Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” just came out last week, and it’s caused somewhat of a stir for its controversial scenes of the late Bruce Lee and the Manson murders, as they twist history in sensitive ways for the sake of the movie. For anyone that has seen a Tarantino movie, this is no surprise as this is not the first time he’s rewritten history in his films (ala “Inglorious Basterds”), and sensitivity is not usually part of a Tarantino film, quite the opposite in fact, as the he revels in the cartoon violence associated with films.
“Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” is not supposed to be a faithful representation of the Manson murders, which took place almost 50 years ago, nor is its brief scenes of Lee supposed to be a factual representation of him historically — Tarantino arguably was portraying the legend of Lee and the caricature of how he is perceived by the general public, though it is understand why his portrayal in the film made people feel uncomfortable.
With there being two other notable recent Charles Manson films, the critically-panned “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” and the Matt Smith- starring “Charlie Says,” the first of which takes the murders to an even farther extreme than Tarantino did, it brings up an important discussion as to when it is OK to fictionalize real life events and people.
To some extent, biopics change the facts all the time, editing minor and major details in the lives of historic figures to craft a better narrative. Others conveniently leave out certain private factors in the lives of their subjects to focus only on their public persona, which is often what people most remember about them. Others only loosely follow historic facts, and instead portray the legend and general feeling of what that person was, stood for, and did, focusing on the spirit of what that person was versus who they actually were.
Other films take historic figures to extremes. We’ve certainly all seen a film with some cartoon caricature of Adolf Hitler in a film, mostly because most people know him as history’s ultimate villain, even if the actual man himself was a little more complex and evil than someone who is equal to a mustache-twirling bad guy. Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have also appeared in countless movies and programs, sometimes in award-winning biopics like “Lincoln,” but also as pure entities of fiction, the likes you might see on a children’s educational cartoon.
The musical, “Hamilton,” is a great example of a work of fiction that deliberately edits historic events and people, most notably by having minorities play characters who were white in real life, while using the medium available to relay the spirit or legend of what Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founding fathers accomplished to an audience who might not be interested otherwise.
There is this great misconception that biopics and works of fiction need to adhere solely to historic fact and that they have a responsibility to faithfully represent reality, when in fact that has never been the case. Works of fiction are just that: fiction, and it is up to the consumer to make the distinction between what is real and what is not.
Thankfully, we have educational pieces of film that are solely dedicated to telling us historic facts as faithfully as they can, often filled with interviews from historians and sometimes relevant witnesses and other experts: They’re called documentaries.
Still, I do expect biopics to at least get the feeling of who and what they’re portraying right, else it shows a major lack of understanding on the subject matter that is embarrassing at best and nonsensical at worst.
To put this all into perspective, I view the documentary as film’s equivalent of long form journalism, the works of pure fiction like “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” to its fictional novel or comic book, and the biopic to be somewhere in between. There’s no need to get upset at a fictional movie for not being historically accurate, even if there is a perceived danger to believing everything the move tells you verbatim.
In a world where fake news is rampant, consumers need to be able to think for themselves and do at least some base investigative work to see if what they’re consuming is true. Those that take works of fiction as faithful representations of the real world do so at their own peril.
Answering the question posed in the headline: “When is it OK to fictionalize history?” Almost always, so long as it produces superior storytelling.