Monday, May 25, 2009

"Angels & Demons" Part Two - Rewriting History

Dan Brown, the author of Angels & Demons and of The DaVinci Code, takes great liberties with historical fact. Actually, that is putting it nicely - the truth is that he has created his own history in huge sections of both books.

Because Brown claims a great deal of "historical fact" as the bases for these novels - and because his history is so spectacularly wrong - there are many who are deeply offended by his work. Some believe that he is attempting to perpetrate some sort of hoax on his readers. Others worry that readers and moviegoers will be led down a primrose path of inaccuracy, never to be cured from their newly minted historical ignorance.

History is treated at least six different ways in the movies. (1) There is, of course, the non-fiction movie, usually seen as a biography or a documentary. Movies such as "All the President's Men" and "March of the Penguins" generally fall into this category. Dramatic license may be taken with a date or an identity (or with the length of time it takes a penguin to walk across a continent) here and there, but the movie does not pretend to be more than a retelling of an interesting real event. (2) On the other end of the spectrum is utter fantasy. Nobody would ever search for historical landmarks is "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter." (3) A third treatment is to ignore history, to tell a story that has no reason to relate to any real life historical event and thus can exist outside of real history. For example, "The Shawshank Redemption" or "The Philadelphia Story" or "The Firm" or "Holes" may be historically dated because of the style of clothing or the make of cars in the background, but the plot and the characters could exist any time. There are no historical references made, and thus there is no reason to worry about accuracy. The fourth is much like the third. It is (4) a story that exists independently of history, but there is an occasional reference to real historical events, like a war or a president or the depression. Next, there is (5) the historical fiction, where a make-believe story is inserted into historical events. Think "Gone With the Wind" or "Tora Tora Tora." These movies are generally gentle with their history, taking widely known events like Sherman's march to the sea or the attack of Pearl Harbor as no more than a backdrop for a love story or a drama about the relationships among soldiers.

And then there is the last treatment, (6) the rewrite. "Angels & Demons" and "The DaVinci Code" certainly fall here, as would diverse movies from "National Treasure" to "JFK" to many traditional westerns. I would also include most courtroom dramas in this category. To me, these fictional tales are harmless. Of course Galileo was not a member of a secret "Illuminati" society, and in fact there was no "Illuminati" society in Galileo's time. Of course Leonardo was not hiding clues about the Holy Grail in his artwork, and of course Mary Magdalene was not the Holy Grail. Of course the Crusades were not in the same century as Brown's characters claim. Of course there is no treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Of course the peace-pipe-and-tepees savages depicted in many spaghetti westerns are exaggerations fueled by early and mid-twentieth century revisionists and tale-tellers. And, of course, virtually nothing that happens in the courtrooms of "Law and Order" or "Perry Mason," much less "My Cousin Vinny," even remotely resembles the procedures and rulings of real courtrooms.

None of this bothers me. I assume that people go to fiction movies to see a story, and if a skillful storyteller puts Chicago in Iowa or has Henry Clay serving as president or has Ben Franklin as the inventor of the cotton gin, so what? Why is that any more harmful than saying that the greatest lawyer of all time was a man named Atticus? I doubt that the real Captain von Trapp watched a puppet show in his house or grabbed a guitar for the first time in a decade and immediately sang "Edelweiss" to his children flawlessly, but so what?

Some people answer "so what" by arguing that many readers and moviegoers do not know their history and thus will be deceived. After all, many people are certain that there had to have been a "magic bullet" involved in the shot that killed President Kennedy, and many are certain that objecting to a question because the other lawyer accuses a witness of lying is perfectly acceptable. I can see this point of view - better not to expose the ignorant to something wrong than to risk their falling for it.

But I disagree. I believe in the marketplace of ideas. I embrace the notion that the solution to misinformation is not to censor it but to counter it. Fight ignorance with truth, not with restriction. If Oliver Stone and Dan Brown have figured out a way to make money, more power to them - it does not seem illegal or unethical to me. If "Valkyrie" raised questions, maybe somebody followed up and learned something. Good for them.

To be clear, I would rather that Brown get his facts right. I think that accuracy is better than just making it up as you go along. When Tom Hanks' character is dropping little tidbits along the way, why not make it right? But my point is that it is the fiction author's prerogative to create the world of the story, and if Dan Brown wants to make one pope responsible for changing all of the sculptures in the Vatican in a fit of prudishness, that does not strike me as a crisis. It does strike me as something that makes the book and the movie not nearly as good as they could have been, but choice is tragic, and if the author makes that choice, then we readers and consumers can make our choices as well. Gene Callahan, in a much better blog than this one which can be found here, describes this treatment of history by Brown's ilk as "theatre of the absurd." It is not my favorite kind of writing, but I don't think it is worth getting upset about.

In the religious world, we deal with Dan Brown-like authors and tale-tellers constantly. The misinformation about Jesus, the early church, and Christianity itself is everywhere - and much of it is unintentional. The world is also full of wrong information about Islam, Mormonism, and Freemasons. Is the answer to make people stop talking about it?

I hope not.

I hope the answer is to use the momentum created by a movie like "Angels & Demons" to encourage research and inquiry and thought.

The answer to misinformation is more information, not less. Truth is a powerful tool.

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