Authenticity and the movies
The recent picking apart of the “The Hunger Games” for absurd “inaccuracies” from the characters’ races (in which case critics displayed both racism and very poor reading comprehension) to Jennifer Lawrence’s weight (seriously?) reminded me once again how mind-bogglingly hard some fans can be to please. Whenever a film adaptation of a hugely popular work emerges, there’s usually immense pressure from the fanbase for the film to adhere to their standard of “authenticity”. Sometimes, (in the case of the now infamous “Hunger Game” complaints) these accuracies reside solely in the fans’ heads. Other times, yes, these standards of accuracy are more legitimate, although they’re usually not much more than a mental checklist of details that the movie needs to get “right”.
To a lesser extent, a similar game occurs when movies or TV shows involve something that can be easily picked apart by someone who’s an expert in the area. From my experience, it’s rarely a good idea to talk to a history professor about virtually any historical film. And bringing up “Mad Men” to an actual 1960’s ad man will lead to a list of inaccuracies that are completely irrelevant to what makes it the best drama on TV (give or take a “Breaking Bad”).
With the first group, my policy is simple. I don’t give a damn about the accuracy of an adaptation when it comes to blow-by-blow details of the plot. When I was in college, a common topic of debate among my English major friends was over the superiority of which Pride and Prejudice adaptation: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film. I much prefer the latter. Many egos were shaken and fisticuffs exchanged, and it was never really resolved (movie debates never really are, nor should they be). But one argument for the former that I refused to even acknowledge was that it was a “more accurate adaptation”. If we’re talking about the quality of the film, you’re better off arguing that its sets had prettier wallpaper. Yes, the miniseries is a more accurate adaptation, but in its obsession to keeping true to almost every scene from the books, it’s a less-spirited, much more mundane experience, fanservice for the book’s legions of fans. Without Jane Austin’s wonderful prose, which was one-of-a-kind, it’s not much more than a skeleton of the book. Joe Wright’s version condenses the meat of the story and focuses on the two major plot points: Lizzie and Darcy’s romance as the main story, and the dramatic subplot of Lydia’s scandal. Yes, it cuts out a lot of material. It’s a movie, not the book. If you want all that stuff, read the damn book. The result is a much more moving cinematic experience, one that moves along as a film should, urgently and rather breathlessly, and in doing so it captures the spirit of Austen’s book more than the miniseries does, despite being less “accurate”. It has a sense of time and place and an energy beyond “here’s how I imagined it looking in my head when I read the book”. A movie without a directorial vision isn’t much of a movie at all.
With the second group, it’s more of a mixed bag. It doesn’t bother me that “The Elephant Man” or “Amadeus” are largely fictionalized. It does bother me that “A Beautiful Mind” was. Maybe that’s hypocritical. However, I think it’s that “A Beautiful Mind” doesn’t work as a film unless you think it’s real. Knowing that virtually nothing in the movie actually happened turns it into a series of manipulative, cloying set-pieces. “The Elephant Man,” by comparison, is so strongly acted, so well-written, that its transcends the type of film it could easily have become. John Merrick, the main character, is compelling in his own right, and its best scenes have a power all their own that stem from how strong his characterization is. In other words, it’s a movie, whereas “A Beautiful Mind” is cinematic lemon juice, aiming to draw tears without really earning them.
“Amadeus” on the other hand has no pretenses of realism. It casts off any notion of being a “true story” and turns Mozart into a cipher for its own, wildly entertaining tale. For me, the difference between “Amadeus” and “A Beautiful Mind” is similar to the difference between Mike Daisey’s controversial “This American Life” piece and the countless other spoken-word personal essays the show has had from the likes of David Sedaris and Da vid Rakoff. Daisey’s story was presented as a major scoop. The latter group are presented as personal recollections, which we know in advance are largely unverifiable.
For a film, “authenticity” and “truth” can be very tricky to deal with. A movie is usually under no ethical obligation to recount facts, unless it’s a documentary. And sometimes, complete fictionalizations, or great liberties taken with source material, are required for the purpose of making a movie. Movies are their own art form. They don’t have to meet any other’s standard. The only details a movie needs to get “right” are those that make it a better movie.