Last month, I read this notice, that reported the book Monuments Men will be adapted for the big screen by George Clooney. To be honest, I clicked on the link because of Mr. Clooney, but I checked out The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History from the library because it totally sounded like my thing – people rescuing Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazi’s at the end of WWII.
I used give a lecture on history and film which came to mind as I was reading this book. It was the first book I have ever read knowing it would be made into a movie. Historians (myself included) quite often become all bent out of shape over Hollywood interpretations of historical events. Often with good reason. On the other hand, many historians don’t have a firm grip on how filmmakers “work.” Everything I know about film and history, I have learned from Robert Brent Toplin, John E. O’Connor and Robert A. Rosenstone.
Historians write books and paint their stories and arguments with words. They can keep going until the publisher tells them to stop. In these lengthy books, historians have the time to examine the background of an event, the event itself, and then its aftermath. Historians can also investigate abstract historical events, like the history of an idea (democracy) or struggle (emancipation). Monuments Men which falls somewhere between a proper history book and a novel, is over 400 pages. Filmmakers have at most 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Filmmakers may have a STATEMENT to make, but they also need to entertain their audience. Unlike the historian, they cannot present a movie about the causes of Great Depression (which start in the 1920s and are numerous), but they can tell the story about a person during the depression. So the first object of a filmmaker is to reduce history to a story about a person or small group of people. Because filmmakers tell stories there must be a beginning and an end. Of course, life and history aren’t like this. A movie might end with VE Day in May 1945; but in reality life kept moving on to VJ Day and then the Cold War. To make their stories engaging to the widest audience filmmakers take the past and make it more personal and more dramatic. They also simplify it by collapsing or combining historical characters, condensing time, focusing on only a few moments of a crisis, and leaving out “extraneous” details. They also create the past visually, and this, I think, is the benefit of history on film over history in a book.
Filmmakers use traditional story telling methods to turn their chosen historical event into a film. The two main ones are stories told in three acts (exposition, complication, and resolution) and applying a genre (buddy, war, romance, etc.) For the former, Toplin (I think) provides a simple example: of exposition - put the man in the tree; complication - throw rocks at the man; resolution - man is rescued from the tree. Genre, as best I understand it, provides the rhetoric or framework for the story. Audiences expect and anticipate different plots and results in a Romantic-Comedy then a Buddy Movie.
The next time you watch an historical film, think about the different mediums of historical books and historical film and consider whether the tools used by the filmmakers were in a sense “true” to the past or not.