Presenting Complex Narratives on Film: Three Different Approaches

During the last three weeks, my graduate narratives course has looked at three films, each an adaptation of an historical book: North Country, based on the book Class Action about the Jensen versus Eveleth Taconite legal battle over sexual harassment; All the President’s Men, based on the book by that name; and Charlie Wilson’s War, also based on a book by the same name. In each case, the saga the book presents is long and complicated, and the creators had to make significant changes to fit the story into the constraints of the movie screen.

The three changed, or abridged, the story in three different ways.

North Country took a ten-year legal battle, focused on one aspect of it – the “nuts and sluts” defense against an accusation of rape – and told a fictionalized story showing that the protagonist had been raped by, rather than had consensual sex with, a high school teacher, and that she therefore was not a slut.

All the President’s Men took the 26-month Watergate investigation-Nixon impeachment saga and, while staying scrupulously true to the historical record, focused on the six month period at the outset when Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post were the virtually the only investigative journalists working on the story. The rest of the saga, in which the action shifts to the judiciary and the politicians, is summarized at the end of the movie in a series of headlines.

Charlie Wilson’s War took Representative Charlie Wilson’s thirteen year struggle to win Congressional backing for the mujahideen’s struggle against the Russians in Afghanistan, concentrated on the key turning points, and at the beginning very briefly summarized the back stories of Charlie Wilson and his partners, CIA agent Gust Avrakotos and Houston socialite Joanne Herring, and at the end equally briefly summarized the unintended consequences of the war.

Looking at the three narratives, which provides the most satisfying experience? That all depends on your criteria. I’ll suggest three: historical fidelity, emotional identification, and intellectual challenge.

In terms of historical fidelity, All the President’s Men is the clear winner, in that – as its creators intended – it told a very significant part of the story with scrupulous attention to the historical record. You learn a great deal about journalistic investigation from it though, because of its focus, nothing about political or judicial investigation.

Charlie Wilson’s War comes off very well, in that you get the outline of the story. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s talent is in taking a complicated story and presenting it a very concentrated way. The best instance is an angry three minute conversation between Gust Avrakotos and his boss that reveals Gust’s long and stormy history at the CIA and his fundamental mismatch with its dominant Ivy League culture.

North Country comes off least well here, because it takes one aspect of the original story and uses it to spin a story that is substantially different from the actual.

By emotional identification I mean the feeling of satisfaction or catharsis the viewer feels by identifying with a noble character fighting for a just cause and, at the end, winning. Here, too, All the President’s Men is the clear winner, at least for audiences who saw the movie when it was released in 1976. Woodward and Bernstein were fighting to expose a stolen election and a vast over-reach of executive power by a near-paranoid president. But, because the movie keeps Nixon off stage for its entirety, a contemporary audience that does not remember Tricky Dick likely has some trouble understanding why he and his men were such villains.

Both North Country and Charlie Wilson’s War provide less of an emotional bond with the audience. In North Country, Josie Ames (portrayed by the luminous Charlize Theron) has her virtue upheld, but the question that arises is why her virtue should be attacked in that way, or more broadly why the “nuts and sluts” defense should even be admissible in court.

Some viewers might find Gust Avrakotos, who had an anger management problem, and Charlie Wilson, who had what would now be called a sex addiction problem of Tiger Woods proportions, difficult to identify with. Furthermore, the irony with which the film ends, namely the victory of the mujahideen paving the way for the Taliban, necessarily leaves the audience contemplating whether Charlie Wilson’s triumph was a Pyrrhic one.

The third criterion is intellectual challenge, namely the input the viewer must provide to make sense of the movie. I think that, up to a point, intellectual challenge is a good thing. Here Charlie Wilson’s War is the clear winner. Sorkin has a great talent for writing scenes that distil a long and complicated story based on facts that are hinted at, but not spelled out. The viewer must either guess at or dig up those facts (say be reading the book) to completely understand the movie. This is certainly the case with his treatment of Charlie’s and Gust’s back stories in terms of their fit with, and role in, their respective institutional homes, the House of Representatives and the CIA.

All the President’s Men is less challenging, because it shows in great detail how Woodward and Bernstein did their research. Reviewer Roger Ebert found this repetitive, though as a researcher myself I found the depiction of all the different techniques of investigative journalism valuable and enlightening.

North Country is also less challenging because, while it is told in flashbacks, by the end of the movie the imagined events to which the imagined court process refers are revealed.

Looking back at the three criteria, I rank intellectual challenge first, emotional identification second, and historical fidelity third in importance. This leaves me with a slight preference for Charlie Wilson’s War over All the President’s Men, with North Country significantly behind both of them. Other readers may have other criteria, other weights, and therefore other rankings. But now you have mine.

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