A recent cover of the “Datebook,” a Sunday tabloid insert in the San Francisco Chronicle that covers art, entertainment, and literary topics, reminded me of the phrase that journalism sometimes represents the art of merely filling space. What the space is filled with is frequently fluffed up a bit to give it an aura of substance that it probably doesn’t otherwise deserve, and sometimes, the headline for and the content of a piece are sufficiently divergent to be almost misleading. Such was the “Datebook” cover that screamed “When Hxllywxxd Gets It Wrong.” The article, by writer Mick LaSalle, pokes fun at, criticizes, and sometimes condemns a litany of movies that have gotten their facts incorrect. For example, he criticizes “Gravity” because Sandra Bullock’s hair is not floating in disarray as it would in the reality of weightlessness as she levitates through a spacecraft door dressed very similarly to Sigourney Weaver in the first “Alien” movie. The caption under a picture of Forest Whitaker from “The Butler” points out the movie “was based on a true story, but many of the ‘facts’ were false.”
The term false is pretty accusatorial. It intimates an intentional act of deception as opposed to a factual error or something the writer or director attaches considerably less significance to than the fine-tooth equipped critic looking for something to write about. It may, which happens in many sci-fi flicks, ignore reality in sake of story. When a true story is adapted into a movie, some of the reality is lost, or adjusted, or fictionalize to increase its impact as story. Rarely do real life stories track the same structure as that of the short story or novel or a movie. It’s not that mistakes were made; adjustments and adaptations were.
In a sidebar to the article, Peter Hartlaub adds to the list of movie mistakes, and establishes himself as a true movie flub buff. Together the articles provide plenty of fodder for cocktail chatter, but they miss the point about factual inaccuracies in fiction generally and movies specifically. Many of the “flubs” in movies are more likely driven by legitimate budget limitations—how many more takes and at what expense to not to have the hubcap fly off the Dodge charger multiple times as it chases Steve McQueen around streets of San Francisco in “Bullitt”?
Just as likely, a director is less concerned about the accuracy of the background and more concerned with what it does to enhance the scene. Usually the audience simply doesn’t care that Dustin Hoffman is driving the wrong way on the Bay Bridge in “The Graduate,” partly because such minor, insubstantial, and non-substantive things have little or nothing to do with the plot.
I recall a wonderful presentation on the art of “Star Wars” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) several years back. Darth Vader, encased in a Plexiglas display sat in a dim corner, to be occasionally lit up at four-second intervals. The four seconds represented the longest period of time the movie camera actually focused on him. The image created an aura of high-tech villainy, but the “real life” display allowed you to linger and take a closer look and see that in many ways this bad boy of space looked positively cheesy. All those gizmos on his belt were blocks of painted balsa wood. Sort of like the jellybean buttons on the flight deck on the Enterprise in the Star Trek television series.
Allusion is at the heart of movie making. Much about which LaSalle and Hartlaub complain likely was intended by some director to merely set the scene, locate the characters physically and/or geographically in relationship to the story, or to set a mood, much like the background in a painting. If you notice, when you’re having a conversation over lunch with someone across the table, the background loses its focus in your vision for the simple reason that you’re not focusing on it. In movies, frequently, you’re not meant to focus on the background details, but they hang there for a sufficient number of seconds and thus allow visual exploration by movie trivia buffs who pay less attention to the story and the acting and more to search of meaningless errors.
Finding such movie flubs can be fun, but they hardly rise to some substantive failure on the part of the director. Extend the logic of LaSalle and Hartlaub, and you would have to condemn the “back lots” of Hollywood for misrepresentations. After all, the behind-the-front-line Korean “MASH” unit was actually just a few miles from Los Angeles. And what about the streets of Vancouver becoming the streets of San Francisco, not to trick us but to save some money?
