There are many things to love in this lovely world and two of my favorites are history and storytelling. The two have many things in common and rely heavily on each other. Telling a story can teach lessons learned in history and what is history but the story of our past. I love how they interact and I believe they are both important to the world and its improvement but recently I have been ruminating on the differences between stories and history and how they should influence each other.
It seems to me that these days half the trailers at the movie theater begin with the phrase: “Based on the *inspirational adjective* true story”. For a long time this bothered me. It annoyed me that the phrase was followed by melodramatic scenes of perfect dialogue and beautiful people. I couldn’t help but scoff and think, “Real life does not work like that.” and “They probably changed most of the details anyway.” and “Aren’t the real people offended by this portrayal?” I immediately found myself biased against the movie and to a degree, my complaints were justified. It is a simple truth that a movie doesn’t sound, look or act like real life. It’s a reality in the movie making business that they also must make money so they tweak or completely rewrite a story to make a movie that will sell tickets. And the characters on the screen are simple interpretations of the people who lived those stories. It is inevitable that they are going to be wrong somehow and people are going to get upset about it.
Then I realized how much of a hypocrite I am. I love so many movies that are based on true stories and have the exact problems I have listed above. A recent example is the Broadway show, Hamilton. (This isn’t a movie but a musical on Broadway but the same issues apply.) After learning more about the real Alexander Hamilton and other characters from the show, I see problems with the story, inconsistencies with history, and misrepresentations of character. I was horror stricken to think that I might have to put aside my love for the show on principle and stick to the plain facts of history.
But Hamilton is such a good show! It teaches lessons about ambition, fear, politics, legacy, sacrifice and of course, history. It explores issues of the late 18th century that are still problems in America today. The very idea of the show not only introduced rap as a possible medium but it helped show how history can be interactive, exciting, and even entertaining. It got people interested about our nation’s history and inspired folks like me to learn more about the important historical figures. But I should stop fangirling so that I can make my point which is that being historically accurate is not the only goal of a story.
After all, even history itself is often unreliable. The victors write the histories and we have no control over who tells the stories of the past. So should we throw out our history books and ban historical fiction? Of course not! We tell the stories of the past even if we romanticize and generalize because one of the best uses of history and storytelling alike is to learn from them. People record history and write stories to inform and to teach. To show what has happened before and what could happen again and a good story backs up that message with emotional attachment. We are more likely to remember something if we have a strong emotion connected to it. This is what makes storytelling so powerful.
But there is a fine line that historical fiction must walk. They may have the liberty to shape the story to fit their message and yet the more historically accurate they can be the more credible and meaningful their message becomes. The simple knowledge that this character you are getting to know and love existed in some shape or form at some point in time gives gravity to their story.
This brings me back to those “based on a true story” movies that seem so popular recently. I don’t have to like the movie but I shouldn’t immediately disregard it because of its genre. These movies should be judged just like all other movies. Are the characters full and believable? Whether based on history or not, is the plot well thought out? Do I like the message and enjoy the teaching of it? For some historical retellings this is true, and for others it is not.
Our history is full of good stories to tell and good stories are built on our history. It’s hard to have one without the other and I love them both.