I am a person who races to Google the moment I’m done watching a movie that is based on real events. I want to know what was true, what was embellished, and what was unabashed fabrication. I read about the events and the people, lingering over the photographs in particular. I go back and forth between photos of the actor and the actual person. How closely does the actor’s hairstyle match the person’s? How well does the 2010’s actress wear those 70’s glasses? What character is actually an amalgam of three people?
I like to think about why things get changed in the transition from reality to fiction, especially when reality seems interesting enough. I remember one particular movie (the name of which escapes me now), in which the main character had a daughter. In real life, she had a son. I wondered what the point was in changing the sex of the child—the child, who had no bearing on the story whatsoever. Was there a dearth of boy actors that day at the casting call?
Small or big changes interest me when it comes to playing around with nonfiction, and not just in relation to film. I recently finished reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which borrows from history. JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Oswald, and other real-life characters, are appropriated by King and interwoven into a time-travel novel. The basic premise involves the main character traveling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, in the hopes that other terrible events will not happen, such as the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his afterward, King talks about the amount of research that went into this story, and he also mentions that he plays around with some events to suit the needs of his novel. He tries to be as true to actual events as possible, but there are things that he made up. There are some scenes in which he imagines what Lee and Marina say to each other, like when they give their baby daughter, June, a bath. He pushes his fictional characters into collision courses with Lee, Marina, Jackie, and even George de Mohrenschildt. Fictional and nonfictional characters meet, have conversations that never took place, and influence each other’s lives.
Now, you could say, “Of course all this happened. This is Stephen King we’re talking about. He writes fiction.” And that’s true, except usually he doesn’t write fiction based in and on reality, or some part of reality, anyway. Now, because I like doing the research when something is based in fact, and because I know that King is a fiction writer, I can come to the realization that how King is using real-life people is not “real.” It’s for effect, and for impact.
But I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. My conflicted feelings might be silly, considering how many “based on real events” movies I’ve watched and enjoyed, and considering how I understand that film is an art form, and sometimes real life doesn’t suit the art, so things have to change. Why should literature be any different? Why shouldn’t I be as on board with a novel or short story that borrows from reality, or a poem that borrows from reality? (Full disclosure: I have written such poems.)
I don’t know. There is something about looking at the cover of 11/22/63 and seeing a picture of the Kennedys in the motorcade in Dallas on the day that JFK dies that is strangely disconcerting, because it feels like I’m about to read nonfiction, but I’m not.
In Anne Lamott’s beautiful book about writing, Bird by Bird, she mentions a writer friend who basically says that everything is text, meaning, I suppose, that everything and anything in life can and should be used as fodder to write. No holds barred.
But still I am conflicted. Is it okay to put fictional words into the mouths of nonfictional characters? Is it okay to dress them up and position them like action figures to suit our own stories? Is it okay to imagine their lives—the parts that aren’t known by the general public, that aren’t recorded and cataloged— through our stories? And is it alright to appropriate an important moment (say, the JFK assassination) and paint around it with our own bright and fictional colors?
What do you think?