Monday, September 1, 2014

How Not To Write Historical Fiction, Revisited

 So much historical fiction has been written since I last wrote about how not to write historical fiction that it's time to write more on the subject. This time I'll broaden my comments to include screenplays that should never have been written. Or, in any case, one such screenplay, namely, John Ridley's Twelve Years a Slave. For though Solomon Northup's nineteenth-century narrative of the same name was not a work of fiction, Ridley and director Steve McQueen went a long way toward turning it into one -- but not in a good way.

Now, make no mistake. As for Chewetel Ejiofor, featured in the photo above and on the left -- well, I would watch Chewetel Ejiofor reprogram his I-phone. That isn't to
say I would necessarily watch him act in another movie. (By the way -- in an English teacherly aside -- do you know that when you say, for example, "I would listen to Judi Dench reading the phone book!," you are claiming you would listen to Judi Dench while you yourself were reading the phone book?) On the subject of Ejiofor's acting, I loved him in Dirty Pretty Things, and would have paid a lot of money to see his Othello a few years back, had he not inexplicably chosen to perform that part on a London stage instead of on the hallowed boards of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. (Yes, that's how they spell it. We have our Midwestern affectations.) So, because I've observed his talent, and in fact, joking aside, would watch him act in another movie, I'm convinced that the problems with his performance of Solomon Northup in Twelve Years a Slave were the result of the wrong-headedness of the wrong-headed director's wrongheaded directing and John Ridley's wrongheaded script.

Why?, I kept asking myself as I watched the film. Why do these characters and their speech seem so inauthentic? Why do these people all seem like movie stars woodenly reciting archaic dialogue with which they are not at home, and for whose delivery they have not even attempted to muster up even the ghost of a regional accent? The answer came to me in a flash. It was because the actors were movie stars woodenly reciting archaic dialogue with which they were not at home, and for whose delivery they had not even attempted to muster up even the ghost of a regional accent. And I thought this even before Brad Pitt appeared on the scene.

To test my suspicion that Ridley had simply lifted passages from Northup's reconstructed account of his ordeal and dropped them into his screenplay, I read Northup's book, which confirmed that suspicion. Ridley's choice was a mistake for several reasons.

First, there's the dialogue. Ridley, I assume, was aiming for a realistic presentation of Northup's life on a Louisiana plantation, including, most importantly, what people said to each other down there. But Northup, despite his asserted commitment to presenting "a candid and truthful statement of facts," was not trying to express himself quite like the characters he encountered and described, but to make his case against slavery in the idiom of an educated American of the middle nineteenth century. This meant he was writing in the style of Emerson and Douglass and Melville, employing Latinate phrases and litotes and sentimental flourishes, and heaping up clauses. "Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State," etc., etc., "it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public." Later on we find this kind of sentence: "Language can convey but an inadequate impression of the lamentations to which she gave incessant utterance." Don't get me wrong, I love this kind of writing. But familiarity with literary conventions should teach us to distinguish between an assumed and a vernacular voice, especially with regard to an age in which those categories hadn't yet collapsed and merged. The fact that Northup's work was edited by Northern white abolitionists -- men who helped construct not only his first-person "voice" but to reconstruct the voices of slaves, slave-owners, and overseers in Louisiana -- distances us further from the main characters' original conversation. In the main, Northup was not trying to recreate -- as Ridley and director Steve McQueen were  -- the American vernacular, or any version thereof. For that -- Huckleberry Finn, maybe, would have been a helpful source?

