An interesting exchange of e-mails with my old college buddy Scoob has given me fodder for not one but two posts. This is the first, and the second will straggle in at some point in the future.
Scoob started the ball rolling when he sent me this link to a blog wherein a physicist nitpicks the goings-on in a new TV series called Jericho.
Now even though I now have cable, I hadn’t heard of Jericho. In fact, I can only name one new show to come out this season, Standoff, and only because it comes on after House. But it did, at first, sound like something I would have been interested in – the idea of a small, isolated community surviving a nuclear war echoes the classic novel Alas, Babylon, so at least the idea had some promise.
Well, it’s a good thing that I didn’t hear about the show and start watching it, based on the physicist’s review. It sounds to me like the writing suffers from either a blatant ignorance of, or a casual disregard for, the realities of science. Now I suppose that one could attribute lines like “Hydrogen bombs set the atmosphere on fire” to writers who don’t want to stop and explain things to audience members who would be put off by such a thing… but if you’re playing the Alas, Babylon card, you’ve got to realize that you’re going to draw some people to the show who are going to quickly spot the zipper running up the back of your monster’s suit. Well, you should realize it, anyway. Apparently, they didn’t.
Which prompts the question, “How much fudging of the facts can a writer get away with before losing readers, or worse yet, credibility?”
First, let’s keep in mind that there are always going to be people who nitpick little details. And you’re never going to get all of them right. You might think that you know all there is to know about Onion Rings, based on your 20 years of experience as a flack for the American Association for the Cultural Advancement of the Onion Ring, but someone is out there waiting to point out that you made the critical mistake of putting cumin powder in the batter, and no self-respecting maker of Onion Rings would ever, ever do that. So let’s put that aspect aside and forget about it, along with that highly annoying analogy.
As with most of my answers, I don’t think there’s anything that’s black and white. And, as with most of my answers, I offer a set of guidelines that might help you think this kind of thing through.
1) It depends on how big or important your fudge is. God might be in the details, but if you leave a gaping hole as a result of your fudge, it is going to be noticed. Like in the movie U-571, which would have you believe that the German Enigma Code was broken because we Americans disguised one of our subs as a U-Boat and used it to go and hijack a real U-Boat, which had an Enigma machine on it. This conveniently overlooks the many hard centuries of man-hours that British intelligence took to unravel how the system worked (although, to be fair, as a sop to any Brits in the audience, there was a credit at the end of the film giving them credit for helping crack the code).*
That is called ignoring the facts so you can have a plot. It is B-A-D. Not to mention S-T-U-P-I-D.
On the other side of the coin, in the play that I hope to start editing this evening, I have an extended courtroom scene, and I left out one detail: a bailiff. Every bit of logic says I should have one, because emotions at a child custody hearing would naturally run high, and it is a good thing to have a stocky gentleman with a badge to be handy to pry people apart.
But I left out any mention of a Bailiff completely. Frankly, I did it to expedite the scene, which I knew was going to be long going in, and one more character to juggle wasn’t going to shorten things any. Besides, I had an eye on my audience – I want this play to be picked up and performed by community theater groups around the country, and in some cases a play’s viability is determined by the number of male characters (men are traditionally in short supply when it comes to community theater).
(Okay, yeah, we could have a female bailiff, but I already have three characters who could be played by a woman or a man, complete with unisex names, so give me a break.)
My philosophy was this: 1) if the director really would sleep better at night, s/he could put one in him/er self; 2) for the audience I am after, it’s a small but forgivable indiscretion, annoying perhaps only attorneys, who are probably going to be annoyed by things other than this anyway, and; 3) the only thing I’m losing is suspense, because a bailiff would represent the possibility of a fistfight breaking out, and frankly, this isn’t that kind of a play. It’s kind of like Chekov’s admonition (the playwright, not the guy on the U.S.S. Enterprise who seems to do nothing but raise the shields and get beaten up) – “If you describe a gun hanging on the mantle, it better come into use during the play.” Or words to that effect.
So is what I am doing a gamble? Yeah, but a small one – like calling in with a queen and an off-suit number card. Is it B-A-D? Is it S-T-U-P-I-D? Not in my B-O-O-K. But your mileage may vary. Think about it and tell me what you think once you’ve seen the play.
2) It depends on your audience. Maybe the creators of Jericho never heard of Alas, Babylon, but a little homework would have told them that this kind of show was going to attract some people for whom science was an occupation, a hobby, or in the case of fandom, a way of life. And that these folks would be rather vocal in pointing out the rather gaping holes in the fabric of the story.
