Thursday, 30 May 2013

Fact or Faction?

 A few weeks ago, in my series 'Whatever Happened To...',. I featured the unique and legendary performer, the late, great Josephine Baker. I have known of her for many years, so I was surprised when someone close to me said he'd never heard of her - but something he had puzzled about for years had now become clear.

One of his favourite films of all time, is the animated cult classic Belleville Rendez-vous (aka Les Triplettes de Belleville). The Oscar nominated song contains a character which any fan of Ms Baker will instantly recognise. Oh, and spot the Fred Astaire too!

Of course, Belleville Rendez-vous (released in 2003) isn't the first - and won't be the last - work of fiction, to feature real people in an imagined setting. It's such a common device, they even invented a work for it - faction.

At its most extreme, are factionalised 'biographies'. You might consider that the wealth of factual accounts of the life of Marilyn Monroe form an exhaustive collection in their own right. Every detail, scandal, love affair and conspiracy theory have been reported, analysed, dissected and reassembled. But, for bestselling author, Joyce Carol Oates, something was missing in all that material. The essence of Marilyn herself.

She decided to rectify that omission and her mammoth blockbuster, Blonde was born. Weighing in at a hefty 700+ pages (over 900 in some editions), it boldly goes where no biography had been able to go - into the 'mind' of Marilyn - and we discover the frightened little girl who was Norma Jeane Baker. Arguably, for the first time, the enigma of the icon that was Marilyn finally leaps off the pages, freed from the burden of factual reporting and theorising. OK, this book has never been received without a great deal of controversy, and, as someone whose shelves are groaning with the aforementioned factual works, I didn't wholly love it, or agree with Oates's vision. But it's certainly worth reading.

OK, we've had a darkly comic interpretation, followed by a more serious novel. Now, a larger than life character from history whose life has been factionalised in films, books - and even a dodgy song by Boney M. He never ceases to fascinate and inspire horror writers and historical fiction authors and has been thrust into all sorts of impossible situations, where all pretensions at historical accuracy have been tossed aside with as little regard for authenticity as Jonathan Rhys Meyer's portrayal of Henry VIII (in middle-age, with a slight tendency to portliness and a phony limp? Oh, please!).
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin  never was the 'lover of the Russian Queen', wasn't a monk and was anything but mad. He was wily, ambitious, debauched, and paid scant attention to personal hygiene. He certainly had piercing eyes and projected a certain aura (or was that the lack of soap?).

He has been portrayed by everyone from Gerard Depardieu to Alan Rickman. Here's Hammer's production of Rasputin the Mad Monk (with Christopher Lee), which plays fast and loose with pretty much every historical detail it can dredge up:

When it comes to faction, there are thousands of examples of the good, the bad and the downright indefensible (back to The Tudors again!)

For me, it's a great device, but readers'/viewers' intelligence should be respected. Many who will watch/read about a real person in an imagined or embellished setting will be quite familiar with the truth. Too many attempts at rewriting history will alienate them. 

Have fun with faction - but please don't commit a Boney M!