Dramatic License Vs Historical Realism

 Historical accuracy is a bugbear of many movie fans. Braveheart and Titanic  come in for a lot of criticism, especially from British audiences who objected to the way the British characters were portrayed in those films. As does Saving Private Ryan (many viewers wondered why it was only American troops storming the beaches of Normandy when there were British, Canadian and French troops involved in the operation). Or the U-boat movie U-571 which has the Americans capturing the Enigma code machine when it was the British in reality.

This is from the viewer’s perspective. From the screenwriters’ perspective, historical accuracy is a nice cherry on top but they know they are there to serve the drama first. Screenplays have both monetary and time constraints, this means that events must be compressed, characters combined and shortcuts taken. It simply isn’t possible to transfer everything over from a book verbatim. If a writer has to make a choice between historical accuracy and serving the drama, he would most likely choose the latter.

Take the classic World War II movie The Great Escape with the unforgettable Steve McQueen motorbike break for freedom from the Nazis. It never happened in the real Great Escape or in Aussie Paul Brickhill’s book but it’s a superb piece of cinema that lifts the whole movie. The screenwriters served the drama and it worked.

Then there’s The French Connection with its rip-snorting car/subway chase and its hero Popeye Doyle involved in a friendly fire incident at the denouement. Again, you won’t find any of it in the book by Robin Moore as none of it happened to the real cop, Eddie Egan (probably why they didn’t use his name as the main character as so much of it was fictionalised). The car chase is one of the great movie scenes and the friendly fire incident and Doyle’s lack of remorse for it is great shorthand by writer Ernest Tidyman to show how obsessed with his quarry Doyle has become.

Novelists are not bound by budgets and running times. They can include pretty much anything in their books, the only limits being their own imaginations and possible approaching deadlines. With non-fiction, you would need to get historical accuracy pretty much nailed down or you will be called out for it on online bookstores and forums and bad word-of-mouth can spread. With ebooks, writers have the luxury of correcting errors on-the-fly and uploading their books again. Sometimes it can be suggestions from eagle-eyed readers that can help a writer improve their work.

Deciding between dramatic license or historical accuracy is a judgement call the individual writer will have to make for themselves depending on the arena they are working in. Historical accuracy can lend great kudos to a work but sometimes the writer can come up with something more dramatically satisfying themselves. The choice is yours.

© 2014, Stewart Stafford. All rights reserved



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