One of my favorite films is How to Murder Your Wife. The climactic scene of this battle of the sexes comedy takes place in a courtroom, and after a beleagured Jack Lemmon pleads his case, the Judge looks over at the conveniently all-male jury and asks for their verdict. They all reply at once, without going off to deliberate. It’s a funny moment, even though it makes the Fudge-O-Meter go off the scale. But you know what? Even though I think “this would never happen in real life” every time I see this scene, I still love it. Because, as the audience, I am expecting a comic battle of the sexes film. I’m a lot more lax on the rules than I would be were I to see the same indiscretion in, say, a John Grisham novel.
My favorite example of this being done badly is in a film I have never seen – the infamous NBC mini-series Noah’s Ark. Apparently, the film begins with a credit saying that some liberties have been taken with the story. Okay, I can understand that. The story of Noah takes up three chapters in Genesis, and to stretch the story out to 160 minutes, you’ve got to make up some dialogue and extrapolate some action based on what it would take to spend 100 years building a huge boat while your neighbors complained about the noise (extrapolated) and laughed at you (Biblical). Hopefully, all of this fudging would draw from what you know of the time and culture, and from the Bible itself.
(Foreshadowing moment: Hollywood writer knowing something about the Bible. Heh.)
Well, the liberties didn’t stop with additional dialogue. The film apparently begins with Noah rescuing Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Scratching your head because you don’t remember that from Sunday School? Of course you are. See, the writers forgot, or chose to ignore, or most likely simply didn’t know that Noah was the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Lot — who was actually rescued by Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Abraham.
Then there were other liberties – like the ark having to flee from ocean-borne pirates (!) and hooking up with a sailing man whose vessel was a floating haberdashery shop, and… I can’t go on.
The lesson here is: You’re writing a Biblical epic. Think maybe that might draw an audience of persons interested in seeing it because they’ve read that particular book quite a bit? Think maybe they’d expect the story to stay within the bounds of what they consider to be the facts? Think maybe they’d notice – and quite possibly raise their voices – if some of the facts were completely out of whack?. Well, the benefit of hindsight gives us what Hollywood’s answer was, and it ends in the words, “…and give me another hit of that Columbian while your at it.”
(For a look at a what may be the best Bible adaptation ever, check out Joseph, which extrapolates wisely, tells the story completely, and fudges only in the timing of one of Joseph’s speeches at the film’s end – but it makes for a great moment, and I understand completely why the writer did it that way.)
3) It depends on why you’re fudging. The mention of the Joseph fudge brings this up. When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, part of his speech is taken from one that was actually given after their father, Jacob, died. As I said, this little bit of rearranging puts a cap on the story without having to drag the film out for another half an hour as we wait for Jacob to die and the brothers to worry about their fate in Egypt.
Sometimes you fudge because of audience expectations. When a rough cut of Star Wars was previewed at a Science Fiction convention, a representative for the film was on hand afterwards for a Q and A session. According to the legend, he opened the session with these words; “Before any of you says anything, yes, we know that there’s no sound in space. Are there any other questions?”
This tells me that George Lucas knew of that particular fact of science, and ignored it for the sake of making a more exciting film. He also knew it was something he could get away with.
(The only film I can think of that has a soundless explosion was 2001: A Space Odyssey – but if there was ever a film that should have had silent explosions, it was Alien – just because of it’s now-famous tag line: “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”)
So to sum up this point, ask yourself why you are fudging. Your answer will give you an instant assessment of the balance of risks versus reward:
- It’s just a little fudge that will allow me to have greater dramatic impact at an opportune moment in the story,
- This is a time-honored fudge that, in our cultural lexicon, is seen more as tradition than error,
- My story’s a bit unwieldy, and by bending the rules a bit, I can make a more efficient machine out of it,
- I’m really in a hurry to get this done, I don’t have the time or gumption to really fact-check this,
- Nobody in flyover America will notice, and the important people I know won’t care,
- Listen, this is my story, and I can’t really be bothered with the facts,
- Hey, don’t bogart the Columbian, I’m getting a buzz kill here!
To fudge this whole thing to a conclusion, when it comes to the literary cheating, sometimes you have to knuckle down and do the right thing, even if you think it’s going to kill you. It’ll discipline you into doing the story right and making it more airtight, and better for the effort. Besides, research won’t kill you. You might even learn something.
Thus, I rest my case. And yes, that’s in a courtroom that has a bailiff.
it took ten years to realize
why the angel stopped crying
when you sail on down the lane
your happy smile, your funny name
(via iTunes shuffle play)
* This is also only fair because the British once made a film about how an intrepid RAF pilot was the first human to use an airplane to break the sound barrier – conveniently ignoring that whole Chuck Yeager/”The Right Stuff” thing.**
** I’m not fudging – the first time a human broke the sound barrier was in ancient times, probably when an Egyptian taskmaster cracked a whip across the backs of some slaves.
PS: For those of you writing space travel epics, here’s a great article that will keep your fudge factor low.