On Rights and Accuracy in Movies

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.

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • What an incredibly thoughtful piece that rises above all others I have read about Selma that turned into nothing more than familiar, all too common screeds against copyright law and its culture-destroying propensities. It is encouraging that at least one writer has chosen the more difficult path of creating an original work that does not appear to rely upon the mentality of cut-and-paste.

  • Always love your thought process, David, and your exceptional ability to articulate said.
    If all art told the same story the same way, there would be nothing interesting about it. That we all have a voice and vision is essential to humanity, that some are gifted at portraying theirs is a gift to us all.

  • David–
    “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.”

    So? Anyone can use Lincoln’s words, such as the Gettysburg Address. Anyone can use FDR’s inauguration speeches or fireside chats. Anyone can use Neil Armstrong’s words from the Moon. And they’ve been financially exploited plenty of times. In fact, Presidents’ Day is coming right up, which means sales on mattresses and cars.

    Somehow, the world has not ended because of this. Nor would it end if there were no copyright on MLK’s speeches.

    “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?”

    Yep. And note that that’s just what’s happening now. The filmmakers of Selma have made a movie about MLK and his estate is getting 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?”

    Nothing. And again, note that that’s just what’s happening now, according to some people who have seen the movie and are familiar with King’s actual speeches.

    So to recap: Copyrights on the speeches have not made it easier for the filmmakers to make their film, they have not helped the estate make money from the film, and they have not promoted accuracy, particularly as the estate might prefer.

    So what are these copyrights actually good for? Remind us, won’t you?

    “So, the only fair thing to do is to leave the copyrights in possession of the families”

    No, just the opposite. If the copyrights cannot necessarily produce any positive results beyond what the public domain could do, as you appear to have conceded, there’s no justification for them. The better option is to release the material to the public domain (or nigh-unrestricted non-exclusive licensing) to maximize the number of attempts that can be taken by different parties to at least try to do a good job.

    After all, it’s better to have adapted and failed than to never have adapted at all.

    • Neither the public nor derivative artists are served by stripping the estate of its property. You can reject copyright as a property right, which is a matter of academic debate. But nobody loses by the Kings’ retention of these rights except perhaps YouTube and similar ad-based businesses built on traffic. I don’t care about serving those entities at all.

      • David–
        “Neither the public nor derivative artists are served”

        The public would be served by gaining better access to the works in question. They could be copied and distributed by anyone, freely, without either licensing costs, or transactional costs. Derivative authors would be served by gaining free use of the works for use in derivative works, which also serves the public.

        “[N]obody loses by the Kings’ retention of these rights”

        It’s harmful for everyone. It may also be sufficiently beneficial for everyone that the harm is overcome, but it is necessarily harmful to ever restrict any aspect of our culture, in any way whatsoever.

        That said, I would not support revoking the copyrights in this matter (save for retroactive reductions in the scope or duration of copyright generally). That damage is done. I feel that King should not have sought copyrights for the speeches in the first place, though.

      • Anonymous –

        Again, we just fundamentally disagree. Nobody who wants access to these works for themselves can claim that access is prohibitively restricted. And as I say in the post, the derivative works thing is a crapshoot, culturally, creatively, and economically. For every argument one can make for unfettered access, I can make a counter argument that derivative works are better served by limited access to the sources. And, as I say, I see no compelling interest in the profits of websites, telecom companies, etc. that would just monetize the works without actually creating something new and valuable. For instance, I don’t have a problem with AT&T creating a ringtone out of “I have a dream,” but I see no reason for them not to pay the Kings for the privilege.

        So, this is just a variation of our argument on the same premise — that copyright is fundamentally harmful. We’re not going to agree on that. That doesn’t mean I don’t find these variations interesting.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful column David.

    I have seen The Imitation Game and, knowing a bit about the Turing and enigma facts, I was surprised by how historically accurate it was. Yes, liberties were taken – strangers in discrete wartime compartments in the real world rubbing shoulders and sharing beers in the film, major characters in the story dropped altogether for narrative simplicity, etc. – but well within the tradition of historical fiction. Streamlined history, but close enough.

    Interestingly, the most objectionable liberty taken in The Imitation Game is parallel to the charges being made about Selma’s portrayal of LBJ. (I have not yet seen Selma.) To wit: a man named Alastair Denniston, an officer at Bletchley Park, was by all accounts a kind, supportive, collegial, and honorable gent who got on quite well with Turing and his fellow academics is turned into the sort of overbearing, sabotaging, petty, ego-driven, idiot boss stereotype so common in films and television. One wonders if this need to create a cardboard cut out opponent out of people like LBJ and Denniston is driven by weak scriptwriting talents or filmmakers lack of faith in their audience, for surely compelling entertainment can be created without the inclusion of stock villains.

