Screenwriting : Historical Films: How Do You Know What Details To Discard And Which To Keep? by Nadia Carmon

Nadia Carmon

Historical Films: How Do You Know What Details To Discard And Which To Keep?

So, I watched the film Belle (2013) last night. Though there were some pacing issues in the beginning (first few scenes felt rushed, but it quickly got on the right pace), it was every bit the lush period piece I hoped it would be. But while it's based on a true story, comparing the historical details in the film versus the actual history showed quite a few glaring differences. #Nospoilers. Just an example. Let's say an event, such as inheriting an estate, takes place within 2 years of a character's life in the film; whereas in real life it took 10 years. Some of the historical characters' lives were fudged as well. One of them has an occupation in the film that they didn't have in real life. However, the occupation gets them closer to another pivotal character, and drives them towards important dialogues about slavery, law and abolition. Without this, these two characters wouldn't have met so formally. Their interaction culminates in the film's climax. My Question: I know the purpose of changing some details in Belle was to truncate the film and get to the bare bones of the plot in fewer characters....But how would one know what details to change in historical stories? How do you know what aspects of the history to sacrifice without losing the essence of the (hi)story itself?

Dan MaxXx

Trial & error, "creative license", filmmaking experience and just plain old good storytelling with pictures. Movies are generally 2 hours, gotta squeeze and remove the dull time of true events & real people. "Sully" movie- plane crash, aftermath, investigation were resolved in a week. Real Life, it was over 9+months. "The Revenant"- filmmakers say it was based on a true story. Yes, just the bear attack and survival. Rest of movie was bogus. great filmmaking.

James Grant Goldin

In the business, everything is sacrificed for "a good story" -- which means hitting the "Save the Cat" beats. But I think one SHOULD always err on the side of the truth. (Now, in some cases you don't know the truth or there are conflicting truths, and in some cases you're just riffing on history -- but if so, make that clear.) There's a great book, "The Hollywood History of the World," by George Macdonald Fraser (he wrote the Flashman novels) and it's a lovely and very forgiving tour of history films from 1930-1996. It'll entertain you and make you think.

Phillip "The Genuine Article" Hardy

Belle: I've written three biopics and several historical period piece screenplays. Here's my take, you should do enough research so that you feel comfortable navigating your way through the world of your characters. But consider your goal. Are you creating a history lesson or our you endeavoring to entertain people? Last year, I wrote a screenplay called "The Negro League", which used black baseball of the 1930's as a backdrop for a gangster epic that featured Gus Greenlee, the real life owner of the Pittsburg Crawfords. With very little information available about the real Greenlee, I fictionalized much of the story. However, the historical elements about Negro League baseball were very accurate. Also, it's often necessary to create composite characters etc. But write the kind of story you want to see while delivering the history as accurately as possible.

Rutger Oosterhoff

Write a logline for what really historically happened, and what happens in your movie version of it. Compare and conclude...

Dan Guardino

Ideas are free for the taking.

Doug Nelson

Excepting factual documentaries and instructional videos, 'most film is about life – just leave the dull parts out.

William Martell

You have 110 pages - so you focus on whatever story you are telling and ditch the rest. Bio films often give away what they are going to focus on in the title: YOUNG MR. LINCOLN isn't going to deal with anything that happens when he's President. The recent Spielberg LINCOLN doesn't give away what the film is about - but that movies is focused on the 4 month period of Lincoln's life where he's trying to get the 13 Amendment passed. Nothing before that or after that. And the story focuses on the issues related to passing the the 13th Amendment - anything else that happened in Lincoln's life is seen through the lens of passing that Amendment... and if there was no connection, it was left out. It's the same as adapting a novel - there may be 400 pages in the novel and a bunch of subplots, but you are going to focus on the main plot and re-think those subplots so that the ones that you keep share the same conflict issues and theme as that main plot. Best thing to do is figure out what the essence of the story is - that "story in a nutshell" version that would be the logline for the book or aspect of the character you are going to focus on. So figure out the logline and anything that is not the logline is not part of your story. I have a script tip on Adaptation, which gets into more detail, here:

James Grant Goldin

I just looked up some sites about the historical accuracy of the 2012 "Lincoln." Seems to be pretty good...there are a few errors which COULD be honest mistakes--Lincoln's mentioned as being on the 50 cent piece but that didn't happen until 4 years after his death; Congress voted by name, not by state -- that could be a deliberate change by Spielberg and Kushner, and in that case...not a call I would have made. Mary Lincoln didn't watch the vote on the 13th Amendment from the gallery -- simply wasn't done by first ladies then. So that shouldn't have been done. Lincoln's constant swearing in anger--no historian seems to go along with that. Then there are things that historians think "would never have happened." Like, no soldier would have memorized the Gettysburg Address. Young Robert Lincoln would never ever have been allowed to play with expensive and delicate photographic that, I think you have to give the filmmakers a pass. You don't KNOW he never played with such things. Out of the thousands of African-American soldiers in the Union Army at the end of 1864, could ONE of them have memorized the Gettysburg Address? Uh, yeah. It's a fictional scene, but it falls in the cracks of history and serves a decent purpose. (It's not a great scene, but it COULD have happened.) Then you've got the scene where Thaddeus Stevens borrows the just-approved 13th Amendment and hobbles home to his housekeeper who's actually his mistress and makes a little speech and he takes off his wig and they go to bed. That's all true -- at least, it's widely, widely assumed that she was his mistress and much beloved -- EXCEPT for the bit about actually taking the amendment home. That's one of those movie actions that goes off like a charge in the audience's mind and you think, "Really? Did that happen?" And it didn't. Now, having Stevens, say, wait for the first edition of the morning paper with the text of the Amendment...or just going home and TELLING his beloved about it...might not have had the same impact, but the scene in the movie didn't happen and shouldn't have been written. So much of the movie was right, that things like that cheapen it. That said, it's better than "Braveheart" which is hogwash from the first minute. (And yet there's a statue of Mel Gibson as Wallace in Scotland, so go figger...)

Doug Nelson

… And today's young are tomorrow's leaders; sometimes (not often), I'm grateful for being old. I watch my grand kids as they learn history from the movies and it comforts me knowing that I'm not long for the coming era of stupidity. Should I rile against it? Sorry, it's not my job anymore.

Ana "Quin" Quinata

I found myself asking the same question and I decided that instead of asking myself "What happened?" when writing to ask myself "What would it have felt like for my character(s) when this happened?" Yes, the major details should be kept intact but the smaller can be left to your creative interpretation. In "Belle" a lot of her conflict derived from a question of identity. Where did she belong as a woman of mixed race in a world where slavery still existed? So many scenes and scenarios highlighting that were brought on screen and compressed to account for the restraints on running time expectations. It showed the impact she made on her family and on the decisions of her very powerful great-uncle. I thoroughly enjoyed the film when I saw it and was moved by it which ultimately was the goal of the filmmakers despite it not being 100% factual - for which, as the others mentioned, I could watch a documentary. Take even that with a grain of salt because history has many sides. On the other hand, "Princess Kaiulani" was immensely bothersome to me because it focused almost entirely on a teenage love story rather than the remarkable efforts of this young royal to maintain the sovereignty of her nation amidst an illegal annexation to the United States. Beautifully shot as it was, I would not recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in historically based films.

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