When Fiction Becomes History

I've been watching The Kennedys mini-series on my DVR the past few nights and I feel guilty to say that I'm enjoying it immensely.  The guilt stems from knowing that the script takes creative liberties with history for dramatic effect and re-enacts some moments that are mere speculation and not always supported by solid historical facts.  Frank Sinatra surely could not have been as wimpy as actor Chris Diamantopoulos depicted him!  Many of the other performances, however, were quite impressive, especially the three male leads -- Barry Pepper as Bobby Kennedy, Tom Wilkinson as Joe Kennedy, Sr., and Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy (who really should be nominated for some major awards for his incredible portrayal of the 35th President of the United States).  Katie Holmes definitely looks the part of Jackie Kennedy, but her performance seems a bit forced at times.  Yet, the miniseries grabbed and held my interest throughout , making my feelings of guilt all the more palpable.

Fictional dramatizations of historical events run the risk of blurring truth with theory and, more dangerously, with outright falsehoods.  As a graduate student earning my Master's degree, I wrote a research paper on how young people reacted to history that was depicted visually (in film or television) and in print, using James Cameron's movie Titanic as a case study -- some read Walter Lord's book, A Night to Remember; some watched Cameron's blockbuster film; some did both, and some neither. The results from my broad survey showed that kids who read the non-fiction book had a wider grasp of certain facts, like dates and the names of some of the key historical figures such as Captain Edward John Smith.  On the other hand, a high percentage of those who saw the movie had difficulty differentiating fact from fiction and discerning what events on the screen were based on real history and what events were created from the imaginations of the screenwriters.  My final conclusion was that film and video could be a powerful tool in education, but could also be risky in spreading misinformation even in productions where seemingly obvious dramatic license was employed for entertainment value.

Will my own memory of the details I had previously learned about the Bay of Pigs invasion, for example, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, be forever tainted by the sounds and images my brain would remember from the miniseries?  Would those embellished visual and auditory depictions usurp any raw data that I had previously learned?

Of course, we can rightfully argue that all history is shaped to some degree by the historians who retell it, whether in print or electronic media.  We can argue that no history can ever be a fully accurate reproduction of the circumstances about which it aims to report.  Nevertheless, television and the movies have power beyond that of print to make fuzzy facts or outright lies seem deceptively real and true.