Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Double Standards


Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

by Lois Winston

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Let me tell you about the rich. They are different from you and me.” The same thing can be said about celebrities. We all know that there are separate rules for celebrities. They commit crimes and most of the time serve little or no jail time. A non-celebrity committing the same acts will likely receive a stiff sentence.

Did you know, though, that the same can be said for novelists vs. screenwriters? Most novel authors are held to a very high standard when it comes to research. Editors question everything to make sure we have our facts right. In Hollywood facts don’t matter. Time and time again I see history rewritten by screenwriters who feel a movie works better if they don’t keep to the facts. Sometimes they only tweak things a little here and there. Other times they totally rewrite history.

I feel confident making these statements thanks to a conversation I had recently with a park services historian and tour guide at FDR’s home in Hyde Park. Several months ago I saw Hyde Park on the Hudson, the story of FDR’s relationship with his cousin Daisy Suckley. I brought up the movie because the exterior of the home featured in the film didn’t look like the one we were touring. That’s because the movie was filmed entirely in England, not in Hyde Park. However, as it also turned out, that was just a minor detail compared to the film’s content.

For the next ten minutes or so I heard a long list of everything the movie had gotten wrong. And when I say everything, I mean everything. No scene, whether plot or dialogue, escaped a huge rewriting of historical facts. And in some cases, had the screenwriters stuck to the actual, documented conversations and events, the movie would have been improved!

The park service had provided the producers with all sorts of records, both written and on film, which they completely ignored, twisted, and rewrote. The movie is so factually inaccurate that the park service requested all their employees see it specifically to be able to set visitors straight.

Now, I realize that sometimes authors also take artistic liberties. This often occurs in historical fiction. Sometimes an author might compress a timeline when depicting historical events or combine several historical characters into one for better plot flow. When this happens, though, the author will include an author’s note explaining why she took such liberties. Movies don’t do this. They leave us believing we’ve watched an accurate portrayal of events as they occurred during the period. It’s no wonder so many people have a skewed sense of history.

Let me tell you about screenwriters. They are different from you and me...

Award-winning author Lois Winston writes the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series featuring magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Kirkus Reviews dubbed it, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Other books in the series includes Death By Killer Mop Doll, Revenge of the Crafty Corpse and the ebook only mini-mysteries Crewel Intentions and Mosaic Mayhem. Lois is also published in women’s fiction, romance, romantic suspense, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Visit Lois at www.loiswinston.com, visit Emma at www.emmacarlyle.com, and visit Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog, www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. Follow everyone on Twitter @anasleuth.

13 comments:

Kathleen Ernst said...

Years ago, I remember going to see a movie adaptation. Before the film began a screen shot advised us that the movie was "loosely based on" The Scarlet Letter. My husband and I still use "loosely based on" to describe any film that strays particularly far from the facts or original fiction.

Lois Winston said...

From what I've seen, Kathleen, that disclaimer should be used on all movie adaptations and all movies about historical events.

Carolyn said...

I have noticed this for a long time, too, Lois! You wrote a concise statement about the problem that really says it all. I cant tell you how many times I've rolled my eyes at the TV with a rather sarcastic, "Yah, I love how they get away with that stuff--*I* couldn't do that as a writer!" It's all about money...people don't go to movies to see accuracy, apparently, they go to be entertained...at least, that's what the producers will tell you. What I don't understand is why we can't be as easily entertained with a fictionalized version of the FACTS more often. I actually think that would be pretty compelling....

BrennaLyons said...

It's not just historical facts, either. Let me tell you, my husband is a nuclear and electrical engineer, and my oldest is a veterinarian in training. The science facts they get wrong in movies are horrific! And not just in movies...TV shows as well. Not to mention, most movies I see have plot holes/continuity errors large enough to drive a Mack truck through.

I still enjoy the old joke from ROCK-A-BYE BABY with Jerry Lewis. When the starlet is crying, her agent tries to soothe her with: "Now don't cry, honey. You haven't even SEEN the screenplay of The White Virgin of the Nile. I talked to four of the screenwriters, one of whom actually READ the book, and he told me they'd only changed the last 200 pages of the original story."

Lois Winston said...

Thanks for stopping by, Carolyn and Brenna!

Brenna, continuity issues are a whole other blog post for another day.

Rayne Golay said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic. As a movie buff, I'm forever irritated with the bastardization of good books, historical or otherwise, once they get translated to the big screen. The one that continues to upset me is Les Miserable. The "musical" has nothing to do with Victor Hugo's world classical book, his wonderful characters. Having read the book both in the original and in English and seen the French film with Jean Gabin and Jean Valjean, I find it shameful that the story was so distorted and made ugly in the so called musical.

Mark Baker said...

I am actually pretty forgiving of novelists and screenwriters if I can tell is served their plot. If, however, it's a minor detail, it can drive me to distraction, like inventing a freeway direction that two seconds on Google maps would show them doesn't exhist.

History, on the other hand, bugs me since so many people believe what they read and what they see. Without question. I'll forgive an author who explains the changes they made in an author's note, but when was the last time a movie did that?

I wonder if one reason that movies get a pass that books don't is that we have more time to think about books as we read them. And if it's because readers are thinkers as a general rule.

Lois Winston said...

Rayne, never having read the Hugo original, I can't comment. I do love the music from the musical, though.

One of my favorite musicals is Wicked, which is nothing like the Maguire book of the same name. Both definitely gives a new twist to the Wizard of Oz stories, and once you see Wicked, you'll never look at Dorothy and the Wicked Witch the same way. ;-)

I think there's a big difference between using an established story as a jumping off point to explore the characters and world in a new light and writing a screenplay that's supposed to be about actual events and totally misrepresenting those events.

Lois Winston said...

Mark, I don't know that I've ever seen a movie that has included a note at the end about changes made for artistic license. More often then not, there will be a note about what happened to the historical figures after the end of the movie. Such was the case with Hyde Park on the Hudson. And it's this sort of note that makes viewers believe that what they've just viewed is the truth, no matter how untruthful the movie was.

Victoria Adams said...

I've always complained about the double standard and if I want to change a fact I do I will write my stories my way.

Lois Winston said...

Victoria, do you include an author's note at the end that tells the readers you've changed a certain fact?

Deborah Sharp said...

love this post, Lois ... I'm a big movie buff, but have to say Hyde Park on the Hudson didn't interest me from the trailers. Did you hate it, even aside from the inaccuracies?

DirtyMartini said...

I think for the most part we're covered by the fact that we write "fiction" and thus can take certain liberties, by definition...that said, I do like to get my facts straight, and get annoyed when writers do stuff like set a story on a street that doesn't exist in a city I'm familiar with, for instance...but, the bottom line is it is fiction...

On a somewhat related note, I once had a male reader write me three times about wanting to know the true identity of one of the characters in a story of mine...I tried to explain the concept of the word "fiction" to him the first two times, the third note I just ignored...

Cheers,
Alan.