Films that 'fictionalise' reality are leading more than just Garfield astray – Alastair Stewart

Otto English's book, Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World, is a wonderful dissection of some of history's heroes and villains who are unfairly castigated or wrongly glorified.
Regardless of what Garfield thinks, if they say it on the television it isn't necessarily true (Picture: China Photos/Getty Images)Regardless of what Garfield thinks, if they say it on the television it isn't necessarily true (Picture: China Photos/Getty Images)
Regardless of what Garfield thinks, if they say it on the television it isn't necessarily true (Picture: China Photos/Getty Images)

The writers and directors of the movie Blonde, starring Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe, should have read English's book first. Never has a film so neatly surmised the spectacular disconnect between historical truth and fiction in our modern world.

It is based on a bestselling biographical novel by Joyce Carol Oates which presents a fictionalised take on the life of Monroe. The film was marketed as being about the real woman behind Monroe, Norma Jeane.

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The entire thing is fiction, a crude facsimile, but one in which serious allegations are made, including President John F Kennedy sexually assaulting Monroe.

Modern culture seems doomed to write or rewrite itself into oblivion. Whether it is movies or statues, there is a severe absence of critical thought and a brazen cognitive dissonance.

We either rely too much on, or not enough, on academics and writers. More than that, the most fundamental of questions – what is truth – is taken as too cerebral and therefore dismissed. "My truth" is one of the most appalling platitudes ever devised.

The resulting paralysis fosters the kind of nightmare we find ourselves in now. Thinking the media is untrustworthy is the absolute tip of the iceberg. We live in a time when a Prime Minister's contribution to metaphysics is to ask if a work event can ever be a party. Critical thinking is dying, if not dead.

Audiences are not stupid. But the further we all move from historical events and people, the easier it is to put our trust in writers, directors, and actors to do the necessary background research and present an approximation of the truth to actual events. The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, The King's Speech about King George VI and the movie Elvis are generally accurate.

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Biopics about leaders and brands are something of an exception because they need to sensationalise as part of their business strategy. The Social Network, about Mark Zuckerberg and the origins of Facebook, and The Founder, about businessman Ray Croc and the creation of McDonald's, are a broad outline, as is the film Steve Jobs, which is also a condensed story about Apple.

The issue with Blonde is the same as in the TV show The Crown. It has decided to hate upon another blonde protagonist whose life has been ripped apart by media scrutiny.

Diana (played by Emma Corrin in season four and Elizabeth Debicki in the forthcoming season five) is presented as weak, vain and childish. One can only imagine the horror of her sons if they watched what the Netflix show is producing about their mother and, indeed, their father.

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British television producer and close friend of the late Princess Diana, Jemima Khan, pulled her contributions from the upcoming season of The Crown. Former UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden called for explicit disclaimers before each episode to state that the entire thing is a drama. This seems self-evident, but the crux of the problem remains – when is fiction taken as fact and fact as fiction?

Former Foreign Secretary David Owen, in his book In Sickness And In Power, charts how leaders' various diseases and illnesses affected their decisions. Prime Minister Anthony Eden suffered from the effects of a damaged bile duct following a 1953 operation. He was prescribed Benzedrine, which is an addictive amphetamine.

That the drug affected his judgement over the Suez invasion of 1956 is contested, but he did not pass out in a drug-induced stupor in front of President Eisenhower, as The Crown presents.

Netflix has no plans to add a disclaimer to The Crown stating that the hit series is a work of fiction. But given just how polished and big-budget it is, is it any wonder people might assume there's a team of professional historians in the back, ticking boxes?

Much the same can be said of the show Outlander. The show is described as a "historical drama" but based on the "historical fantasy" books of Diana Gabaldon.

Semantics aside, it has such an air of realism as to become overwhelming, and some take it as another affirmation of English violence against Scotland. No doubt the 18th century was abominably harsh, but it is entirely something else to present gratuitous sexual violence that manages to increase every season.

This England, starring Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, has its own problems. Modern history is easier or more challenging to present as entertainment because we have lived through it. Is it just possible some may think the TV show is based on political interviews, media reporting, and insider knowledge? The whole thing is a fictional take, presented as a half-serious presentation of fact.

When Winston Churchill died, his wife Clementine said, “now, he belongs to the nation”. There is a point when famous people die, and their entire life story becomes open to interpretation and latterly reinvention.

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Disinformation is a virus that seems to be shifting from epidemic to pandemic. Not everyone can spend weeks poring over an event or people's lives to discern the truth – we cannot do that on a daily basis with policies and politics, let alone our escapist entertainment.

Because everything is recorded in our digital age, you would think confirming or denying facts is easier. It is harder now than ever, and it comes back to the same old question – who can you trust?

When something is polished and expensive and on-screen or in print, it is easier to take it as gospel. As Garfield the cat said: “If they say it on television, it must be true.”

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