To live creatively free, do what you know how to do now then 'act as if' you know how to do the rest."
How closely should art force itself to follow reality?
In many ways, art has to be more real than reality. Fiction has to make sense to readers. Life doesn't have to make sense. In fiction, each story has a beginning, a climax, and an ending where everything comes together in some kind of tidy manner. Life isn't so tidy. Things don't make that much sense in our real worlds. The problem comes when the two mix and mingle, such as in historical novels and movies.
300, the film starring Gerard Butler, an actor who is finally getting mainstream recognition after many years of being largely and unfairly ignored, is getting incredible reviews. The story of the few trying to overcome the many has echoes of so many situations we see on a daily basis that it has become irresistable to audiences. Let me say first that I have yet to see it. I will. It's actually one I would wait for the video since, although I love history, I don't watch many war movies of any kind. I do have plans to see it in the theater, though, simply to help support this actor and help push him further into mainstream view. I like that it doesn't have a bunch of huge names in it, also. The focus here seems to be the story line and acting ability instead of name-dropping. I have to appreciate that.
I did read one review of a history buff whose son (also a history buff) went to see it and came back complaining that it was historically inaccurate. I found myself on both sides of the issue. I also love history. I feel it's very important to understand history if we are to understand the present and future. However, I'm also a fiction writer and understand the basic elements stories have to have in order to pull and mesmerize audiences. The intended audience for such a film expects action and splendor and scenery (which kind of scenery may depend on gender) and without it, regardless of how historically accurate it might be, the reviews won't move it past the preview weekend.
The point of a movie, its main theme, is what an audience will remember if it's done well. Does the director's vision for what s/he wants the audience take home allow the right to artistically recreate history? Maybe. What is the point of knowing history? Remembering each detail or learning from its message? I tend to think it's the message that's important. Memorizing each date of each event in high school and college history classes seemed insane to me. They weren't going to be remembered past the test date. However, what I got from the story of it, I kept.
Movies are fiction, unless they are specifically labelled as documentaries. If they make us stop and think, then maybe we'll go do the research ourselves. If we don't research, then we at least get the main point of the story. There is not one historical novel, including those hailed as classics, that does not play with historical fact to make it work within the story. Does it invalidate the history? Of course not. Will it lead readers to do more research on the time period to get more actual facts? Not very often. Most readers and viewers want entertainment. If they can learn a fact or two along with it, that's great, but those who want non-fiction read non-fiction or watch documentaries instead.
By the way, it's hard to tell how much of what we learn in our history books is actual history, as well. It's all slanted by whoever is telling the tale and by the individual teachers injecting their personal opinions. History always has been. Are the facts actual facts? Were they fictionalized in the first place to make them more interesting? Possibly.
Nothing written or spoken is ever done without the viewpoint of the writer or speaker involved. Nothing heard is ever taken in without the viewpoint of the one doing the hearing mixing it with personal opinion. At least in fiction, we are saying outright, "This is not fact. This is a story of my own creation in which I mixed real things with non-real things with imagination with personal opinion with belief with wants with needs...." Will the reader still get something worthwhile out of it? Of course.