Facts getting in the way of a good story

It’s been a while – quite a stressful last few weeks of term – make that a stressful first half of the year. And now the last day of the vacation. Here’s a somewhat lighter post on two movies we saw that I’d like to comment on.

The first was Bohemian Rhapsody. The whole family is a fan of Queen, and given that Freddy Mercury has a special place in Montreux, our holiday stamping ground, we went to see it there. It’s a great movie – the music of course is amazing – it couldn’t not be, and you walk out with a whole nostalgic good feelings afterwards with a little sadness that he is not more.

But then my husband, who’d listened to Live Aid on the day from the Netherlands (I was living in South Africa which had a cultural ban still going at the time), disputed the play order of the songs, and my daughter, who studied Bohemian Rhapsody as part of her GCSE questioned the inclusion of some song in the “wrong” timeline so we set about googling the movie. And found the plenty on the inaccuracies in the movie. It seems yet again the problem of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. But as I’ve stated before in my occasional review of historical fiction – one has a duty of care with the facts as not many people fact check what they’ve read or seen, and that becomes the new “reality” for them.

The next movie I watched with my son – he’s a big EDM fan and so we watched Avicii, True Stories, together (now available on Netflix). I’ll admit I asked about 20 times “where’s his mother” as things continued to spiral out of control more and more – but she didn’t feature besides one phone call. My son was more interested in naming the music, expensive watches and brand clothing … I was interested in the fact that so much of his life had been documented. And then my son said “you know he’s dead?” which led to another round of googling. Yes, in fact he did commit suicide, in April 2018, after the movie was made. This movie was more “factual” as it was a documentary – there was no hindsight as was finished before his death, and was more as an explanation as to why he wanted to stop performing than why he’d want to take his life.

In some ways the movies were very similar, each showing an extremely talented person spiralling out of control, and becoming victims of their own success and the manipulations of those around them whole fed at the same trough. Each also showed the story they wanted to show and left out some of the 18+ details (sex and drugs). I didn’t think that the Avicii movie was any less engrossing for the fact that it was a documentary.

In this interview, Rosenberg argues:

“I myself am a victim to narrative,” says Alex Rosenberg, a Duke University philosophy professor whose new book hopes to convince readers that narratives — and especially narrative history — are flawed as tools of knowledge.

Some more from Duke – this time the dispute between an author and the professor of History and Public Policy.

In the UK, Antony Beevor raises his concerns – this time it’s personal – concerning his Great-great-grandmother. And I remember another article – but can’t for the life of me find it – where a history professor complained that students coming into history programmes at university level have no idea that the latest Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory book is not a primary or even secondary source of historical information!

I love the fact that movies and books bring the past to life and that powerful storytelling is being used. I do think that we need to “immunise” our children and students so they can take the extra step of fact-checking and maintain a healthy scepticism of the “speculative” elements.

3 thoughts on “Facts getting in the way of a good story

  1. Great post, Nadine.

    It’s an intriguing line of discussion. Autobiographers can get not just their understanding of the facts wrong but also the facts themselves, so what chance biographers and fictional interpretations of biographies? I hope we’re not stepping on Sean Spicer territory here, he of the “alternative facts” notion.

    Meanwhile, the Hilary Mantel story, one report is the Guardian’s, “Students take Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels as fact, says historian”
    . That might lead you to the report you read, the one mentioning Philippa Gregory as well?

    I hope your year gets better.



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