The Accuracy Requirement
A very interesting story emerged last week, when a Democratic Congressman from the state of Connecticut took issue with the recent Spielberg film Lincoln (which I’ve yet to see). His problem: in the film, two Connecticut Congressmen apparently voted against ending slavery, whereas in reality, all of Connecticut’s representatives supported the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (which outlawed that institution).
The Congressman who raised this issue has received some criticism since –– he’s being accused of grandstanding. Maybe. Meanwhile, as a defense, the screenwriter points out that some allowances must be made within the context of a historical drama, and that the two Connecticut Congressman who supported slavery in Lincoln were fictional replacements for the real representatives (so as not to tarnish the names of any real individuals). Fair enough, perhaps –– I did the same when replacing the real Canadian historical figure Garnet Hughes with the fictional doppleganger Evelyn Hughes, in The Expedition.
But here’s the thing: according to all of the literature I’ve ever come across, Garnet Hughes was the sort of unfit soldier that’s described in The Expedition. Giving him a different name was a point of respect on my part –– I hadn’t seen primary literature, or personal papers, to confirm his character… so I thought it better not to discredit him based solely on secondary sources. Evelyn thus stood in, but followed the trajectory one would think realistic for Garnet, based on the historiography.
In the case of Lincoln, the voting record makes it clear that no Congressmen from Connecticut voted against the abolition of slavery. I’m not an American constitutional historian, so I can’t confirm whether any of the real politicians were tempted to vote the other way (there was reportedly much horse-trading in the House to get the two-thirds majority required for a constitutional amendment), but the fact remains that all Connecticut representatives did vote in support of the Thirteenth Amendment. And despite what certain modern politicians might believe, one’s voting record truly does matter.
When Argo (another film I still have to see) reportedly overlooked the fact that Canada’s Ambassador in Iran was a leading figure in saving the US hostages in 1979 –– that it wasn’t just the CIA being awesome –– I shrugged. Omitting facts to streamline a story for the home audience is simply the nature of the business. It didn’t please me, but at least the Canadian Ambassador wasn’t (reportedly) presented as working against the US efforts… he just wasn’t getting his full credit.
The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment has more far-reaching implications than the Iranian hostage crisis, and telling its story requires a deft handling of sensitive issues. When it comes to race relations, and slavery in particular, writers must be prudent… and reversing the votes of Congressmen from any state, just for the sake of dramatic tension, seems a rather risky ploy. If you’re determined to amplify the anxiety of a scene, then surely you can find a less potentially-disrespectful way to do it.
When I’m writing alternate history involving aliens and another planet, I probably have more excuses than most to get details wrong. With some exceptions, I try not to. Real people lived and died for things far more important than my ramblings on a page, or any film ever released for popular consumption. We need to be mindful of their legacies. That certainly doesn’t mean we whitewash our past, but I think it does require us to give credit where due.
If I voted to end slavery in my country, I wouldn’t want a powerful film –– destined to be seen by millions –– to retroactively replace me with a fictional person who did the opposite, just because the writer thought it the easiest way to add tension.
But then, maybe I’m selfish.