Did It Happen That Way? (And Does It Matter?)

kings speech.JPGAccording to most Oscar prognosticators, this year’s race to the Academy Awards Best Picture statuette may be a two-horse affair between The King’s Speech and The Social Network. Both are based on true stories. The question is just how true both adaptations are.

Writer Christopher Hitchens, for example, claims in a recent Slate article that The King’s Speech “perpetrates a gross falsification of history,” and is a “major desecration of the historical record” because of its portrayal of Winston Churchill and Prince Edward VIII. He and some critics say the film romanticizes them without portraying them as the Nazi sympathizers they (according to the critics) actually were.

But “desecration?” Really? I just thought The King’s Speech was a fantastic movie. I did wonder about its historical accuracy, but since the film’s themes are friendship, courage and overcoming obstacles—with WWII as a backdrop—the inaccuracies didn’t ruin the experience for me.

Then there’s The Social Network, which did anger me a bit, even though I enjoyed it, too. When I read more on Mark Zuckerberg and the several hundred (more or less) articles that describe how the film got most things about his life wrong, in many ways it seemed as if screenwriter Aaron Sorkin was more out to get Zuck than portray the truth. What’s the point in that—beyond revenue?

But all this begs the question: Is it ever OK to play with history? And if so, how much?

social network.JPGAs a Guardian editorial states: “The King’s Speech is a fine film, a compelling human drama that is also historically important, for had George VI not overcome his stammer, his inability to communicate in the new age of mass democracy might have fatally weakened the British monarchy. Yet its makers have decided that the film’s historical context—death, adultery, abdication and looming war on an almost Shakespearean scale—needed sexing up. … Being light-fingered with the past is not always unforgivable, and sometimes it’s necessary.”

Yet the editorial ends with, “Film-makers owe it to their audience to be careful with the past.”

That’s especially true since studies show people tend to believe Hollywood’s version of history over the real thing. At the same time, history doesn’t always make for a compelling two-hour movie on its own: The story may be really worthwhile, but history needs a little … embellishment to allow audiences to sit through it for two hours.

Author and history professor Allen Lichtman says this:

“My view is, if you get your history from movies, you get what you deserve. You go to movies not to learn about history but to be entertained, frightened, thrilled. That’s all great. But there’s no reason that an episode of history has to be done with a certain degree of accuracy, because that’s not the objective of a movie.”

I’m not entirely sure what I think. But I’d still like to believe Hollywood will someday take a little more caution with the past than it has in the past.

Who wrote this?

Meredith has had two careers: one as a writer/editor for both Focus on the Family and The Navigators, and one as an English teacher trekking far-flung corners of Europe, Africa and Asia. She now rejoins Focus, but with souvenirs—including new eyes with which to better view American culture.

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