Is it history? Or fiction? And does it matter?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Yes, it is history.

I’m one of those who read and learned a great deal from Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Originally published in 1970 as NON FICTION, I read it many years later when I began looking for ways to go beyond the textbook in my teaching of American history. (I eventually abandoned the textbook entirely, but that is another story — told in my book Far Away and Long Ago: Young Historians in the Classroom.) Nonfiction. I read the book trusting that what I read was true.

Yes, it is fiction.

At least so it seems is the case with HBO’s version of the book. According to the New York Times article “Classic Book About America’s Indians Gains a Few Flourishes as a Film.” a new character was added to the center of the story.

“Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project,” Daniel Giat, the writer who adapted the book for HBO Films, told a group of television writers earlier this year.

Yes, it matters.

Poor maligned history. There is such a prejudice against you. That you aren’t good enough. That you need to be touched up somehow. That you need fixing or you will be ignored.  In this case, by those who are assumed not to know or care about you.  Especially, it seems, when the history is about a minority group that the majority group is presumed to otherwise lack sufficient interest in.

The HBO film hasn’t aired yet. It will be interesting to see the response once it does.

3 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, History, movie

3 responses to “Is it history? Or fiction? And does it matter?

  1. The Times article also discusses the need to have a central character to act as a protagonist, thus turning a sprawling history covering many decades and many conflicts into a human-sized narrative.

    Even if that character weren’t part-European-American and married to a European-American (played by an actress born in New Zealand), that would still twist historical accuracy for the sake of a more compelling narrative.

    Of course, the cost of an epic miniseries, and thus the audience it must command, is much greater than the cost of a history book.

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  2. Lee

    Or what is imagined to be a more compelling narrative, J.L., which in my view is largely the product of a particular time, place, and history (which also explains my allergy to prescriptive writing).

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  3. From the NYT article: “When we look at historical accuracy, we look at history as it plays in the service of a narrative,” said Sam Martin, a vice president at HBO Films in charge of production on the project.”

    That’s what gets me. I can’t believe they feel good about doing that. I read Wounded Knee as a young teen and I think it changed my life. I would love to see an acurate movie from it; but I don’t think I’ll see a love story. I don’t get HBO anyway…

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