November 29, 2009

Adams Marathon #2

A few thoughts about film as a medium for teaching history.

In the David McCullough documentary that was a special feature to the Adams boxed set, the author says what all of our history teachers say: that history is more than a collection of dates and quotes---it is about people, and their lives. This is doubtlessly true, but the reason that dates and quotes get so much play is that they are capable of accurate and ready determination. We know for sure what day the Declaration of Independence was ratified, and what was argued on either side of the surrounding debate. We don't know what Thomas Jefferson's face looked like as delegate after delegate altered its language. It seems that a historian's main challenge is to use the facts as a foundation, and to divine from them the human story.

In books, it is very easy to tell what is fact and what is guesswork. Ralph Ketcham, especially, takes liberties in trying to find the man in the collected papers and letters that are "James Madison." He frequently invites us to "imagine" Madison doing certain things: running through a swamp as a boy, despairing when his first relationship falls apart, nodding in agreement at a colleague's argument. These frolics are harmless--- there are certain gaps in the record, and it is useful to have educated guesses (when labeled as such) from an authority on the subject.

A movie, of course, is different, as the filmmaker is guessing all the time. Something as minor as the way an actor is standing when delivering a line can forever inform the way a viewer thinks of a subject. For example, Janet made the pithy comment yesterday that Thomas Jefferson was always "looking exasperated and leaning against stuff." This is not something we knew from any book, because an author couldn't get away with something like that. And it isn't like the filmmaker is trying to slip something by us, there's no choice. The guy playing Jefferson has to do something while he is talking so he might as well look exasperated and lean against something, because that seems pretty in character.

All of which is leading me to the question of whether using talented actors and paul giamatti to tell the story of John Adams is "better" history than using the facts---the dates and quotes---alone. I asked my friend Jenny about this---she is getting her Phd in history now, and she doesn't like that the book became a miniseries at all. She referred to it as "historical fiction," and drew no distinction between a work like the Adams miniseries and a Philippa Gregory novel.

I think for someone like me who doesn't have a phd in history, the film treatment does more good than harm. In the McCullough documentary to which I referred, he remembered meeting Harry Truman in 1952, and that what most surprised him was that Give 'Em Hell Harry was in color- he only knew him from newspapers and newsreels. And so it is with these historical figures who precede even photography. We forget that they were people before they were monuments, or as janet said, that they were not the founding fathers at the time. That's why it is important to see a Jefferson who is always leaning against stuff. Not because it teaches me that he is the specific type of person portrayed in the movie, but because it reminds me that he was a person at all.

All for now. Some thoughts on the war of 1812 tomorrow, then on to Monroe.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm.....I need to clarify. I haven't read the book or watched the miniseries, so I didn't mean for my comments to pertain specifically to this.

    But in general, I much prefer straight up history. That's probably because I'm a total history nerd, so names, dates & places are enough to make me happy. Plus the fact that more and more historians are publishing books meant for wider audiences means that it's easier to satisfy your history cravings via actual... history.

    But I do think that what I called historical fiction - dramatized versions of historical events or fictional events set within "authentic" historical situations - definitely has a place. But it should be clear about that - no matter how "historically accurate" a show tries to be, it can't possible be authentic - like David wrote, filmmakers have to guess about so many things.

    Some of my classmates and I had a really similar conversation in a seminar a few years ago - we were reading a book (geared towards academic audiences) and about halfway through, the author started to create dialogue for the characters & have them describe things like the sunsets & food. There wasn't any kind of factual basis for any of the conversations or descriptions. The class was pretty evenly split - half of us felt like this dialogue hurt the accuracy of the book, but the other half appreciated the color that the conversations added.

    So I do think that this Adams miniseries has value - I'm totally a fan of anything that brings history outside of the classroom. I just think it's important to point out that things like movies don't take the place of actual historical education or research.