Fact vs. Truth in Screenwriting
Taking Quiz Show as a case study, James Napoli explores the art of turning true stories into powerful drama.
The Imitation Game: An Introduction
As a way of introducing the concepts we’ll cover in this article, let’s look briefly at The Imitation Game, which garnered the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for writer Graham Moore in 2014. It was based on events in the life of Alan Turing, a driving force behind the creation of the code-breaking machine that helped Britain turn the tide against the Nazis as well as providing a prototype for the science of computers to come.
Turing was also persecuted for being homosexual, and in this film version of his life, he names the giant code-breaking computer “Christopher,” after a boyhood friend who is shown in flashback as a Turing’s possible unrequited childhood love.
In actuality, the early code-busting machine was called “Victory.” License was taken by Moore in order to create dramatic effect and provide a thematic throughline which adds poignancy to Turing’s motivations. This kind of imaginative recreation of events is both the beauty of true-life story adaptations and the reason viewers can be stymied by them, feeling they are not getting at the “truth.”
In an interview in The Huffington Post at the time of the film’s release, Moore had this to say:
When you use the language of “fact checking” to talk about a film, I think you’re sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don’t fact check Monet’s Water Lilies. That’s not what water lilies look like, that’s what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That’s the goal of the piece….
A lot of historical films sometimes feel like people reading a Wikipedia page to you onscreen, like just reciting “and then he did that, and then he did that….
We wanted the movie to be emotional and passionate. Our goal was to give you “What does Alan Turing feel like?” What does his story feel like? What’d it feel like to be Alan Turing? Can we create the experience of sort of “Alan Turing-ness” for an audience based on his life?”
What some may view as a cop-out is, in the end, a pretty accurate depiction of the job of the screenwriter who needs to create drama out of something that actually happened. The purpose of drama, as with the purpose of all art forms, is not to report but to interpret, to give an audience a thematic and, yes, emotional underpinning to pull them into the experience of any given subject.
Similarly, Paul Mann’s screenplay of Selma, dramatizing Dr. Martin Luther King’s part in the historic 1965 march of the same name, got some criticism for misrepresenting Dr. King’s confrontational stance in meetings with President Lyndon Johnson about African-American voting rights.
But in this excellent analysis in The Guardian, Alex von Tunzelmann makes a strong argument for Graham Moore’s stance on the responsibility of art to look beyond the facts, and give audiences the sensation and feeling of a subject.
Von Tunzelmann acknowledges that some of those close to the President at the time feel the film adaptation strayed from the facts of the meetings between Johnson and King, and that even King’s own autobiography depicts the meetings as more sedate.
“These words may have been said confrontationally or calmly,” von Tunzelmann states, “but they’re a lot like what Johnson says in the movie. King’s account makes it clear that he was not satisfied by Johnson’s response and that he started the Selma campaign despite Johnson’s cold feet. The film portrays this accurately.”
And, in a rather joyous synchronicity for this very screenplay craft article, von Tunzelmann goes onto say that the film of Selma also lets Lyndon Johnson “have his moment of glory with the best speech of his presidency, ‘We shall overcome’ — written for him by the brilliant Richard Goodwin, whom historical film fans may remember from Quiz Show.”
Spotlight: A Caveat
Caveat: we speak here of a specific kind of true-life story adaptation, namely that which seeks to get at the “why” of a protagonist’s actions. These are the things most often hidden by history, and which must be guessed at.
By comparison, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s remarkable screenplay for Spotlight is certainly fact-based, but is about the detective work of the events themselves and the people who brought them to the public—it is not specifically concerned with getting at the individual deeper motivations of its ensemble cast.
Quiz Show: A Case Study
Paul Attanasio’s 1994 script for Quiz Show was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars and the Golden Globes, and won the BAFTA Award in that category. It tells the story of the 1950s “Quiz Show scandals” which rocked America when it was discovered that the game show Twenty-One was found to be supplying its contestants with the answers to all of the questions in an effort to control the ratings, as well as sponsor profits.
At the center of the scandal was Charles Van Doren (played in the film by Ralph Fiennes), a member of a prominent New York society family, who became well-loved by viewers but seemed an unlikely person to need to gain fame in this particular way.
The script was based on the book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties by Richard Goodwin, the government investigator who exposed the scandals. More accurately, it was based on a single chapter in that book, since Goodwin’s career spanned the decade and his book covers many other topics besides the Quiz Show scandals.
From a single chapter, in which Goodwin recounts his initial discoveries and his budding friendship with Charles Van Doren–even as he was considering putting him on trial–Paul Attanasio crafted a multi-tiered, sharp and acerbic screenplay that looks to Charles Van Doren’s decision to cheat on a hugely popular television show and asks “why?”
Though Van Doren’s motivations were never made public, history provided Attanasio with a tantalizing fact from which drama could handily emerge. The fact was that both Van Doren’s father, Mark Van Doren (played in the film by Paul Scofield) and his mother, Dorothy Van Doren (Elizabeth Wilson) were famous in New York cultural circles. Mark was a prominent Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at Columbia University, and Dorothy was a novelist.
