We all know the common criticism that a film adaptation is never “as good as the book.” There are a number of reasons, some of them very subtle, why fans of source materials are easily disappointed by films based on them. Not only is it mandatory that a feature film script leave out a considerable amount of detail from a novel or a biography, for instance, but the medium itself is at a disadvantage when competing with the subconscious, mental activity that occurs while reading. It isn’t merely that a film has a hard time competing with the act of imagining, which it does; but a movie must also fill in details that very often neither a book author nor the reader ever bothered to imagine in the first place. For instance, a room we never thoroughly pictured while reading, now that it is on screen, has colors and fabrics and lighting and furnishings that a production designer has chosen in collaboration with a cinematographer and a director. Not only is this image different from what we might have imagined, but it actually contains dozens or hundreds of elements we hadn’t bothered to picture at all. And because a feature film is composed of thousands of these creative choices, each combining to produce images and sounds that trigger emotional responses, I believe that on a subconscious level, any film based on any expectation is inherently climbing a pretty tough hill.
So, what makes a good film adaptation of fiction or history or biography? In all cases, there is an obvious tendency to assume truth to source material is the basis of this work, but the filmmaker has to admit that cinema is probably the most manipulative and fundamentally untrue of all creative media. To be clear, I believe all art “lies”in one way or another — and we know that even non-fiction is subject to the whims and imperfections of its authors — but I think cinema’s ability to conjure the illusion of reality makes it the biggest “liar” of them all. Accepting this premise doesn’t mean the filmmaker does not have an obligation to convey any truth in adaptation, but rather that he or she consciously makes choices in the service of some chosen truth, usually a theme, that is a fair portrayal in order to give the audience an experience that justifies whatever liberties have been taken. It would be wrong, for instance, to make a Civil War film in which the confederates win at Gettysburg; but it would not be wrong to invent fictional scenes dramatizing Lee’s affection for his soldiers and contrast these with fictional scenes dramatizing Grant’s lack of that same affection.
Of course the filmmaker’s challenge in this regard depends a great deal on general awareness of the source material. For instance, it stands to reason that he hurdle of overcoming expectations is far greater for the makers of Selma than for the makers of The Imitation Game because, for many people around the world, The Imitation Game will be their first introduction to Alan Turing. By contrast, Selma must strive to be both a good film and withstand the scrutiny of everyone’s notions about who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. On the other hand, in the age of social media, criticism often arises well before a film is even completed. As Don Steinberg describes in this article for the Wall Street Journal, producer Teddy Schwartzman had to spend considerable time on social media dispelling rumors that The Imitation Game would gloss over Turing’s homosexuality. To the contrary, from what I’ve read (and I’m eager to see it), the filmmakers have appropriately used the theme of imitation to link Turing’s early work in artificial intelligence with his deeply painful need to pretend to be someone he was not. These core truths make rich, dramatic soil, but not everything that grows out of that soil should strive to be a literal truth.
Steinberg writes about the trend in biopics to selectively draw upon the record of a subject’s life in the service of tight, dramatic narrative rather than an encyclopedic life story. I believe this is the best way to approach a biopic (or an adaptation of fiction for that matter), but it is also inevitable that one invites critics to say, “You got it wrong.” And with regard to Selma, there have been a number of articles debating the film’s “accuracy,” the most resounding complaints in regard to the portrayal of LBJ as an antagonist to King. Certainly, this reeks of revisionist history that I would agree is not appropriate license for filmmakers to take. Dramatic narrative needs an antagonist, but where historic record is available, it is not okay to radically alter the motives or actions of real people in order to recast them in needed dramatic roles. More subtly, however, is the question of “accuracy” with regard to the fact that Dr. King’s verbatim speeches are not used in Selma and were not licensed by the producers from the King estate. In fact, those licenses were not even sought because they were not available, having already been sold several years ago in a development deal with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks.
The fact that King’s words remain protected by copyrights owned by the King family has been cause for some emotionally-triggered criticism by those who say that “King’s words belong to the world.” This may feel instinctively true, but it is not literally true, and neither should we want it to be. Because even if they were made “the property of the world” by entering the public domain, they would be exploited for profit-making ventures regardless of taste or context. As such, why should any entity other than the family be entitled to control and/or to financially exploit those works? And certainly, no one can claim with any integrity that King’s words are somehow inaccessible to us because they remain under copyright.
Still, the subject did spark a conversation with friends as to the relevance of the speech accuracy in the case of a film like Selma. Were it my own patriarch’s legacy to manage, I might be torn. On the one hand, when motion pictures are popular and award-winning and all that, they do have a tendency to become the history people remember. As such, I would be inclined to want my father’s or grandfather’s words portrayed accurately. On the other hand, as a filmmaker, I may want to produce a biopic that deals with real aspects of a famous individual’s life that the family may not find comfortable; and I may want to make any number of stylistic creative choices that some may find controversial. In that regard, do I relinquish some creative control for the sake of making a deal on licensing my subject’s works? When assessing the values of the film, which “truth” is the most important? Selma director Ava DuVernay, as reported by Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post, says of paraphrasing King’s words “…we found a way to do it where we didn’t have to ask for permission, because with those rights came a certain collaboration.”
The copyright critic might say that one should not preclude the other, that the subject’s creative or intellectual property should be free to use and that the copyrights should not stifle the filmmaker’s ability to make a movie that is both “accurate” and that dramatically portrays uncomfortable truths. But that doesn’t really feel quite right. If a movie gets sold to a big studio and makes a hundred million dollars, the subject’s estate deserves nothing? Moreover, if the words are free to use, what’s to prevent a filmmaker from “remixing” them just enough until they sound like a bad translation? In many cases, it may best serve both the film and the source material to thoughtfully fictionalize everything in the service of a truth that is more important than the literal. Too literal, and all one has is a reenactment, which is very dull filmmaking.
Working around a copyright itself usually forces creativity rather than stifles it. This may sound counterintuitive in context to the first feature film that attempts to portray King the man rather than King the myth, but not to the film artist who is fully aware that her medium is all illusion to begin with and that she is trying to find an emotional truth in the complexities and imperfections of a mortal man who was more than “slain civil rights leader.” In concluding her article, Hornaday implies that Selma succeeds in attaining this kind of truth when she quotes former U.N. ambassador, and one-time King colleague, Andrew Young telling DuVernay, “Congratulations. You did it.” The implication is, “You brought the flesh-and-blood man I knew to life on screen.”
By contrast, the DreamWorks film, with its rights to King’s words, may dramatize any number of literal accuracies and yet fail to convey much truth at all. It’s not fair to judge a movie before it’s made, of course, but Spielberg himself can be rather sentimental for my taste; and according to Variety, Oliver Stone dropped out of the project last January over conflicts regarding his own script revisions, which sound as though he was trying to humanize the man behind the legend. So, once this other film is finally produced, will it be more true than Selma or will it get to some other truth, equally valid but very different than Selma?
Going back to the original premise that it is the nature of all movies to lie to us one way or another, I think good adaptation can only succeed in getting to a truth without any reasonable expectation of getting to the truth. As such, the notion of accuracy in movies should never be used as a rationale for presuming to judge decisions made by rights holders who license their works for this purpose. There is no guarantee any creator making derivative use of a work will live up to all, or even any, expectations of the audience. Likewise, there is no guarantee a creator without a license to source materials will not do something better (or more true) than a creator who has those rights. It’s all a crap shoot frankly. So, the only fair thing to do is to leave the copyrights in possession of the families and judge each derivative work on its own artistic merits.