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Declan Lynch: These guys just can't handle the truth


I WENT with my daughter to see The King's Speech last week, and we enjoyed it greatly, confidently tipping it for several Oscars. Imagine my surprise when I learned that we had been conned.

I have been campaigning for a long time in these pages against the sordid but widespread practice whereby the creators of movies and books, and the movie versions of books, take a "true story" -- and then change it any way they like -- and still call it a "true story".

And I thought I was a lone voice in the wilderness lamenting this malaise, until I discovered a piece by Christopher Hitchens in the Guardian in which he describes The King's Speech as "an extremely well-made film with a seductive human interest plot, very prettily calculated to appeal to the smarter film-goer", but which "perpetuates a gross falsification of history".

He finds the portrayal of Churchill deeply problematic, pointing out that Churchill, played by Timothy Spall, is seen as a steadfast friend of the stammering prince, played by Colin Firth, whereas in truth he was a steadfast friend of the degenerate King Edward VII, played by Guy Pearce.

He has other issues with the prince's attitude towards appeasement as it is presented in "this gross falsification".

But, without reiterating all his objections, what I like about Hitchens's approach is that he is not just nit-picking, he is arguing that the truth

is a lot more interesting than the fictions that they create in The King's Speech. And I also like the fact that he believes that these things matter.

Because this is not about some vaguely amusing notion of "artistic licence", there is a much deeper level of bullshit being sold to us out there.

At its simplest, in the books trade there is the sort of "misery memoir" that is just made up, and nobody really minds that, because apparently that's just the way the world works. But there is the better class of "memoir" such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, the "true story" of a recovering alcoholic who appeared on Oprah and sold a million books, and who was ultimately condemned by the same Oprah when it emerged that his "memoir" contained a fair few things that never actually happened, things that we used to call fiction. Or a "novel", if you like.

And here we approach the dark heart of the matter, because apparently Frey had written A Million Little Pieces as a novel, but it had been rejected. Only by pretending that it was all factually accurate was his story fit to be marketed -- the same product, with a misleading label that made all the difference. And a simpler tale to sell to Oprah.

It's as if publishers have given up on the ability of the reader to make that little journey of the imagination that they'd been happily making for centuries, to understand that a story might well be based on things that happened to the author, but because it had a lot of other stuff in it that didn't actually happen, it was called a "novel".

Everyone went along with that, until the industry dumbed itself down, apparently unable to face the challenge of selling all that fiction to the populace, preferring instead to slap a label on the cover saying that everything in the book actually happened in real life.

And it was brought to a different level again by The Damned Utd, which was described as a novel, though it presented us with well-known people such as Brian Clough and the Leeds United team of the Seventies, and others who are still living, doing things and saying things which happened only in the mind of the author David Peace. There's "taking artistic licence" and there is taking the piss altogether, and, for all his fine writing, I suggest that Peace was doing the latter.

Imagine, for a moment, that I started writing here about the well-known author David Peace, attributing statements to him that he never made, inventing things that he never did, presenting him in a grossly unflattering light.

Obviously this would be regarded as deeply wrong, yet to the literary set it somehow becomes all right if you stick it between two covers and call it a novel.

I say it is not all right. And it becomes bullshit of an exceptional kind when the "novel", in turn, becomes a movie.

The Damned United further twisted the story of Brian Clough, so that one of the most interesting men in recent English history must conform to the movie-makers' tedious demands for "love-interest" and the like, even if the love in question is for a large fat man called Peter Taylor, his assistant.

Again, to echo the sentiments of Christopher Hitchens about The King's Speech, the problem is not just that these guys can't handle the facts, the problem is that they can't handle the truth.

And by coincidence -- the sort of coincidence that you couldn't make up, unless you wanted to, and couldn't think of anything else -- The King's Speech and The Damned United are both directed by the same man.

But, to say the least of it, this is about a lot more than one man. It's about many branches of the industry of human happiness letting us down again and again, with their crude misrepresentations.

And I join with Christopher Hitchens in wishing that that they would stop it.

They are only fooling the people.

Sunday Independent