Anyone who has attempted a novel, play, or screenplay based on real people, or a real event, has faced the difficult question: How much do you make up? Do you make two people fall in love because it tidies up the script nicely – even though there’s no historical evidence for it? Do you vilify a nice-man composer like Antonio Salieri because of a few rumors that started decades after his death – even for a top-notch script like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which was further cemented in the public mind by a couple remarkable screen performances? At what point are you simply defaming the dead?
Screenwriter John Orloff feels completely comfortable making stuff up for Anonymous, a new movie about the eternal Shakespeare authorship question.
Spoiler alert: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford did it, and William Shakespeare was merely the front man in this version, which the New York Times called the “cold-blooded murder of the truth.” David Riggs told me the only reason the gullible seek out alternative authorship for the plays and poems is that people are generally unaware of what top-notch grammar schools the Elizabethans had – he wrote about it in The World of Christopher Marlowe.
Here’s another story that should discredit the theory: I actually knew of someone who had gone through the Earl of Oxford’s letters. The man couldn’t write to save his life.
Orloff is not a deep thinker, and the Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of printing platitudinous, clichéd passages like this: “But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword.”
It gets worse.
The truth is, there is no truth in film—in any film. Even the films that we think are true, about real people in real places, actually aren’t.
This might seem obvious, but the emotions of a movie often overwhelm our intellect, blurring the line between fact and drama. We walk away feeling as if we have witnessed history.
But does this make a historical drama inferior to a history book or a documentary based on the same subject matter? Not necessarily.
Whatever a film might lack in literal truth, it can be far better at expressing the emotional truth of an event. [You don't say! – ED] In a movie, an audience can become connected to characters in a way that they often can’t in a straight historical account.
And this: “And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience’s time?” If the audience isn’t prepared to waste time, they shouldn’t be in the movie theater in the first place.
Then Orloff compares his historical liberties with those of Shakespeare himself.
This is a case where the comment section probes the issues more closely than the author of the article appears to have:
From Bill Wood: “Nothing justifies outright lying to an audience. It’s one thing to present the argument that Shakespeare didn’t right [sic] his own work. It’s an idea that is baloney … It might make good drama. But it is also a lie. And most people will never bother to read the works which demonstrate what bunk it is.”
From David Brown: “One possible answer to Orloff’s question of how to make a point without wasting the audience’s time is to write your own story. If the history doesn’t support the story you want to tell, pick a different history that does fit – or just write your story without the crutch of misrepresenting great names and events.
From John Tufts: “Yes, stories exist to tell deeper truths, but Mr. Orloff is kidding himself if he thinks his movie is in the pursuit of truth. Neither movies nor theater, nor music, nor poetry, nor any art form has ever been very good at presenting what is real, but the history of all art has existed and been very successful at showing us what is true. That’s what makes Richard III great. Ultimately, it’s not about the real Richard III, it’s about the power of language, and the seduction of evil. Henry V isn’t about the real Henry Monmouth, it’s about the cost of war, and the challenges of leadership. These plays bend what was real to arrive at an essential truth. But for Mr. Orloff to say that he’s doing the same is nonsense. He’s bending what was real to arrive not an essential truth about the human experience, but instead to arrive right back where he started – a claim about what was real. He bends history to write not a great nor true screenplay, but a bad, and very unreal melodrama.”
Donald Forbes: “To aver that there is ‘no truth’ makes impossible any attempt to understand anything. There are no such things as facts, merely assertions of points of view. Relativism as usual morphs into nihilism and destructiveness. …”
As Thomas Conway, Jr., wrote, ” it’s a shame sometimes that dead men can’t sue.”