I have always said that the words at the beginning of a film or TV Series ‘Based on a true story’, are some of the most dangerous words in mass media. People who produce history-based entertainment, whether unintentionally or deliberately, are re-writing history by creating new narratives around its events. They do this, as I have said previously, by selection bias – removing and including the parts of events and characters in history which support their narrative.
However, there is on more powerful way they can advance a narrative – through plot. One thing I have noticed about the human race is that apart from all its claims to rationality and science, we are fundamentally a race that love stories above all else. It is this love of stories that is the basis of all our cultural, religious, and personal identities. Stories fill a human need for meaning and grasp the human heart in a way that mere facts cannot. Given the choice between filling our beliefs with bare facts or enticing fiction, we would probably choose the latter. Just look at the Romcom genre in film. It has produced the same plot structures repeatedly and just changed the setting, context, and characters. Almost every time I watch a Romcom I feel like I’ve watched it 100 times before, but I still enjoy it, even if it’s the same story structure….because I love stories. We all do.
Stories can lead to misguidance because we engage emotionally with them. You can advance any narrative about history you like through a story and people are more likely at first to care about whether it is enticing and controversial rather that whether it is true. There is a standard formula for this. Simply take a protagonist and make them the victim of some injustice. This puts us on their side. If you want to really guarantee this then make the protagonist reluctant to exact revenge. This makes them morally pure. Throw in a love story if you like for good measure. At the end of the day you’ll be willing the protagonist on with passion. Any time a foe inflicts some kind of harm on them, we hate the foe even more, but if our protagonist does ten times worst to the foe, we justify it on their behalf. Many times I have enjoyed watch a hero kill many minions of the foe in a story and even enjoyed it, thus making me enjoy death, which I would otherwise abhor. This is the power of plot. I forces us to make judgments; to take sides; even to forget our values.
Now, throw in the producer’s aim to make heroes and villains out of events in actual history and you see how effective plot is. We not only leave the cinema thinking innocent thoughts like ‘I’m so glad so and so won’, but we also become sympathetic to their identities. Without knowing we believe propositions like ‘So that’s how things were in those days’, ‘Weren’t those guys awful?’, ‘So these guys were the victims’…all using real identities of religion, race, nationality, tribe, ideology. This is a potent weapon of influence that is far more influential than any sermon, speech, or book. Furthermore, remember that history explains the present. We can actually use what we’ve watch in a history-based movie to make socio-political judgements of present day situations. If what we have watched is misguided and serves the ideological agenda of its producers, our judgements about today become misguided.
What’s worse, these judgments are sentiment-based and therefore hard to undo. If anyone does desire to do some research about the events depicted in the film I wonder what good it will do if they find facts contrary to the film’s narrative. Remember, our emotions aren’t in themselves truth-apt, and facts don’t persuade people as much as they think they do. If we find facts that are in conflict with already-set sentiments, the facts fail to be persuasive.
Nevertheless, after some research of a film the viewer will probably find that the event in history depicted were far more morally obscure. One could not find a clear good side and bad side, and even if we had to choose sides we would find that there were good people on the bad side and bad people on the good side. Apart from Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s, and modern-day terrorism, I can’t think of many other events in history where the line between good and evil was clear.
How do we arm ourselves against the misguidance of plot? I don’t think this can be fully done. By the time we’ve given our sentiment to certain characters and the identities that they represent I don’t think it can be fully reversed. I can only suggest that we do some research about the historical event/person depicted before we watch the item of entertainment. It may take the telling of the same story from a different narrative to form a balanced view, and above that, the willingness of the viewer to be agnostic about previously-watched but imbedded narratives.
Platforms: Movies, TV Shows