And then there's the story. In the film, many facts went by the wayside. First: the film shows responsible family man Northup bidding, at the outset, a romantic farewell in New York to a wife who knows exactly where he's bound: to play the violin for some entertainers in Washington, D.C., to pick up some extra cash for the family. In reality, Northup's wife was away and he sent her no word of his plans, figuring, he says, that he'd be back home before she was. Of course, bamboozled and sold down the river in D.C., he wasn't. Still, despite his apparent disappearance into thin air, his family received word of his capture and sale (though not of his ultimate destination and name-change) within weeks, from some white travelers Northup met during his horrid journey to New Orleans. Not so in the film, where long years go by before Northup is able to convey any message home about what happened to him. Presumably the filmmakers suppressed these small but vital facts to simplify both Northrup's character and the character of the whites who were one way or another involved with his disappearance. Yet to sidestep moral complexity is to falsify.

In addition, Northup's fascinating and surprisingly short story encompasses, and makes us believe in, the passage of twelve years between his kidnapping and release. The memoir is replete not only with descriptions of his initial shock at his capture and of instances of brutal treatment, but of the quotidian challenges of his life as a slave, his various encounters with kindness (from more whites than one -- though I would watch Benedict Cumberbatch reprogram his I-phone), and of moments of hilarity and good humor and instances of his and his fellow slaves' practical resourcefulness. An account of their construction of fish traps, that they might supplement the insufficient diet bestowed on them by a cruel master, is one of the most interesting parts of the tale. Such provision of detail, along with a constant acknowledgement of (again) human complexity, gives a humanness and authenticity to Northup's story of his ordeal. I really couldn't put the book down. Its starchy idiom may be foreign to contemporary readers, but the situations and people the author describes become absolutely real. Not so in Ridley's and McQueen's film, with their Southern-born slaves from Brooklyn, their two-dimensionally monstrous slaveowner (who in the book appears as absurd as he is cruel), and their sad protagonist, who, unlike the original narrator, finds little solace in God, and who maintains for twelve years one changeless, stricken look of shock and misery (again, see above left).

Who did it right? Who created a screenplay, and what director enlivened it with actors, that realistically dramatized a character's reaction to unexpected hardship, deprivation, and long-term captivity? One film that comes to mind is The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci with screenplay by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe. The Communist Revolution in China, whatever its own evils and excesses, is not to be compared in moral terms with the evil institution of American slavery, and I am not drawing that comparison. But The Last Emperor is, like Twelve Years a Slave, a "Wheel of Fortune" film, in its representation of the last Chinese emperor's shocking reduction to imprisoned private citizen -- his enforced and sudden exchange of a life of nearly unimaginable splendor and privilege for one of forced labor. Unlike Ridley and McQueen, however, Bertolucci and Peploe treated their protagonist's reaction and response to his outrageous fortune with exquisite subtlety, demonstrating the growth of his spirit in response to his difficulties, even daring to illuminate -- as Northup does, in his descriptions of Southern whites -- the perspectives of his captors. If you're reading a book and then renting a movie, read Northup's Twelve Years a Slave, and then rent The Last Emperor.

Okay. Enough on the movies, except to say -- Brad Pitt, please, no Shakespeare for you. Now, time for some comments on good historical fiction by two separate authors.

Jane Smiley turned me off with the first two of her books I read. I thought Moo was too cute a satire of university life, and A Thousand Acres a perverse adaptation of King Lear. I discovered, however, that it's good to give authors a third chance. About a year ago I picked up an early novel of hers called Greenlanders. Who knew she was a medievalist? It turns out Smiley lived and studied in Iceland early in her literary career. The Greenlanders, one result, shows the extent to which she got to know Old Icelandic culture and its relation to the colonists of Greenland. (Icelanders were that country's first European inhabitants.) It's a huge book, set in the late fourteenth century and chronicling the lives of two generations of Greenlanders during the last decades of their dwindling colony. Smiley cleverly assumes the affectless narrative voice of the teller of saga, the historical chronicler concerned to recount major climatic and agricultural events, actions of the legislative "Thing," and marriages, births, and deaths, as well as to illuminate clan relationships and conflicts. It's boring at first, until the cast of characters becomes known and the reader gets hooked by the inherent horror and dramatic hardship of these people's ice-bound lives, for which any emotive description would be superfluous. The sense of bardic narration is achieved partly by the repetition of "Now" at the start of many paragraphs: "Now, whenever Gunnar met another farmer or went to church," "Now Gunnar heard that Erik Thorleifsson had found wood to build his storehouse," "Now Olaf looked out, and replied," etc. Not just workaday things, but things remarkable to us are described as mundane and expected, because, to the (assumed) author, these things are mundane and expected. A married main character and her Norwegian lover, to whose growing relationship much of the narrative has been devoted, are surprised on a hillside by her mild-mannered husband and brother, the second of whom "raise[s] his ax and deal[s] the Norwegian a hard, glancing blow on the side of the head. As the man f[alls], Gunnar finishe[s] him off with another blow to the back of the neck." Then they all go home and eat fish. Everyone travels by skis and sleeps in bed closets, and every once in a while someone goes berserk and hacks his family to death, after which he is made outlaw. So it goes.

