Altering History - Why Screenwriters Can and Should Rewrite the Course of History

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By Luke Warrington


“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

~Mark Twain


I often think about this quote from author and humorist, Mark Twain, whenever I hear someone remark disdainfully about a film, “That’s not how that would happen in real life,” or, “That’s not what being a doctor is really like.” And while they may be correct about the veracity of the representation of said occupation in film and television, they are incorrect in their inherent assumption that the fundamental purpose of what they’ve just seen was to be as accurate to life as possible (looking at you, YouTube channel that just posted yet another video titled “Real Life Lawyer Breaks Down 10 More Scenes From Law & Order”.)

On a fundamental level, the purpose of film and television, at least in Hollywood, is to entertain. The purpose of life, on the other hand, is. . . well, probably something best left for another article! In all seriousness, life is, at the risk of oversimplifying things, chaotic. Things seemingly happen at random every single second of every single day. Whether it’s running into an old schoolmate whom you have not seen in years or getting into a fender bender with the Duke of Boysenberry, things happen randomly to which you have no control. In fact, ironically enough, if often feels as if the more we try to plan, the more random and inexplicable things become.

Writers do not have the luxury of simply allowing things to happen at random for 100+ pages. For a narrative to make sense, for it to be compelling and emotionally satisfying, there must be set ups and payoffs. In a basic three act structure, Act 2 needs to be the direct result of the events of Act 1 while Act 3 must be the result of the previous two acts. Having someone or something appear in the final act of a movie that had not been previously introduced is a key ingredient for audience disappointment. Imagine watching the final act of a movie in which the protagonist is getting his keister handed to him by an evil alien, when all of a sudden the protagonist uses some kind of crazy jedi-mind trick, that until this point, we didn’t even know the protagonist was capable of such supernatural magic, and kills the monster once and for all – end of story? You’d feel cheated - and rightfully so. Movies must have cause and effect; life, on the other hand, isn’t always so easy to explain.

To put it simply, our everyday life is not narratively satisfying for film or TV. Things are too boring, too random and don’t always make sense. Conversely, movies are not meant to be exact depictions of life. Instead, movies are meant to resemble life in a manner that is believable within the context of their narrative while remaining as entertaining as possible. As such, if you endeavor to base a script on historical events, it is in your best interest to make the necessary edits to history to ensure the end result is a fully-satisfying narrative whether it is 100% historically accurate or not.

As to what those changes might be depends entirely upon the story that you are telling. It is not a one size fits all solution. Maybe it’s shifting the order of events to better fit your narrative. Maybe it’s combining two or more real-life people into one character. Maybe it’s fabricating someone brand new or omitting someone altogether. It is your job as a screenwriter to figure out what the necessary changes ought to be. That is both part of the challenge and the fun of the craft of screenwriting in my opinion.

While there are numerous examples out there of films that have rewritten history in a way that may be called revisionist, one example that comes to mind is Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network. The scene halfway through, when Sean Parker convinces Mark to cut Eduardo Saverin out of the company is one of the most memorable moments in film from the last decade. The tension, the conflict, everything that has been building between the two until this climactic point of the film has made it perfectly clear that Eduardo and Sean absolutely abhor each other.

. . . except for they don’t. Not in real life anyway. By their own admittance, they get along very well, and are even friends. So, why did Sorkin decide to make them nemeses in the movie? Because he knew that was the most impactful way to keep the audience invested and to show Mark’s character development. Did he care that the real-life Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and Sean Parker aren’t much like their portrayals in the movie? No, because his intention was not to create exact replicas. It was to create an entertaining story about ambition, friendship, and betrayal whereat the center there is an individual conflicted with severing the ties of his past, in order to conquer the future.

Whether making adjustments to reality to fit your narrative seems obvious to you or not, I think it worth stating. I base this on the fact that I have read many historically based screenplays which read like Wikipedia pages with dialogue. That’s not to say they aren’t impressive in their own right. They are. However, just because they are historically accurate, it does not mean that they are narratively satisfying. If people want to learn about history, they can read biographies, watch documentaries, or do research on their own. Movies, on the other hand, should be a source of entertainment, first and foremost. With that being said, don’t be afraid to alter history to best tell your story.