Although in Goodwin’s book chapter there is no more than a passing reference to how Mark Van Doren took the news of his son’s subterfuge, the germ of good drama emerged, and the screenplay for Quiz Show (much like the way The Imitation Game imposed its own reasoning for Alan Turing’s inner torment) creates a clear story arc out of the thematic idea that Charles Van Doren was driven by a need to escape the shadow of his famous father.
It’s a wonderful piece of based-on-a-true-story writing, and it uses a theme that is universally relatable for audiences, most all of whom have had their own fair share of issues with parental dominance.
(These scene numbers are taken from the 170 page shooting draft of Quiz Show available online Here.)
Charlie watches Twenty-One in another room as his parents do a book signing. A female “Wellesley grad” approaches him with the line:
Excuse me…Are you the son?
Notice: not “are you Charlie?” but “are you the son?” Charlie has no identity of his own. He is merely “the son.”
Charlie is interviewed about being a contestant on Twenty-One by the show’s producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) and his associate, Al Freedman (Hank Azaria).
…so then I went to Paris and wrote my novel, about a patricide.
A boy who kills his father.
Here, the Oedipal elements are firmly established. This scene also goes on to depict Enright and Freedman baiting Charlie with the idea that his appearance on the game show would be an educational inspiration to America’s schoolchildren. This, according to the Goodman source material, was a factor in Van Doren’s decision to compete in the rigged contest.
After the interview, Charlie exits the NBC lobby as Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald), the host of Twenty-One, interacts with Enright and Freedman.
Why the hell’s a guy like that want to be on a quiz show?
Why, indeed? Attanasio’s screenplay asks. And, as it is already setting up, the answer to the “why?” is Charlie’s relationship to his dad. In Scene 60, this same question is asked by Goodwin’s wife, but the line was cut from the finished film.
Charlie is questioned by Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) in a restaurant when a nervous Charlie uses a sighting of his father to avoid answering.
Charlie! This is a surprise. How are you, son? We share an office and I never see you anymore.
(Joking) Oh, I’m there, Dad, I’m just hiding behind your reputation.
Later in the same scene, Mark negates his son’s new-found fame by revealing that he has still never watched his son on television, driving home the idea that Charlie’s achievements are looked down upon by his famous father.
No dialogue here, but at Mark Van Doren’s birthday party, Charlie gives his father a television for a present, essentially forcing him to watch his son on the popular game show. Without words, Charles Van Doren is saying, “Please, dad, notice me!”
It’s a heartbreaking moment. Did it really happen? Probably not, at least in terms of what Goodwin’s source material offers, but it sure works as drama.
In this scene, Dick Goodwin watches Charlie on television, beginning to suspect that he might be cheating. Though it is not in the script, in the final film Ralph Fiennes, possibly improvising when asked to answer one of the quiz questions, begins by saying, “my father would know that.”
In Attanasio’s imagined final confrontation between father and son, in which Charlie admits to cheating, the design of the elements of the screenplay comes full circle. Charlie, referencing a family guess-the-Shakespeare quote, cries out that he wanted something of his own, and his father reminds him that by choosing the ill-advised course he did in order to get it, he has destroyed his name.
It was a goddamn quiz show, Charlie.
“An ill-favored thing, sir—”
This is not the time to play games.
(Savagely) but mine own. It was mine.
(Right back) Your name is mine.
(Note: the underlined dialogue is Attanasio’s.)
Finally, Charlie testifies at the federal hearings about the quiz shows, and, in text based partly on his verbatim words from that day, he says:
I’ve been acting a role for ten to fifteen years, maybe all my life, of thinking I’ve done more, accomplished more, produced more than I have. I’ve had all the breaks. I’ve stood on the shoulders of life and I’ve never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I’ve flown too high on borrowed wings.
And so Charlie’s character growth, admitting he was wrong and moving past the father issues that trapped him, is complete. But it did not come without pain and loss of position.
Years after Quiz Show opened, Charles Van Doren himself wrote a piece for The New Yorker describing his experiences with the scandals, and, briefly, his reaction to seeing the film based on this portion of his life.
Remarkably, and in its own way almost validating Graham Moore’s above-mentioned take on the role of art in interpreting life, Van Doren understood how movies need to make drama from real life. His only complaint was that the “where are they now” scroll at the end of the film incorrectly identified him as having left the teaching profession.
Of course, I eventually saw the movie. I understand that movies need to compress and conflate, but what bothered me most was the epilogue stating that I never taught again. I didn’t stop teaching, although it was a long time before I taught again in a college.
Charles Van Doren
It seems Mr. Van Doren totally “got” how a screenplay based on “facts” needs to get at the “truth” in dramatic and interesting ways that speak to what it is like for all of us to be human.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that if the fact-checkers on Quiz Show had been more thorough, Charles Van Doren would have had nothing to complain about at all.
Featured image: John Turturro as Herbie Stempel and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show © Copyright 1994 – Hollywood Pictures Company – All rights reserved.
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