By Ola Zaltin
We live our lives in an ever-growing stream of media cascading down on us in ever-increasing amounts. Only a Luddite with a monastic bent (with cravings for Weetabix and water on an outer-outer, outer Hebridean reef) can evade this Niagara of nonsense raining down on us with the force to stun, incapacitate and render us utterly incapable of discerning between what is worthwhile and that which is Miley Cyrus.
Forever trying to catch the elusive present, (truly capturing the Now: also known as herding cats), it seems the more our post-modern ironic age progresses, the better we technologically get at catching the moment; snapping the Instagram, sending the Tweet, doing the Vine. But where are we? Where am I? Really? Where is the moment where we get to rest, to put away the mobile phone, close down the laptop, unplug the iPad: to truly reflect about our life without our faces glowing of LCD-blue reflected glare? To quote Kierkegaard: “Life can only be lived forwards; but is understood backwards.” To me, it seems we today are living in a constant breathless forward, hunting for the next Now, but letting our backward - our memories - become piles of meaningless snapshots of empty symbols of our sunshiny smiling status and success.
In TV and film writing, there’s of course fiction and non-fiction, with the documentary attempting the art of doing history real justice. Fiction film and TV, however, gets into very murky waters when it tries to tell a story based on real events or an autobiographical account: embellishing, dramatizing or outright falsifying what really happened. And this is where it gets interesting, from a dramaturgical point of view.
Because the thin red line here is between telling the real story as true as possible, versus telling it as well as possible. And (almost) every time film-makers attempt to give the “real” story some salt, pepper and vinegar - the living survivors, the real life people, will cry “foul!” and every time the writers tell the story beat-by-beat-as-it-were, it becomes an incredibly dreary piece of muck. (With, of course, some very notable exceptions.)
Cases in point:
Band of Brothers was based on biographer Stephen E. Ambrose’s book of the same name, and followed some real men, (some that died in the war) of the allies’ campaign in western Europe leading up to VE day in 1945. Likewise, The Pacific did the same thing but told the tale of American men in the Pacific theatre of operations during WWII. To me, they share the same problems (and that is not that Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg produced both series). The main problem being that the producers had to try to tell the story as closely to how it really happened: one of the selling points of both series is that these are real people and true stories. And right there, they run into creative difficulties. The characters are never allowed to become real people, although they are based on real people. Despite taking some poetic license with the fictionalized tale v. what really happened, it never really takes off. They become puppets in the producer’s attempt to show “real war, real living men”. And real war is sad, and boring, meaningless and empty, and for some few minutes: terrifying. “Hurry up and wait”, as the old US Army saying goes, is the usual day of a soldier. Most of all, trying to depict real war as it is, is very very hard if you’re doing it from a preset of real events. Because your half-fictional story, based on real events, very easily becomes sad, boring and empty - very seldom terrifying, with few exceptions meaningful. This is where, for me, where the bough snaps. I recently re-viewed both series in their entirety, and just as the first two viewings, I came away not remembering one single character’s name, not one single really awe-inspiring sequence or scene that moved me to laughter, true fear, or love and understanding of the men put in these terrible situations.
Compare this to the Spielberg-directed Saving Private Ryan. This is a wholly fictional story, but based on real events (D-day landings) and here Spielberg excels: he gets to take history and make it into his own story - with the panache, humour, swagger, fear, love and dedication the citizen soldiers of WWII possessed. Add fierce combat scenes, amazing steady-cam work and amazing attention to detail and the film completely re-wrote how war movies are told and produced forever. Freed of the chains of real characters and “who died/who didn’t”, Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat went full-out and killed off characters to the right and left with abandon - what suits the narrative dictates who lives and who dies.
Saving Private Ryan has come under some intense criticism: after all it wasn’t the USA who won the war, they merely out-produced everyone else. It was the Soviets who took the full brunt of the Wehrmacht and kicked their ass, at the cost of millions and millions of their population and soldiers. (And on a scriptwriting note, the whole film - told as a flashback through the eyes of the now much aged Private Ryan - makes a very big non-sequitur: how on earth could he know all that happened BEFORE Captain Miller and his squad actually found him in a field on the outskirts of Ramelle?) However, I find this the hallmark of a great fictional story based on actual events, instead of being flat and insipid (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) a great true story fiction tale is one that sparks off debate and opinionated discourse, in a word: passion.
Two other excellent films, based on true events - one without any actual survivors, the other with survivors - are United 93 and Das Boot. Incidentally, both are about doomed people encased in pressurized tubes of metal, albeit under very different circumstances. Both attempt to recreate how it really was, and both succeed in their own different ways.
Das Boot (1981), the tale of German submariners during WWII, based on the book by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, created a sensation when it was released in 1981 and to this day stands not only as a WWII classic, but a film classic all of its own. Author Buchheim did not like. In a lengthy “review” he pointed out all the faults, the “over-dramatization”, the cheap thrills and so on. And reading this review, one chuckles fondly, as it becomes so abundantly clear how Buchheim has no clue whatsoever what “dramatization” entails, and that director Wolfgang Petersen made all the right choices, down to the last depth charge, in the choices he made in trying to depict a fictional version of true life memories of survivors.
United 93 (2006) attempts to chronicle what happened on one of the four airplanes hijacked on 9/11, the only flight that did not make it to its intended target. Writer/Director Paul Greengrass faced a huge challenge, script-wise, as no one survived the crash in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. He only had relatives’ stories about their lost ones, and the cell-phone calls they made from the hijacked plane to go on. He re-created the characters (remaining mostly nameless throughout the film, as passengers probably wouldn’t have had much time for cordiality) from the memories of their bereaved families and friends, and naturally had to guess a lot of what went on during those fateful 30 minutes. With so little to work with, Greengrass as both screenwriter and director pulls it off without a hitch and makes a very convincing interpretation of events.
To sum up: real-life stories and characters are very tricky to adapt for the screen, but when done right, can be just plain riveting (this writer’s new addiction is the HBO series “Masters of Sex” with a brilliant Michael Sheen in the lead role). As we’re inexorably drawn into the Oscar-season, it might be worth noting how many Oscars have gone to real life stories and characters. Charlize Theron won her Oscar for Monster, Jaimie Foxx his for Ray, Cate Blanchett The Aviator, Philip Seymour-Hoffman for Capote, Helen Mirren The Queen - and these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. You do notice a trend, though, I hope? (Also: Daniel Day-Lewis won both his Oscars from portrayal of real-life characters.) This award season is no different, with the list of potential nominees ranging from Tom Hanks, twice, for a supporting Oscar in Saving Mr. Banks to Best Actor in Captain Phillips to Leonardo diCaprio for Wolf of Wall Street, Judi Dench for Philomena, and on goes the list (when going to the bookies: expect a huge rainfall of statuettes for 12 Years a Slave).
I believe one of the factors why real-life characters portrayed on film are so popular is that we, the audience, are invited to compare the actor’s version to our memories and perceptions of the character being played. Afterwards, we go “Yeah, that’s the amalgam of Thatcher, brilliant, she nailed it” or “What a ridiculous thing, to give an Oscar to an American playing the queen bitch of British history.” Whatever one’s view, we’re sure to have one.
Real life historical events - the more tragic, the better - inspire our emotional investment. As Kate Winslet says in the mockumentary Extras (supposedly playing a nun in a film about Anne Frank): “I don’t think we’re going to need another bloody film about the Holocaust, I mean how many have there been? We get it: it was grim, move on! No I’m doing it because I’ve noticed, if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar!”
Funny, because two years later Winslet won hers for her role in The Reader, a film where she plays an ex-concentration camp guard. Now that’s True Fiction.