I liked this book's authenticity so much that I tried another Smiley novel, set in a much more recent historical period, called Private Life. It was also excellent. The book's protagonist is the (we would say) repressed Margaret, a Missouri woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century whose shyness and lack of initiative lead her to marry, as the path of least resistance, an eccentric, slightly sinister scientist. Smiley's dialogue and characterization are supremely evocative of genteel Americans of a century past, including educated women who don't need to be anachronistically feminist in order to be well-traveled, active, wily, and content with their lives. (A regular feature of the lives of Margaret's female circle is private poker parties, at which her mother in law, a social paragon, wins big. Another female character is a globe-trotting journalist who works for R. W. Hearst.) Among these women, Margaret cannot be the cliched female whose potential is thwarted by the narrow gender-standards of her day. Instead, she's got interesting psychological problems, and a weird marriage, about which it's fun to read -- especially in the context of descriptions of scientific, cultural, and political developments of the early twentieth century as experienced by middle and west-coast Americans of a century past.

One more. I don't like stories by the English author Julian Barnes that are set in the contemporary world. But I loved his Arthur and George, which is based on the real lives and interaction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Adalji, the wrongly imprisoned Anglo-Indian barrister in whose case the illustrious Doyle intervened. Barnes's mastery of the idiom of these late-Victorian/Edwardian Englishmen is demonstrated by the seamless way in which his narrative merges, as it frequently does, with the letters and journal entries of his protagonists. He realizes the interior worlds of his characters -- Doyle's romantic, medievalesque code of honor and penchant for drama and story; the logical Adalji's bewilderment at the irrationality of judges and jurors, and the failures of English law, which he loves and to which he's devoted his life. In the following description of Adalji's conclusions after one meeting with Doyle, Barnes artfully depicts the problematic contrast between the two men's habits of thought: "Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation. Holmes performed his brilliant acts of deduction and then handed villains over to the authorities with their unambiguous guilt written all over them. But Holmes had never once been obliged to stand in the witness box and have his suppositions and intuitions and immaculate theories ground to very fine dust over a period of several hours . . . . [Doyle] had, in his eagerness, destroyed the legal case . . . even as he was trying to make it. And it was all the fault of Sherlock Holmes." Barnes thus deftly renders his characters' minds, and he paints no less vividly the world around them, where spiritualism was popular even among the educated, and few Englishmen called into question the just wholesomeness of the British Empire.

What makes these works of historical fiction not only good, but good as historical fiction? That is, what about these works induces readers to believe in the temporally distant world the author is creating? The evidence repeatedly shows that skill in writing historical fiction begins with love of and immersion in the literature of a given period. Smiley and Barnes learned how people talked and spoke and wrote and thought in medieval Greenland and turn-of-the-century America and late-Victorian England, respectively, by reading what was written in those periods. Their decisions to set stories during those epochs came after that phase, and in fact was motivated by something they learned and became fascinated by through their reading. So when they started to write, they knew not only what to say but how to say it.

In conclusion: Read! Then write.

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