“Did you read the book?”
“No, but I saw the movie.”
That kind of conversation is all well and good when it comes to discussing a novel and its film adaptation, but there’s a danger when the facts of a real event become blurred by a fictional account on the silver screen, such as the current movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Or even, it appears, a play centuries old.
The fascinating discovery — under a car park, of all places — of the remains of King Richard III of England, who perished in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, is a reminder that even William Shakespeare was not above taking a bit of literary license.
For instance, in a play about Henry VI, the bard wrote that Richard of Gloucester (before he became Richard III) killed the Duke of Somerset in the first battle of St. Albans. That would have been a neat trick, given that the real Richard was only 2 years old at the time.
Despite — or perhaps partially because — of not letting facts get in the way of a good story, Shakespeare wrote wonderful plays. Hollywood, following the same formula, has produced some very good movies, including Oliver Stone’s hugely successful but largely fictional “JFK” in 1991.
“JFK” did more than gross $200 million; it helped feed what has become a regrettable, fact-ignoring conspiracy industry that has questioned such real events as the bombing of the World Trade Center and even the recent shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Worries have been expressed that al-Qaida would use “Zero Dark Thirty” for propaganda. The movie draws a direct line from Americans employing “enhanced interrogation” — a euphemism for torture — to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Last weekend on “Meet the Press,” retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, while admitting that torture was employed, said “the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that.”
Other government officials and senators were even more emphatic about the perils of the movie being mistaken for history.
“The film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques … were the key to finding bin Laden,” Michael Morell, the acting CIA director, wrote to agency employees in December. “That impression is false.”
Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain wrote a letter calling the movie “grossly inaccurate” and having “the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
We’re certainly not saying Hollywood shouldn’t have creative license or needs to be held to historians’ standards. What’s important is that those of us who “saw the movie” know what’s real and what isn’t.