    Personally, I have always felt that the fact that “…when motion pictures [or Shakespeare plays] are popular and award-winning and all that, they do have a tendency to become the history people remember” is the heart of the problem. This inability to sort history from myth is a hardwired part of the human experience. The really interesting questions is what, if any, special responsibility that creates for writers of historical fiction involving real people or events?

    • The really interesting questions is what, if any, special responsibility that creates for writers of historical fiction involving real people or events?

      None at all. Fiction is entertainment, it might have a passing reference to historical events, but it is not history. Anyone that thinks that Shakespeare’s historical plays are historically accurate is delusional. Anyone that thinks that a Hollywood history based film is historically accurate is similarly delusional. I think that Braveheart posited a sexual relationship between Wallace and Edward II wife, which would have been a good trick as the historical Isabella was 6yo at the time and living in France.

      Anyone that wants historical accuracy should read one or more books on the subject by a recognized modern historian. Steer clear of the wikipedia stuff as it is riddled with ill informed nonsense.

    • Thanks for your response, A Villager, and for your interesting observations. Speaking from my point of view, I find it is true that screenplays falter with some regularity in the attention given to villains, fictional or historical. Villains, foils, antagonists are vital because they represent the conflict that moves a story forward, and great films have interesting villains. Unfortunately (and I’m not commenting on Imitation Game since I haven’t seen it yet), it can be difficult to sell producers or many audiences on subtle or complex antagonists, like for instance when the hero is his own villain. I don’t mean in the Walter White sense, which is hero becomes evil person; I mean in the TE Lawrence sense of hero as his own foil.

      As you say, far too often, stock villains are grafted onto any available “real” figure in a historic drama, even if that figure was not a villain, or necessarily an obstacle, for the protagonist. My personal opinion, as indicated in the post, is that makers of historical fiction do bear a measure of responsibility not to stray quite so far into revisionist history. If one needs to invent a character, better to invent one, I think, than to bestow the wrong traits onto people who really lived. There’s at least as much drama and multi-faceted conflict in Turing as there was for Lawrence, so I doubt one really needs a single “bad guy” in order to dramatize said conflict.

      And of course time is a factor. We know that William Bligh was not necessarily any more a tyrant than the British Navy itself at the time, and he was a kick-ass captain who navigated his stranded crew to safety in a life raft. So, does it matter that Hollywood has repeatedly allowed Bligh to bear the burden of what was common practice in the British fleet in his day? I would say it doesn’t much matter vis a vis Bligh’s name at this point, but I would also say that a more accurate and more complexly written version of The Bounty mutiny would make a damn good movie.

  • I am suddenly reminded of a joke about another film in this genre, The RIght Stuff (which, interestingly, was also criticized historically inaccurate portrayal of LBJ):

    “When asked what he thought of his portrayal in the fill, former Mercury 7 Astronaut Wally Schirra responded: ‘If I had know they were going to make a movie about it, I would have said more.”

  • Not having seen The Imitation Game, but having seen Selma…and having written a couple of scripts (none of which got made) about real people…I can only point to the fact that it is very, very difficult to make a movie out of real life. Real life is just not that dramatic. So what does the writer need to do? You need to invent.

    There is a fairly strict formula for the structure of a movie, and it evolved for the sole purpose of not boring the audience, which has been conditioned to expect certain things when they buy their ticket. The only exception to this formula is to write characters that are so unique and interesting that the structure of the film becomes unimportant. As for Selma, neither the structure nor the characters were satisfying for me.

    For me, Selma had many problems as a movie, the least of which were the actual words of Dr. King. The actor chosen to play him did not have the magnetism to hold the screen in the same way as the original. That was a choice, as casting perhaps Denzel Washington or another actor with more charisma may have been thought to be distracting…but for me, I was quickly bored. And the writing was pedestrian, at best.

    On many levels, this movie was a mere polemic and always took the easy way out. There was no subtlety. Joe Clark…bad man. White Southerners…bad. White Northerners…good. LBJ…bad. Why? Because he wasn’t on King’s timetable. The movie attempts to take on a very complex era of American politics and reduce it to ninety minutes of feel-good history. Very little happens in terms of action, and it is mostly people talking to each other in various locations. Well…Oprah gets beat up (not too badly, but she produced it – so I guess no one wanted to push that further), and there’s the inevitable tear-gas scene…

    Real history is multi-faceted and Selma is very simplistic. It does not offer us anything new in terms of Dr. King, the Civil Rights movement, or America in the 60’s. So the question must be asked…Why was it made?

    Are Americans really in danger of forgetting what happened? Or is this movie another spin on history designed to manipulate an emotional response in an audience too dumb to look at the actual facts and make up their own minds about them?

    “Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future”
    George Orwell – 1984

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