Mere Factual Accuracy
The framing wars, which never really went away, are back with a vengeance. If you need to catch up, start with Abbie’s snarktastic linkfest. If that’s not enough, you can find additional recent history here. Links to many of the older posts are available here. Educated, confused and disgusted? All right, then we can go on.
Generally, my take on the whole question is similar to my take on religion in general: Don’t we have something more interesting to talk about, and if not, can we at least refrain from misrepresenting each other’s points of view?
Now, having said that, I’ll admit up front that I haven’t read the book that’s raising so many hackles. However, in PZ Myers’ general review, he pulled a quote that I have to address:
Dawkins and some other scientists fail to grasp that in Hollywood, the story is paramount—that narrative, drama, and character development will trump mere factual accuracy every time, and by a very long shot.
I write science fiction. I read science fiction. I watch it on television and in the theater. I read and write and watch in other genres too. This statement is one of those gross oversimplifications that makes me cringe. Maybe it’s better in context, covered in caveats, but an awful lot of people aren’t seeing it in context right now.
There is some truth to the assertion, of course. You never see a “real-life drama” that hasn’t been trimmed to fit the length of a feature film. Locations stand in for one another. Behavior that would result in lockdowns or restraining orders is played for laughs or romance. Bad guys can’t shoot, but good guys have perfect aim. Explosions require far more fuel than would be available, and people still walk away from them.
Accuracy does get cast aside in moviemaking. However, the fact that decisions like these are made in the writing or the production doesn’t make them good decisions.
Marion Zimmer Bradley was an editor who was famous for having a standard rejection letter that gave the following reason for rejection (I paraphrase), “Willing suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by its neck until dead.” In addition to plot, pacing and character development, a story also requires a setting, a “world” in speculative fiction terms. That world–and plot and characters, for that matter–are made up of details.
Accuracy has an important role to play in building world, plot and character. Every time we flub or cheat a detail, we’re making our audience, at least part of which will catch any inaccuracy, do more work. In writerly terms, it’s called throwing our audience out of the story. It means that something has gone wrong enough to remind an audience that the story is only a story. In order to get back to the point where the story is a world that the audience is visiting, the process of suspending disbelief has to start all over again.
Every time another inaccuracy is noticed, the process starts once more, and upholding that disbelief gets harder and harder. Some readers or viewers will give up on us completely. They’ll give up on the story because it asks too much of them–not in thinking but in forgiveness.
Yes, there is a kind of movie that can get away with flubbing all the details. Details aren’t why people go to summer action extravaganzas, those movies in which everything explodes, even the water. They’re not looking for accuracy. On the other hand, they’re not going to these movies looking for story either.
Setting up story and accuracy as a dichotomy also ignores the richness that accuracy can add to a story. In fact, whole stories can be built from closely observed detail. Juno is one of those stories. It doesn’t have a suspenseful plot. The characters don’t change much from beginning to end, although a few of the relationships do. What we get instead is messy, accurate observations of the complexities of life, and that was enough to win Diablo Cody an Oscar to garner an impressive return for the movie.
To bring this back to science, one of the excellent parts of the new Star Trek movie (along with the opening and Simon Pegg) was the fact that the ships weren’t all oriented on a single plane. Nobody would have noticed if they had been. Pretending there’s an absolute up and down in space is the norm in movies. Instead, we were treated to unrestrained cameras and dizzying angles, which created the sensation in the viewer of truly escaping gravity in the way a more conventional film couldn’t.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
There is wonder in science, and solid, grounding reality. If Hollywood prefers to do another remake that no one was asking for instead of telling wondrous, solid stories…well, three things actually.
- No one will be remotely surprised, as this is business as usual and not just in relation to science.
- The blockbuster cinema of lowered expectations will continue to boom.
- There’s very little Richard Dawkins or any other scientist will have to say about it, no matter accommodating they are.
This entry was posted on Friday, July 10th, 2009 at 8:52 am and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.