Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hollywood and the mirror of life

Aline’s Monday post on research made me smile. I can relate. My research has ranged far and wide over the course of my books. I have researched the oddest and most arcane questions, from antique locks to the colour of twenty-five year-old bones. I believe in realism in my writing, not just about people and their struggles, but about the places and events I describe along the way. It is not that I expect readers to use my Honour Among Men as a definitive essay on Canadian peacekeepers in Yugoslavia, nor my This Thing of Darkness as the last word in schizophrenia. But I hope that in addition being drawn into a gripping story, they will learn something new about subjects beyond their daily experience. Yet the balance of fact and fiction is a delicate one. It is not just the danger of drowning the story in excessive and irrelevant facts, but also the dramatic thrust that fiction demands.

This past week there has been a lot of chatter about the “Hollywoodizing” of history, a phenomenon which subscribes to the adage “never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”. Thus we see the Oscar-winning film Argo playing so loose with the historical facts of the Iranian hostage crisis that even Jimmy Carter spoke out in protest. The film Lincoln, an equal triumph from the dramatic perspective, had enough outright lies and distortions to threaten another civil war.  Just about any film or book selects its facts to suit its biases and its dramatic flow, and as a novelist, it is difficult to know how much bending of the truth is acceptable. But it is worrisome that entire generations are growing up learning their history from the simplified, often whitewashed, truths and moral lessons of Hollywood.

That's why I’m a realist. Knowing that people reading my books may have no other sources of information and no other basis on which to judge their accuracy, I feel an obligation to stick as close as possible to the truth while still telling a good story. I research meticulously, and if I am not able to find the answer, I usually leave the information out altogether rather than lie or make something up. If I have to distort the truth for the purposes of the story, I try to let the reader know it’s a distortion. My first responsibility to the reader is to tell a powerful, moving, entertaining tale, but my secondary responsibility is to hold up a mirror to life. Implicit in this is the responsibility not to mislead or manipulate.

Fantasy and science fiction writers operate within very different parameters and expectations. People know this is a made-up world, that the science being portrayed is invented. As a mystery writer, however, I feel as if I am dealing in the real world, with real struggles in real-life situations. My writing has the potential to influence people's views and understanding of those struggles, and with that comes the responsibility to get it right.

If I am talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and child abuse, I’d better not be making it all up.


LD Masterson said...


Toe Hallock said...

Ms. Fradkin: "Mirror To Life" is an absolutely brilliant metaphor that sums up your post. As far as Hollywood goes, actual history has never been a real concern. Let's see. Here's one. "They Died With Their Boots On." Starring Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer. Brevit General, no less. Bought it as a kid, but realized later how misleading it was. Made a good tale though. Yours truly, Toe.