by different people who experienced it, becomes different in each account. So the truth of what happened sort of shifts.

And then there are films like The Social Contract and biopics about people who are still alive. They're fascinating to watch, but what are the ethics of making entertainment out of someone's life when that person is still very much alive?

I don't know - it's a big topic! Was just interested to know what other people thought.

catdownunder said...

Yes, I see what you are getting at but it is true not just of events but of absolutely everything. We may agree to call something blue but the way I see that colour will be the way I see colour. We do not taste carrot in the same way or think of a chair in the same way - so it is not just happenings.
As for people - we all view them differently as well. It is our personal experience which counts.
Mmm I feel a possible blog post coming up!

Katherine Roberts said...

I think it must be harder to dramatise recent history like the King's Speech. But the further you go back in time, the more gaps there are in our knowledge, and so the more freedom there is to make things up.

But even with well-known historical figures like Alexander the Great (who took great pains to document his conquests) you still only get the victor's view. The losing side rarely leaves much behind - usually because they have been wiped out and their cities and records destroyed.

Who really knows the truth, except someone who has lived through a period of history? And if they left records, how do we know they set out to write the whole truth and nothing but the truth? (And that's before you get down to personal experiences of the same event...) As you say, Sue, a big subject!

Leslie Wilson said...

First-person accounts can be unreliable, and it's always as well to check them against known facts. But then, what are the known facts? You can have seven people experiencing a certain event, and they will all experience it in different ways.
Memory is notoriously unreliable. If you're writing something based on your father's experience, I'd certainly say, yes, take his experience as against the other people - unless the other people's stories actually help flesh out what happened to him.
On the other hand, if you find out from documents that something you were told happened, couldn't possibly have happened, then that's good reason to doubt it. You then have the issue of whether the subjectivity is worth preserving at the expense of the historical facts, or whether you should maybe change the narrative to accord with facts.
However, two historians can tell quite different stories, and even documents - as with the Nazi period - can often tell, not what happened, but what the regime was prepared to put into writing.
So often it's a case of who you believe. These are the kinds of dilemmas I have faced in my search for a fiction that's not sailing away from the truth.

My feeling is that you do your best, recognising that you are bound to make mistakes - but that if you know something happened one way and you choose, for the sake of your fiction, to alter it, you must add a note to that effect in your novel!

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Princess Margaret was six at the time of the abdication, and Princess Elizabeth was ten. In 1939 that's nine and thirteen. No makeup, little girl dresses, with white socks, and they were bound to look a lot younger than the modern equivalent.

Sue Purkiss said...

You're quite right! My intention wasn't to criticise the film - far from it, as you'll see from what I said at the beginning. It just made me think generally about the question of accuracy and what does and doesn't matter. I didn't think the Churchill thing mattered, and even if I'd been right about the princesses, I wouldn't have thought that mattered either. It just made me think about circumstances in which it might matter. Sorry if that's as clear as mud!

Book Maven said...

Is it not the case that Mark Zuckerberg has pointed out the inaccuracies in the film The Social Network? For example, he is still living with the girlfriend he met at Harvard, though the film starts with his breaking up with his partner?

He might even be suing, which would be ironic.

I very much enjoyed both films, which were about something real and interesting.

Stroppy Author said...

The valuable truths in fiction are the human truths - how people think, feel, behave in ways that we recognise as harmonising with our own experience of life. So the King's feelings in the face of humiliation are more important than the presence or absence of Churchill (say).

I don't think we should play fast and loose with historical truth (insofaras that is determinable) but neither should we lose sight of the notion that the point of writing fiction is to document the internal landscape of being human rather than the external history of events. Non-fiction should strive after literal truth, but we don't have to do that to an obsessive degree when writing something that is acknowledged as fiction.

That said, the involvement of historical figures - especially in writing for children - leads inevitably to some confusion. Perhaps including them as incidental characters in a narrative about made-up people is even trickier for child readers than writing exclusively about made-up people!

Keren David said...

Almost everything about Churchill was wrong in The King's Speech. He supported Edward VIII and didn't want to see him abdicate, he would never have walked with George VI to make his speech. He was in the film as a British politican that American viewers would recognise.
I have mixed feelings about this. I think writers and film makers do have a duty to the truth..and yet they also have licence to play with the facts as well. The King's Speech is really a transformation-through-therapy story, beloved of Hollywood. Does it matter if British political details are wrong? I'm not sure.
I am far more bothered when writers and film makers create 'fables' out of the facts of the Holocaust, which seem to bend the mass murder of millions to their dubious messages, and play intot he hands of holocaust deniers. That seems to me to be just plain wrong.

Anonymous said...

As many critics have said, Churchill was there because he 'belongs' in old films and we know him well.
The princesses were the wrong age because they used the same two actresses for most of the film, which stretched over some years, and not just 1938.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, Bookwitch - I can see why they did it, and I'd probably have done the same - it wouldn't have made sense to introduce two new princesses for one short scene, and Churchill has resonance, particularly for US audiences, where a more pbscure politician wouldn't have. It just made me think, that's all!