I saw The King’s Speech the other day. I enjoyed it a lot, despite the story’s adherence to Hollywood formula. What do I mean by Hollywood formula? From years of movie-going experience, I knew that Bertie, the stammering Prince who would eventually take the throne as King George VI, would after initial strong doubts gradually come to trust his speech therapist, and then for a silly reason Bertie would almost abandon that trust. But his doubts would turn out to be short-lived, and he would quickly return to his therapist's embrace.
But I'm a sucker for period pieces, and I didn't once wish that the movie would hurry up and end. So there’s that.
Of course the film takes some liberties with the historical record; Wikipedia devotes a whole section to them. The relationship between Bertie and Lionel Louge began in the 1920s, long before the film had them meeting. Bertie’s family life is simplified; he actually had two more younger brothers and one sister who the film never showed or mentioned. And history that’s deemed irrelevant to the plot gets left out. If you didn’t know better, you might get the impression from the film that World War II broke out just weeks after Bertie became king.
(There is also the fact that younger brother Colin Firth, born 1960, clearly looks older than elder brother Guy Pearce, born 1967, a fact that most film critics have been too polite to point out.)
But that’s all easily forgivable. A historical film that’s just as nuanced as real life would probably be unwatchable. Tora Tora Tora, which I remember being shown back in high school, is probably as historically accurate as movies get -- but the events it depicts take place within 24 hours. And even so, it's admired far more for its historical veracity than for being a crowd-pleaser.
But that’s not what has many people riled up. Christopher Hitchens, while praising the fine moviemaking at work, criticizes the film for how it portrays late-1930s British politics, particularly Churchill’s views on the Edward VIII abdication crisis and the new king’s views on appeasing Hitler. (George VI strongly supported appeasement, not that you’d know it from the movie.)
If that bothers you, do what I do: see the movie as pure fiction. Oh, of course it’s inspired by real events. But plenty of fiction is inspired by real events. Then the real events are molded and shaped to fit the narrative.
Like in The Social Network.
I saw The Social Network, I really enjoyed it, but after I learned that the real Mark Zuckerberg has been dating the same woman since before he started Facebook, I couldn’t take the film remotely seriously as corresponding to real events. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has famously said, of The Social Network, "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?" I for one was happy watching Jesse Eisenberg play a fictional character at the movie's center. And I remembered not to confuse the fictional story with real life; as Cracked has pointed out, The Social Network arguably makes Zuckerberg look better and more interesting than he deserves.
Even supposedly nonfiction books are often more story than unimpeachable history. I once read a 200-page biography of Queen Victoria that blatantly skipped over history and reduced supporting characters to caricatures in order to create an interesting narrative. You can hardly blame the author. You can’t fairly reduce a real person’s life to 200 pages, unless you’re dealing with a stupendously boring person. And people want to read, and see, narratives that make sense.
That said, if you don’t know anything about a person or period from history, a movie can at least impress an outline upon your brain, which can be filled in afterward with details of what really happened. After the movie 300, which I would argue is barely a historical drama at all (it’s an adaptation of a highly stylized graphic novel), Zompist helpfully provided some facts about how it compared with actual history, ending with the dry comment, “Despite the film, the Persian army did not actually have orcs”.