Monday, November 7, 2011

Truth vs. Fiction in Film

The screenwriter of Anonymous confesses how history was changed in the film. (Via Supremacy and Survival.)
I researched the screenplay for "Anonymous"—the new movie about the Shakespeare "authorship question"—for several years before I wrote it. I learned as much as I could about Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford (the leading alternative candidate for authorship of the plays), the Elizabethan court, Elizabethan stagecraft, etc. I wanted my script to be as factually accurate as possible. But I also wanted to tell a rocking good story and to express a theme that matters to me a great deal: that the pen is mightier than the sword. At the climax of the film, the Earl of Oxford—through his front man, the actor William Shakespeare—tries to inspire a mob to go to Queen Elizabeth's palace to peacefully demand the banishment of Sir Robert Cecil, the Queen's chief adviser and the film's villain.

How does he attempt to bring this about? Through a performance of one of his plays, of course. Anyone who knows Elizabethan history knows that Shakespeare's "Richard II" was performed on the eve of this event, which became known as the Essex Rebellion. But "Richard II" is a very subtle and complicated play. Why its politics were relevant to London commoners in 1601—and why it would incite them to start an actual rebellion—would be extremely difficult to convey to a modern audience. I could have done it, but it would have required an additional 20 minutes of film time.

And, as I said, the film is not really about the Essex Rebellion. It is about showing that ideas are stronger than brute force. So how to make that point without wasting 20 minutes of the audience's time? Well, Sir Robert Cecil—our villain—was in real life a hunchback. And so is King Richard III in Shakespeare's play of the same name. By switching the play that precedes the Essex Rebellion from "Richard II" to "Richard III," I was able to let the movie's audience immediately see the political implications of the performance. I didn't have to explain any complicated political metaphors: They only needed to see Richard III's hunched back to understand instantly a point that would have been obvious to London bricklayers and cobblers of the era.
In the end, the Essex Rebellion failed. In "Anonymous," it fails because Robert Cecil uses cannons—brute force—to destroy it. But, ultimately, Cecil couldn't silence the plays—or the ideas that they contain. The next king, James Stuart, was an immense fan of the theater, and he, too, understood what "Richard II" and "Richard III" were trying to say.
Is "Anonymous" an exact account of the history that it covers? No. But the liberties that it takes are necessary for capturing a deeper truth. In this, I can point to noble literary antecedents. Just consider the fictionalized characters and imagined events of the "history" plays of Shakespeare himself. (Read entire article.)

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