Fake reality bites
A novelist should honour facts as much as a historian or journalist does.india Updated: May 27, 2006 02:44 IST
I confess to a near-faith experience in the foyer of my local Odeon this week. As the crowd streamed from The Da Vinci Code, the muttered comments did not query the plot, the acting or the narrative. They asked about the facts. Which bits were really true?
The foreword of Dan Brown’s book, on which the film is based, hits the reader straight between the eyes. It states, ‘Fact: the Priory of Sion -- a European secret society founded in 1099 -- is a real organisation’. Its members allegedly included Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo and our old friend Leonardo da Vinci. Members of the society held that Jesus was married with a child and appointed themselves guardians of His descendants, despite many of them being gruesomely butchered by Opus Dei.
I have no doubt that this glancing appeal to truth forms the basis of the book’s phenomenal appeal: 50 million copies sold to date, of which 10 million are in Britain. Da Vinci purports to rewrite a central tenet of western civilisation, inculcated in most Britons since birth. Hence the audience’s craving to know whether the parts of the book and film asserted as facts indeed merit the term.
They do not. The use of the word ‘fact’ to open The Da Vinci Code is a lie. The ‘priory’ was a well-attested hoax by a French con man in the Fifties. The hoax was given credence by a misguided BBC Chronicle programme and then by the writers of a 1982 bestseller, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It was then lifted lock, stock and drivel by Brown and called a fact. This was not some reality uplift of the sort beloved of modern fiction. It is the fact around which the whole story spins its suspense.
At this point, we see bearing down on us the amalgamated union of novelists, screenwriters and film publicists, all claiming ancestral licence to make things up. Their job, they say, is to create their own reality. Facts can be boring and will vanish faster from the shelves with a little help from fiction. Besides, art has always made history its slave, not its master. Did not Henry James refer to the ‘fatal futility of fact’? How could the fair maid, hypothesis, survive if constantly raped by the ogre, fact? At this point the union invariably calls in aid its honorary president, Shakespeare.
In which case, why was my film audience so confused and even worried? The answer is that Brown was not just undermining received religious wisdom — there is no harm and nothing new in that -- he was using a specific tool. He was manipulating what should be a different object of veneration, his audience’s understanding of truth, its instinctive reverence for facts.
Journalists have one thing in common with historians, a residual obligation to truth. It may seem hard to credit, but if a serious journalist gets a fact wrong, it hurts. (Last week I regrettably confused Maundy Gregory with Horatio Bottomley.) Facts should be taskmasters. They must be sought out and checked, not just made up. An entire profession is supposedly devoted to gathering and assessing them. As Tom Stoppard joked, “Comment is free but facts are on expenses.”
I resent fiction hijacking this activity and cheapening it. Historical novels have the easiest tunes because their fabrication imposes harmony on the cacophony of facts. This need not destroy the latter’s integrity, but novelists should surely accept the same discipline as history and journalism. They should not put the Battle of Hastings in 1067 or Waterloo in 1816. It is inaccurate. At the very least they should try. When Tolstoy described the Battle of Borodino he meticulously sought to get dates and events in order. Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie would despair if their readers could not rely on their facts being more reliable than their villains.
Film-makers fall victim most easily to this failing. One of the silliest remarks made of art was by Jean-Luc Godard, that ‘cinema is truth 24 times a second’. Oliver Stone in JFK, Jim Sheridan in In The Name of the Father and Stephen Spielberg in Schindler’s List made similar claims. In these films, usually prefaced with the seal of approval, ‘based on fact’, it is impossible to disentangle truth from fabrication.
What in overt propaganda might be dismissed as false, in a pseudo-documentary has potency. The prewar Hollywood film Birth of a Nation was plausibly blamed for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Daniel Boorstin, a cultural historian of America, remarked that early movies “‘claimed the power to be mistaken for reality ... to make us walk more confidently on the precarious ground of the imagination”. That must explain why The Da Vinci Code has sent thousands to seek out the ‘real’ sites from the book and has, bizarrely, boosted Opus Dei membership. These people clearly do not think the book is make-believe.
Because I love films, I find it depressing when they lapse from grace. I have never believed them to be uninfluential, whether peddling love, politics, sex, violence or corruption. That is not how their makers see them. Ask Costa Gavras, ask Michael Moore. As Woody Allen pleaded, “If I’ve made one more person feel miserable, I have done my job.” But faction can make its point without exploiting public credulity with a lie. Good biopics struggle to present a truth, if not the truth, about their subjects. They are plainly ‘based on true events’ yet do not set out to deceive. Fiction can anyway do its own propaganda. The best film about Bill Clinton was Primary Colors and the best about Watergate was Washington Behind Closed Doors, neither of which pretended to fact.
The phenomenal success of Da Vinci renders it the apotheosis of the lie. The Catholic church understandably asked that the film open with a disclaimer for Opus Dei, similar to that used for ‘any similarity to living persons ...’. This was refused since it might blunt the film’s phoney verisimilitude. Hence the irritation that drove the religious historian Bart Ehrman to write his debunking Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. It should be compulsory reading alongside the original, before Rosslyn Chapel is entirely wrecked by tourists. Yet the high court judge in the recent Holy Grail plagiarism trial was unconcerned as to whether the book was calculated to mislead or defamed persons or institutions. His sole concern was to find honour among these thieves of truth (and at our expense!).
Journalism already has a tough time guarding Fortress Fact from marauders (including its own) until the historians can arrive. To find novelists and film-makers getting in round the back and stealing the treasure is galling. Despite Humpty Dumpty, words do not mean anything we choose. Facts are still facts wherever they are used, and should be honoured in fiction as in history. The dictionary offers no exemption to novelists. They have the entire range of the human imagination at their disposal. They can play with light and shade, fantasy and magic, dancing free of reality to conjure their tales from the air. But facts are sacred. If writers use them to disguise their fabrications, I call them liars.