Some of my writing students insist a scene of theirs that’s not working
must stay as is because, “That’s the way it really happened!” I often
respond with something my wonderful teacher Tad Mosel, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning dramatist, used to say: “The truth is no excuse for bad
I was a writer of historical nonfiction before I became a
screenwriter and novelist, and in some ways no background could
possibly be worse training for the job. A historian’s task is to relate
the facts as accurately as possible—though the best narrative
historians, like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, “tell”
history like a great storyteller.
A novelist’s or Hollywood
screenwriter’s only job is to tell a great story convincingly—so that
even if the main character’s name were Joe Schmoe and not Mahatma
Gandhi, you’d still be fascinated. In William Goldman’s introduction to
the published version of his classic screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,
he writes, “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.”
That really says it all, the key to that sentence being the first
That said, I confess I am not quite of the “anything
goes” school of historical screenwriting—and neither, I’m sure, is
Goldman. He’d probably agree, for example, that Butch and Sundance could
not be planning their bank robberies on computers. Over the years,
I’ve come up with my own set of criteria for determining which facts I
think can responsibly be changed in any history-based screenplay or
novel, and which cannot. My criteria are, on occasion, perhaps a bit too
stringent for my stories’ own good, but they’ve served me fairly well.
Moreover, they are flexible, depending on the situation. For example, the more famous the people and events I’m writing about, and the more realistic the genre I’m working in, the less I tend to tamper with the facts. And I try to avoid blatant inaccuracies or anachronisms. You can’t have Abe Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in Cleveland. But if an event I want to put in my novel or screenplay could have happened—but it can’t be proved or disproved that it did—it’s fair game, if I need to tell it that way for the sake of my story.I try to remain true to the spirit of historical figures, because I respect history and, usually, the people I’m writing about. I’ve written about characters as diverse as Lincoln and Napoleon, and try to honor the memory of each.
I think the key to determining which facts can be changed and which can’t depends in great part on how well the writer has done his homework—and whether these changes are made intentionally, for the sake of the story, or merely through sloppy errors on the writer’s part. The writer’s informed and conscious intent is key. There is no excuse for sloppiness. When writing my historical novels and scripts, I always do thorough research and multiple fact-checks, and usually have historians check my work for errors.
In the end, though, the needs of the story must always trump historical truth-telling. For the novelist or dramatist, being true to one’s characters and the needs of the plot is more important than strictly adhering to the historical facts. If the story isn’t working, any facts that get in the way must go.
Writers who are passionate about sticking to the historical record can get stuck in a groove when crafting their fictional plots, and sometimes become too emotionally involved with their story. I remember a day when a student was strenuously defending the need for historical truth-telling in her screenplay, even though I was gently trying to tell her that a scene was simply not working. The scene was at a party, where two men were plotting some sort of derring-do for an espionage mission. First, I explained, they were talking in such veiled terms—because they were in public—that it would never be clear to the film audience what their “plan” was. Second, it made no sense that they would be discussing something so secret in public to begin with. So I suggested that perhaps the writer might consider putting the two men someplace else, so they could talk more freely. “But,” she protested, “it really happened that way!”
To her credit, the dead silence that followed and look of mild embarrassment on her face told me she immediately understood that what she’d said was silly, and would only sabotage her screenplay. By now she was already beginning to realize—based on my sharing with her and the rest of the class my own struggles with striking a balance between historical accuracy and the needs of drama—that “how it really happened” was really not much of an issue if a scene wasn’t working.
I explained that sometimes, in order to be most true to history, one has to change the facts. By that I mean that to accurately convey the spirit of a time, place, situation or historical figure, one may have to tamper with the truth. And that in fact doing so is doing the subject justice. After all, in most situations, we can’t know exactly what people said hundreds of years ago, and even in situations in which we do—such as for historic trials, like the Salem Witch trials of the 1600s—if you put your audience to sleep by forcing them to listen to the entire transcript, how can you possibly teach them anything, anyway?
Changing or truncating conversations, compressing your story’s time frame, omitting certain true events from your hero’s chronology, adding or removing characters or creating composite ones, moving characters around in time and space to places they never were in real life—these are all legitimate and often necessary storytelling techniques when writing narrative films or novels about historical figures and events.
Film is an unusual medium in letting us see what people are like and how they behave when alone. By depicting historic figures when they are by themselves, as almost every history-based movie at least occasionally must do, we are automatically wading into unknown waters. So the notion of achieving historical accuracy in film, while important, in the end is partially a myth.
In addition, films really need a point of view to work as drama. We must follow (and enjoy) the main character’s emotional journey. This requires a depth of understanding of a character’s inner being that goes beyond what even the best histories or diaries tell us. It also requires conjecture—the dramatist’s art.
When writing novels or movies based on history, the “truth” must always play second fiddle to the dramatic needs of the story.
Writers who adapt their favorite books for the screen face some of the same kinds of challenges as those who adapt history to fictional forms. Often, screenwriters will have favorite parts of a book they’re reluctant to let go of—just as surely as someone writing about history may have favorite events they “know” must be in their novel or script.
Those who adapt beloved or bestselling books for the screen face unique challenges. Imagine the difficulties for the screenwriter who adapted Harry Potter, who had legions of “muggles”—and author J.K. Rowling herself—to please! Some reviewers suggested the first Harry Potter movie—which most agreed was well done and very true to the book—just missed greatness because it was ... so true to the book. Naturally, anyone hired to adapt a book that popular would probably have been terrified of messing it up or being unfaithful to it in a way that might disappoint Harry’s army of fans. But being so faithful to the book may actually have been a handicap to turning it into a magnificent movie. Some reviewers have suggested the first film lacked that extra little spark of imagination and creativity that only a great screenwriter working without artificial constraints could have given it.
The process of adapting a book for film by its very nature often puts the book’s author and the film’s producers at cross purposes. They come from different perspectives on the original material and often have different agendas.
When adapting any book for the screen, your best approach is to read it several times and take notes on where you think the screenplay should begin (many successful adaptations open with events that occur a hundred or more pages into the book). Note what you feel should be retained and what definitely must go; bookmark a few pages with useful scenes or dialogue.
Then I’d put the book aside and try not to refer to it much. Your job is to be true to the spirit of the story. Books and films are entirely different media, and often the best way to translate a scene from one to the other is to do just that: Translate it. Find the visual and behavioral equivalent for what you read, especially when dealing with interior monologues, which are found so often in novels and seldom work in film.
Use voice-over narration (a tired device) only if the book’s voice is startlingly unique, you can’t tell your story without it, and what we’re seeing on the screen will be in counterpoint or stark contrast to what we’re hearing in narration. Don’t have the narrator tell us things we already know from seeing them: “And then I walked into my office and saw my secretary lying in a pool of blood next to the water cooler.” This is not the way to win a Oscar.
So, whether you are writing a novel based on history, or a screenplay adapted from your favorite book, it pays to remember: You are telling a story, not writing a documentary or a doctoral thesis. Telling the occasional “little white lie” in your work can actually be a good thing.