Rewriting real life is stranger than fiction - Alexander McCall Smith

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig.Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig.
Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig.
Devotees of Anne of Green Gables – and they are legion – have found themselves divided over the latest screen version of the Canadian classic. The casus belli is a familiar one: interference with a well-loved story in order to satisfy the concerns of the present.

That, of course, is a familiar issue: those who love a particular work of art will often be fierce defenders of its integrity. Don’t rewrite the original, they urge, because that will change the very thing they admire. In the case of Anne, don’t put twenty-first century language and social concerns into the mouths and minds of rural people living on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the twentieth century. That is exactly what the new Anne series does, attributing modern sexual attitudes to people who almost certainly would not have thought in such an enlightened way about such matters. The result, of course, is glaring anachronism, on a par, perhaps, with the makers of Braveheart having William Wallace wearing a kilt centuries before the garment appeared in Scotland. Perhaps Wallace was a natty dresser, but it is a bit unusual for even the most far-sighted fashionista to anticipate sartorial taste by several hundred years.

Modernising fiction to bring it to a contemporary audience is one thing: interfering with the record of real events is another. A play by Shakespeare, a novel by Jane Austen, and an opera by Puccini may all be legitimately retold in a completely different setting, and in modern dress, if that helps. That is simple dramatic licence, and is not complicated by moral considerations except, perhaps, by the issue of the author’s moral right not to have his or her work completely misrepresented. But when a film or a book deals with the story of what real people actually did, there may be a serious objection to distorting the truth – or even to speculating about what may or may not have happened.

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A currently popular British film, The Dig, has once again brought this issue to the fore. This film has a great deal to recommend it – not the least, the magnificent cinematography. Suffolk, where it is set, is a place of wide skies and a very particular light, and these are centre-stage throughout. Then there is the fine acting, especially by Ralph Fiennes, but also by the lesser characters: everybody seems completely credible and low-key, which is how most people in real life happen to be.

The subject of the film is the excavation shortly before the Second World War of the Sutton Hoo treasure. It is about an excavator – not a professional archaeologist – who begins work on a site that in due course attracts the attention of the experts. It is about dogged belief in a possibility and about the role of the amateur enthusiast in the face of academic snobbery and dominance. Throw in a few sub-plots involving an RAF pilot, illness, and loyalty, and you have a perfect mix for a gentle, rather nostalgic reverie. And that all works wonderfully.

But questions have arisen from the use of real characters. The landowner’s story is a real one, and she is one of the main characters in the film, as is her young son. As for the people doing the dig, the excavator was a real historical person, as were several of the archaeologists. And it is in respect of the portrayal one of these that the most important questions arise. Stuart Piggott was a distinguished archaeologist who, as a young man, participated in the Sutton Hoo dig. He later became Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, and was responsible for the building up of the Department of Archaeology to the point where it became a leader in the field. He inspired, amongst others, the writer Bruce Chatwin, who studied under him in Edinburgh in the late nineteen-sixties before he went on to write his widely-read books about place.

Piggott appears in the film under his own name, as does his wife. They are thrilled by the discoveries they make, but, although very recently married, they are shown as having difficulties in their relationship. Piggott is portrayed as being more interested in a fellow male archaeologist. It is not clear what, if any evidence, there is for this. It certainly adds to the interest and tension of the story – after all, it is a somewhat unusual situation, even if it can happen. After all, one of the members of Kenya’s Happy Valley set was reliably said to have had an extra-marital affair on her honeymoon voyage to Mombasa. That is colourful conduct by anybody’s standards, but perhaps not all that unusual amongst the White Mischief crowd.

It may be that these suggestions were true, but if they were not, there is a bit of a question mark over making up things like that. One cannot defame the dead, and so there is no legal reason why one should not invent all sorts of lurid details about figures of the past, but is it morally right to do so, particularly if one is talking about people who died not all that long ago and who may have friends and family who might be hurt by what is said? There is also the question of simple historical fact, which is nothing to do with anybody’s feelings, but relates to our need to preserve the notion of truth in the face of onslaughts on the whole idea that things can be true or false. Mr Trump’s camp fought long and hard against the notion that there is something called the truth that can be ascertained, weighed and examined. If we stop believing that truth matters in one context, then we weaken it in many other contexts, and in due course the idea of truth loses its meaning and force.

Film is part of that battleground. The temptation to distort for dramatic reasons is always there, but perhaps one should err on the side of caution. The true story may be a little less colourful, but it is the true story, and that’s what counts. Of course, there will be cases where it’s not quite so important. The Sound of Music has the von Trapp family setting off for freedom across the Alps. Had they gone that way, rather than down into Italy (as they did in real life), they would have been going in exactly the wrong direction. But the wrong direction was more cinematic, and so off they went. That probably made no difference to anything, but still.

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