Fictionalized Reality, and Real-ized Fictions

29 03 2013

So, two seemingly unrelated stories, that are actually about the same thing:

1)A couple of months ago, the movie Zero Dark Thirty came under some heat for showing that torture (in this case waterboarding) was responsible for the info that led to finding Osama Bin Laden; per the Senate Intelligence Committee, this wasn’t the case.  Before the movie came out, it’s screenwriter said “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history” – but after questions were raised, he admitted that some artistic license was taken and said “it’s only a movie.”

2) A recent article in the Los Angeles Times told the story of real-life shipwreck survivor Stephen Callahan, who because of that experience became a consultant on the movie Life of Pi.  He coached the actor who played Pi on the psychological implications of being adrift, and crafted some of the props for the film based on his shipwreck experiences.

Both of these situations are talking about the line between fiction and reality, though from opposite sides of the coin: for the first (torture in Afghanistan), it’s taking a real situation and fictionalizing it, and the for the latter (shipwreck survivors), it’s taking a fictionalized situation and “real-izing” it.  It’s all part of the facinating tradeoff between reality and fiction in movies and on TV: how much reality do people want?  Where is okay to take dramatic license?  How much of each (real facts and dramatic license) is a good balance?


Fictionalized reality and Reali-zed fiction: two sides of the same coin.  (metaphorically)

Obviously, there’s sort of a base level of reality that people require from their entertainment: if you turned on Hawaii Five-O and saw the guys running around on a glacier, you’d call foul – obviously, it’s not Hawai’i.  If an onscreen lion opened its mouth to roar, and a parakeet sound came out, they’d have to explain – people know that isn’t what a lion really sounds like.  At the same time, most movies and TV shows are telling a story, and stories have a right to dramatic license – to make things up. So they flow better, are more exciting, etc.  So how do we talk about the place where reality and fiction meet?

To talk about these issues, it’s good to have a set of terms that conveys these ideas: the ones I like to use come from a somewhat obscure historical source. During the production of  MGM’s 1946 movie The Beginning or the End, screenwriter James McGuinness wrote a letter to Louis B. Mayer.*  In it, McGuinness wrote that “it must be realized that dramatic truth is just as compelling a requirement on us as veritable truth is on a scientist.”  So “Veritable truth” is real factual information about the world or events, and  “dramatic truth” is the version of that truth that is entertaining and commercially viable—in other words, the veritable truth that appears on screen once it is filtered through the limitations imposed upon it by the filming process. These limitations can include everything from studios’ time and budgetary constraints to personal preferences of the director or the dramatic requirement to keep things visually exciting.

All movies and TV shows present some mixture of veritable and dramatic truth.  Sometimes the mixture is heavily tilted towards dramatic truth (as in most fictional dramas and sitcoms), sometimes it is tilted heavily towards veritable truth (more documentary shows, like Nova, for example); but even the cheesiest sitcom has parts of the real world in it, and even the most documentary of shows has some element of dramatic truth – like when they dramatize or put scientific progress into a narrative.


Veritable Truth, Dramatic Truth – or Truthiness?? Thanks, Stephen.

So is it “better” to have more vertiable or dramatic truth in any given show or movie?  It really depends on the venue (you might expect more vertiable truth from a show on the History Channel, for example) and type (more dramatic truth in a sitcom or clearly fictional drama).  Issues arise, however, when the line becomes too blurred.  Writing about factual errors in HBO’s made-for-TV movie about Phil Spector, Harriet Ryan wrote “The problem here is that the movie blends fact and fiction into a misinformation smoothie. Characters bear the actual names of participants, dialogue is lifted directly from trial transcripts, and Al Pacino nails Spector’s shuffle and rasp. But when the movie jets off to the land of make believe — as it often does — there’s no red flashing light to warn the audience.”

Things like Zero Dark Thirty run into problems because they’re playing with the line: purporting to be a depiction of a real event makes people have high expectations that it contains more veritable truth than dramatic.  While interestingly, a totally fictional story (Life of Pi) is lauded for including any veritable truth at all.

— Scott

  • What makes this anthropology?  Anthropologists think a lot about what’s real and what’s fiction: do the natives you’re studying really believe their origin myth, or do they just tell it as a story?  Does it make a difference in their lives, or yours?  Is one culture’s origin story better or more important than another’s?  (the answer to the last one, of course, is no: anthropologists consider all cultures’ stories equally valid; though we must recognize that the cultures themselves do not)
  • Interestingly, a copy of the letter sent to Albert Einstein (probably because he had to sign a release concerning his portrayal).  It’s unrecorded what he thought of it.



One response

30 03 2013
Tod Kim

scott, do you think there’s a relationship between the edge that films have to negotiate in balancing “veritable truth” and “dramatic truth”, and the edge that we all negotiate in balancing “personal perception” and “objectifiable reality”?

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