Monday, January 24, 2011

It's time to stop this obsession with works of art based on real events

From Oscar favourite The King's Speech to ex-Booker winner Wolf Hall, art that retells events is now the mainstay of films and books.
But the concentration on reality stops writers using the imagination for storytelling.

William Skidelsky The Observer, Sunday 23 January 2011

Throughout their history, movies have been talked about in terms of dreaming: studios are "dream factories"; Hollywood is "the land of dreams". But scanning the list of contenders for this year's Oscars, such descriptions feels misplaced. The most striking thing about the leading films of the last 12 months is how many draw their inspiration from fact.

The leading Oscar contenders, The King's Speech and The Social Network, both offer fictionalised portraits of familiar but enigmatic public figures – a monarch and a monumentally successful entrepreneur. But it's also true of other hotly tipped releases such as The Fighter (about boxer Micky Ward) and 127 Hours (about rock climber Aron Ralston), as well as films still to hit our screens such as The Conquest (about the early life of President Sarkozy) or next year's Freddie Mercury movie starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

Is this glut of fact-based films a coincidence, or is something fundamental going on? Artists basing work on real people and events is hardly a new phenomenon. Shakespeare was very good at it, as Henry IV and Richard III attest. In Paradise Lost, Milton fictionalised the lives of two figures then regarded as historical: Adam and Eve. One of the greatest of all films, Citizen Kane, was inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst. Even so, there has been a shift in recent years away from works of pure imagination towards ones that combine fact and fiction. This has been the case in every story-based medium.

Take literature. By far the most successful British novel of the last two years (if you measure success in terms of acclaim as well as sales) has been Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall, based on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Though a superb literary achievement, Wolf Hall is also not unlike The King's Speech (or indeed The Social Network) in the way it takes a factual story whose contours are already familiar (in this case, the reign of Henry VIII) and attempts to unmask the private truth behind it. It is far from being alone. Accompanying Mantel's novel on the 2009 Booker shortlist were Adam Foulds's The Quickening Maze, about the poet John Clare, AS Byatt's The Children's Book, whose heroine is modelled on the writer E Nesbit, and Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, set in a (real) modernist villa in 1930s Czechoslovakia. Howard Jacobson's two closest challengers for last year's Booker likewise drew their inspiration from real events: Peter Carey, in Parrot and Olivier in America, fictionalised the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, while Emma Donoghue, in Room, gave us an imaginative response to Josef Fritzl. This spring the trend continues, with novels about Herman Melville (by Jay Parini), HG Wells (by David Lodge), and Princess Diana (by Monica Ali), to name a few.

Television and theatre are no different. In recent times BBC4 has churned out endless biopics whose subjects include Fanny Cradock, Kenneth Williams, Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland. There was the Channel 4 drama The Deal (in which Michael Sheen made his debut as Tony Blair) and the Yorkshire Ripper-inspired Red Riding Quartet. In coming months, there's a BBC2 drama about the Munich air crash and an ITV film about Fred West. On stage, there's been the revival of political theatre, not to mention the spectacular success of plays such as Frost/Nixon and Enron.

What has prompted this flood of fact-based storytelling? The reasons for these kinds of cultural shift are never easy to pinpoint, but this one surely has a lot to do with changing ideas about privacy and truth. Over the past decade or so we have, as a culture, become much less attached to the idea that certain aspects of life should remain private. An increasingly intrusive press regards it as its job to sniff out the secrets of the rich and famous. Respect towards those in positions of authority has dramatically declined. The result is that a terrain to which entry was once largely barred – the private lives of those in the public gaze – has become accessible. And this has given new licence to artists. Even a decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine a film like The Queen – dealing with the relationship between a living monarch and a serving prime minister – being made. Now finding yourself in a novel or film is one of the hazards of being famous.

Read the full interesting piece at The Observer.


James George said...

From a commercial perspective the authors/film-makers are tapping in to a ready made audience, which gives the project a significant head start.

From a craft perspective the project has already been backgrounded by the real events as reported and uncovered in direct research by the author/film-maker and (if the subject is very famous) by a wealth of other books already published. That gives a head start with the writing.

From a personal perspective, there's room to find a personal drama behind the public image, to humanize (and/or often vilify) the subject.

Any way you look at it, it's a sound business idea.

In artistic terms the project really only works if the artist finds something new, something with poignancy beyond just the individual, something universal.

Claire G said...

The article ignores the fact that film-makers snap up ready-made stories of fiction as well as non-fiction. The LOTR, Harry Potter and Narnia movies, for instance, were all based on published novels — series, to boot — that were already very successful. (The books that Shrek I and Babe were based on were less well-known, but still great stories.)

Given the huge amount of work in producing movies, an existing story complete with readership will, as James George indicates, make such projects both more manageable and more marketable.

And yes, the use of historical events and people has the bonus of offering us glimpses into public figures’ private lives and a sense of having ‘been there’ when history was being made. It’s interesting to consider whether, after leaving the cinema, we’re conscious that we’ve experienced a story rather than the historical truth ... whatever that may be.

Rachel Fenton said...

Arguably, depictions of the Royal family, however factual, can hardly be called "real life".

James George said...

I think the Royal Family is one of the great soap operas of modern times. Been a lack of larger-than-life characters lately though, needs some new script ideas.

In this country the All Blacks might be our longest running soap opera. The number of spin-off books about individual characters is astounding. Good market in action figures, too.

Eni said...

I think this obsession with these writers such as Enid Blyton should continue since we learn a lot about them through these films, after all there is a Chinese saying that let a hundred flowers blossom.

Stephen Isabirye is the author of a book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
Stephen Isabirye