Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Ethics of Biographies

Has anyone seen Robert Bolt's Lady Caroline Lamb, produced in 1972?  I just recently discovered there was a film based on the author of Glenarvon who's better known for her infamous relationship with Lord George Byron.  I haven't watched it yet (and am not sure I will), but read this description of the film from Yahoo! Films:
Set during the early 19th century, a romantic drama about the controversial, free-thinking wife of William Lamb, a British politician who eventually became Prime Minister. While married, Lady Caroline Lamb conducts a scandalous affair with the notorious Lord Byron, which threatens to ruin her husband's political aspirations.
Um, okay, "free-thinking" makes it sound like she was an abolitionist or something.  She may have been free-thinking, but a more accurate term might be "bat shit crazy."  She became obsessed with Byron, and during the course of their association tried to stab herself in public, sent him a lock of her pubic hair, and wrote a novel decrying him.  I'm thinking Bolt may have changed history just a little bit.

This brings me to my point: do you think directors (or artists, in general) have an ethical responsibility to be as true-to-life as possible when making biopics?  Someone who doesn't know any better might watch Lady Caroline Lamb and decide she was a wronged victim, while the truth is much more textured and layered.  Why not make up a character who conducts an illicit affair with a poet who's a lot like Byron, saying that the story is loosely based on history? 


Homero said...

A short answer, as I'm break: Fuck no.

Extrapolation to come in a few hours.

Enbrethiliel said...


I was so tempted to make my own answer "F*** yes," but I'd have no excuse because I have time on my hands! =P

Besides, I think Homero and I are answering different questions.

Do you think directors (or artists, in general) have an ethical responsibility to be as true-to-life as possible when making biopics?

Oh, definitely! When real historical people are involved, I think taking too many liberties with them could turn into character assassination. And if that's wrong when people are alive, what makes it right when they're dead?

The example which always comes to mind these days is the portrayal of the Duke of Devonshire in the movie The Duchess. In the story, he breaks his wife's heart by having an affair and insisting that she and his mistress live in the same home. In real life, he was willing to break off the affair after his wife discovered it, but she was such good friends with his mistress that she insisted on their odd living arrangements.

(It was quite a triangle! Many years later, when the Duchess was banished, her friend and husband's mistress loyally joined her in exile.)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

@Homero: That extrapolation better be forthcoming after a rude outburst like that haha

@Enbrethiliel: I completely agree. I have a real problem with something being presented as "real" when it's 60% fiction. Brings to mind Stephen Colbert's use of "truthiness."

Homero said...

Rude.... hmph...

You're treading murkey ground, Lindsay. do you think directors (or artists, in general) have an ethical responsibility to be as true-to-life as possible when making biopics?

Note the bolded portion.

One of my absolute most favorite movies of all time is "Amadeus," a grossly inaccurate movies ever made. It, in facts, celebrates the inaccuracy, revels in it. Historically, Mozart and Salieri were aware of each other, knew each others work, and were more than likely good acquaintances, with very little, if any, aminosity between the two.

Of course, "Amadeus" takes a totally different perspective on their relationship, instead focusing on Salieri's supposed hatred of the prodigy Mozart. Ultimatly, the movie is a study on perspective and relativity, how the general perception of their relationship contrast sharply with Salieri's take on it. The exagerations, the bafoonary are present because that's how Salieri preceives Mozart.

A hisorically accurate version of this would have been, in my opinion, boring. This play on perspective is what makes the movie so enjoyable.

I think that Sophia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" attempt to recreate the same sort of sentiment, but ultimatly fails. This is due to it's incopreration of contemporary aesthetic in a sort of 'classical' era. Either way, it was a crappy movie.

But I digress.

Misrepresentation is vital and important in any sort of art that is interesting. The difference between real life and fiction (or at the very least, story telling) is that fiction needs to make sense-- real life rarely does. Creating a balance is unrealistic and improbable. Looking at multiple perspectives, though, like the book "Yello Raft in Blue Water" (the same story told from three different perspectives of three different generations of women in a family) or "the Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao" (the story of a Dominican family's 'curse,' and it's culmination in the tragic death of the one who seemed who so close from escaping from it) makes for a richer story.

Essentially, understanding that the narrator, whether it be in a book or a movie or in a poem, is ultimatly unreliable is key.

There is, of course, the issue of outright purposeful misrepresentation. Slate did a pretty good article not too long ago about the whitewashing of baseball'heros' as portrayed in children's books:
Blatant, outright lies are told in these books. The same concept continues in children's text books. Those missions in California suddenly look a lot different in high school classes than they do in the 4th grade.

This topic makes me think of Isaac Asimov's essay, "The Relativity of Wrong." He postulats that: The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.

It's an intersting essay.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

While I agree that facts and no play make Ammadeus a boring boy, I really have a problem with things that are presented as "biographies" with no attention to actual detail. Yes, yes, I like "retellings" as much as the next girl, but casting Lady Caroline Lamb as a helpless pawn? Please.

I MIGHT be okay if the films came with a disclaimer, or made it very clear that they were told from what might be considered a skewed perspective. Instead, though, they present them as documentaries without all of the interviews, which some might consider blatant propaganda, or slander if the people involved were still alive. Messing with the stories of fictional characters is one thing, but messing with the stories of real people is another.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

By the way, there is a difference between right and wrong (with the admitted shades of gray between), otherwise you're tiptoing into moral relativism. (Of course, I haven't read Asimov's essay yet, but that's the same argument that NAMBLA

Lindsay-with-an-A said...


Enbrethiliel said...


But when does a play on perspective stop being an interesting game of "What if?" and start telling some real lies? Now that Marie Antoinette has been brought up, I recall that it totally plugs the Fersen myth, which was made up in the first place by the Queen's enemies, who wanted to smear her for revolutionary reasons. I think that if someone is going to exploit a historical figure to make some money and win some awards, they should at least get the truth right.

Homero said...

Hmm... good point about the Fersen myth, I was not suprised that it was brought up in the movie.

I think I may be getting in the way with my explaination with schematic details. I very much agree with you, but at the same time, I disagree, and I think I know why-- we're looking at the issue from essentially different angles.

But, I have work right now, so I'm not going to get too into it. Until then, enjoy this poster:

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, I don't mean to take you away from your work, Homero, but if you can find time, later on, to explain your angle, I'd be very interested to read more about it. =)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

@Homero and Enbrethiliel: I haven't seen Marie Antoinette, so I'll respectfully abstain from joining that particular debate.

Oh, and @Homero: That poster is awesome. I've pretty much given up on ever writing a novel, because I don't have anything to say that justifies writing three hundred pages. I get all of my "publishing" tendencies satisfied via blogger now rather than pipe dreams haha

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, Marie-Antoinette was just one example, Lindsay. =) I didn't remember it until Homero brought it up. It's The Duchess which really gets my goat. I don't know why they had to slander the Duke of Devonshire so badly. For a stronger Charles and Diana connection? Not worth it, I say!

On the other hand, there is harmless "fictionalising" of history, like what we have in The Sound of Music. The real-life Liesl von Trapp (named Agathe) is on the record for describing the teenage romance in the musical as "rubbish"--but this fake detail didn't ruin anyone's good name and added another layer to the anti-Nazi message.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Yes, I think there's a difference between adding details to a story that add tension and completely butchering it.

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