Although the Chronicle writers focus on the visual arts, they raise the legitimate question for the print writer as to what extent is his or her obligation to be factually accurate. I’m not talking about the fact that there doesn’t exist a group of forensic pathologists out there who also solve crimes, and cops who constantly rely on written reports but never seem to write one, or that most police officers retire having fired their weapon only at a police range target. Put that kind of accuracy on the screen and viewers would go to sleep. Moviemakers aren’t expected to present the boring footage between when the detectives jump into their car to when they slide to a screeching stop at the crime scene. It’s the screeching stop you’re after. But when they climb out of their squad, you might want them to act more like real detectives—not to achieve dead on accuracy, that would be both boring and time-killing, but to acquire a level of credibility that makes their actions come across as authentic. Credibility and authenticity have more to do with supplying enough facts to get the reader to buy into the author’s version of reality.
Fiction takes liberties with facts and reality, that why it’s called fiction. It deals with imaginary events and people and places. At my house you would hear me sometimes vociferously criticize the inaccuracies of the typical TV courtroom scene, not because I feel they got in wrong but rather they didn’t get it right enough to achieve credibility. In my courtroom reality, I would employ a little bit of stage drama techniques, not to fool the jury but to keep their interest. Courtroom reality can be damn boring.
The novelist can paint a scene in great detail or chose to use a very light brush and leave the finer details to a reader’s imagination. Unlike in a movie, the writer is able to take the reader inside a character’s head for some background thoughts and perspective. The moviemaker has to visualize virtually everything but can play around with lighting and focus and use other techniques to enhance the mood of a scene or personality of a character. The screen requires that something to be there, which makes what is projected there ever so much more subject to inspection and thus criticism. It’s a risk of the business.
The same lesson, however, applies to both print and screen—that which is presented as authentic probably should be authentic. For the writer that usually means doing some research, the depth of which is driven by the depth of the writer’s reliance on it. You can’t bend the truth unless you know the truth.
Still, there is a difference between substantive details and insignificant set dressing. The writer who pays attention to both will attain greater popularity because readers trust an author who writes credible stuff. Readers respect authors who do their homework. And, if you know and understand the realities, you’re in a better position to know the extent to which your poetic license lets you tweak and modify them. John Grisham does this pretty well. Patricia Cornwall is a master at it. She knows her science and every book impresses the reader with how she uses her knowledge to empower the credibility of her plots and characters. She entertains and educates her fans at the same time. Sue Grafton is closing in on the last of her alphabet series about her private eye Kinsey Millhone. In her acknowledgements in each novel, she gives credit to the experts upon whom she relied to acquire some plot-specific expertise.
Ms. Grafton knows of credibility. The reason you have not seen Ms. Millhone in any electronic venues is that, according to Ms. Grafton, she would lose half her readers because the director’s version of Kinsey Millhone would not be their version. She knows that credibility comes in part from your fans and their perceptions and expectations.
Am I stating the obvious? To an extent. But in our world of self-publishing, it’s the author who seeks to adhere to the rigors of professional editors in the big publishing firms who likely will do better. There is a difference between a B movie and an A movie. Same for the work product of a writer. A movies and A books get their important facts right.
Choosing the right, i.e., accurate, facts can be as important as choosing the right word. As Mark Twain said, the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug. Incorrect facts reduce the voltage of an otherwise good story.
Factuality can be a little more challenging to the writer. Overdo the effort for accuracy and you run the risk of drowning the reader in a flood of trivia. Viewers might well have spotted the excess numbers of hubcaps flying about in “Bullitt,” but were likely more interested in the chase scene. The viewers of the Tom Cruise version of “War of the Worlds” were probably so caught up in the horror of the alien invasion not to question why an alien civilization so advanced as to have planted killing machines centuries earlier might not have already discovered the potential of bacteriological infection in the various galactic environments they encounter.
The trick is to find the right balance of accuracy to achieve credibility without coming across as a pedant. The formula for that does not exist. It’s a matter of knowing—like the baby bear in “The Three Bears”—when the porridge is just right, you generally know it, and your credibility might just depend upon it. It’s one of those things to which a writer needs to be sensitive.