An Esthetic Principle for Biographical Movies

Biographical and historical movies are popular among film makers, and with good reason. We like to learn more about popular figures. We like to see the story of heroes, whether the heroes are well known or obscure.

But biographical movies raise significant esthetic issues. Unlike a book, a movie must have a more limited length. Unlike a work of fiction, it must present historical facts. But how true to the facts must it be?

Consider what a movie about your life might be like. Such a movie would dramatize important events in your life. But unless someone has been documenting every event and conversation, the film maker will have to rely on the memories of multiple people. And those memories can vary significantly about the details of particular events and conversations. Since he can only include so much in a film, who is he to believe? Should he present a collage of these memories? In short, what principles should guide his selection process?

The answer to these questions gets to the heart of esthetic creations, including movies. All art is a selective recreation based on what the artist believes is fundamentally important. In regard to a biographical movie, this means: what does the film maker believe best dramatizes the character of his subject?

An individual’s character is his essence, and in that regard, an honest film maker will not misrepresent the subject’s character. He will remain true to that character. But he has great leeway regarding the details that he uses to express and dramatize that character. And it can be perfectly appropriate to invent details for that purpose.

For example, in the movie The Buddy Holly Story, members of his band later disputed details of a confrontation depicted in the movie that occurred in a Nashville recording studio. They didn’t dispute the essence of what occurred, only particular details. They didn’t dispute the principle that motivated Buddy Holly in that scene. And it was that principle that shows the viewer what kind of person Buddy Holly was.

The band members claimed that the confrontation was rather sedate. But the movie depicted a passionate Buddy Holly standing up for what he believed. It was more dramatic than a casual conversation and emphasized both passion and conviction. The film maker was true to Buddy Holly’s character. Holly was a man of conviction, and he was passionate about those convictions.

If the film maker had portrayed that scene in a journalistic fashion, the importance of that moment would not have been conveyed. Holly’s outburst of righteous anger initially seems out of character. But this is the film maker’s way of emphasizing the importance of Holly’s convictions, and it was effective.

Whether the details of that scene were accurate or invented is irrelevant. The film maker showed the essence of Buddy Holly’s character. And that is what he should do.

Comments are closed.