Truman in the Movies: Truth and Fiction
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There's a new movie opening today based on the life of Truman Capote. It focuses on the time he spent researching and writing the book In Cold Blood. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. Today's movie, Infamous, is the second movie to be based on this same true story. Capote opened around this time just a year ago.
Commentator Lennard Davis says these two films are part of a larger trend, not about Truman Capote, but about what we consider the truth.
LENNARD DAVIS: At this point, it's getting hard to tell what's true and what's Capote. I mean, this is the second fictional movie about a real guy who's writing a nonfiction novel about a true crime that itself was made into a fictional movie. But let's face it, being unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction is the current state of affairs in our country.
A recent study showed 20 percent of job applicants lie about their college grades and degrees. Some may boost their GPA a few points, and others claim to have BAs when in fact they might have been partying so hard they didn't get one. And if you're trying to figure out what happened on 9/11, recall the recent ABC docudrama that fudged accuracy for entertainment.
Was there ever a time that we weren't collectively hallucinating? If we look back to Shakespeare's era, there wasn't much interest in keeping fact and fiction apart. Newspapers of the day reported on magical events like blood raining down from heaven, historians embellished or changed facts and Shakespeare himself took docudrama liberties with the historical sources he used. No one cared.
But something radical and different happened in the 18th Century, in the period preceding the American Revolution. Journalism as we know it was invented. Novels became the realm of fiction and newspapers became the place you'd look for facts. And it's probably no coincidence that this period was called the Age of Enlightenment. A journalism effect might have even been the thing that contributed to our revolution.
If you lived in Philadelphia and you knew for sure that tea was being dumped into the Boston Harbor, you could make certain important decisions about the future of your country. And by the 19th and 20th Century, you'd be comfortable knowing that your historians were giving you the facts and your novelists were giving you some version of emotions and feelings.
But in our own era, there's been a slippage. Historical accuracy gets in the way of a good story. Novels have become memoirs. We know our major political entertainment figures by their biopics, and people in office don't lie anymore, they just make misstatements.
I'm not saying that people didn't get things wrong in the past, but there was perhaps a stronger sense that for people to be enlightened, for governments to take just actions and for novelists to invent, you had to have some ground rules about what was fact and what was fiction. There's been unspoken pact between content providers and those who receive it that we are told clearly when something is true and something isn't. But that pact has been broken.
In the movie Infamous, Harper Lee has a good point. When she and Truman are arguing about his new form of reportage, he says it'll change the dull old recitation of facts. And she says what's the matter with facts? I'm wondering the same thing.
SIEGEL: Lennard Davis teachers English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's the author of the book Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel.
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