It’s been a big week for The King’s Speech, which has picked up widespread critical acclaim and is rapidly becoming a hit with audiences as well.
The biographical film, which stars Colin Firth as British monarch King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his stammering speech therapist, has been hailed as a modern-day masterpiece, a heart-wrenching portrayal of a hidden disability and an indelible character study.
It’s also raised some interesting questions about the nature of truth and fiction in biopics, which is made doubly fascinating by the fact that it’s based on a true story. We spoke to director Tom McCarthy about the differences between fact and fiction and the challenges of adapting real events for the big screen. Our conversation is below.
What Is The Difference Between Fact And Fiction?
In a nutshell, fact is things that are verifiable through evidence and fact-checking. Fiction includes things that are fabricated, made up, or exaggerated for storytelling purposes.
You’ll often hear people say that fiction is what we choose to believe is true, and while that’s certainly accurate, it glosses over one of the essential differences between fact and fiction. That is, the fact that we as readers choose to believe something is entirely different from whether or not it’s true.
Consider the differences between these two statements:
- The King’s Speech is based on true events.
- The Hunger Games is based on true events.
- Game of Thrones is based on true events.
- The Walking Dead is based on true events.
- All of these are true. King’s Speech is based on true events.
Based on these examples, you might assume that fact and fiction are interchangeable. But while all of the above are true, the relationships between them are much more complex, as you’ll see below.
How Does Adapting Real Events For Film Differ From Writing A Novel?
To begin with, novels and biopics are typically structured in very different ways. While some novelists prefer to set their work in the present, using a first-person narrative to describe the thoughts and actions of the main character, films are generally structured through exposition and rising action. (The King’s Speech is notable for inverting this formula, using a third-person limited point-of-view to make the audience an insider to the unfolding events, rather like watching a news report from a distant land through the eyes of an intrepid traveler.)
One of the most significant differences between writing a novel and adapting real events for film is the sheer volume of material to work with. While a writer might be restricted to the materials that have already been published, film versions of real events have the entire history of the subject at their fingertips, as well as the raw material to discover even more about the person or event being portrayed.
What Challenges Does Adapting Real History Present?
One of the most significant challenges presented by the sheer volume of material available for adaptation is deciding what to leave out. In a book-length work of nonfiction, a writer has the luxury of inventing a story and leaving out details that don’t serve the narrative. When adapting a real event for film, that luxury is no longer available to the screenwriter, and that’s what makes the task more complex.
Take, for example, the events surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917. If you’ve never studied Russian history in detail, it might be difficult to decide what aspects of this significant event to include in your screenplay. Are you going to focus on the role of the Bolshevik Party or the peasant rebellions that preceded it? What about the fact that Lenin’s first attempt at seizing power was brutally suppressed by the Imperial Russian Army? Or the role of women in the Russian Revolution, or the persecution of minority groups such as the Jewish people during that period? What about the fact that, following the revolution, Russia was plunged into an appalling civil war?
These are all questions that the screenwriter would have to answer if they are to keep the narrative flowing smoothly. But the answer to all of these questions doesn’t have to be found in the pages of a single book. Instead, it can be discovered through extensive research and analysis of periodicals such as The Economist, The New York Times, and others. This kind of historical research is vital if you want to tell the story of a unique event that played a critical role in shaping the modern world. It also helps establish a cinematic world that is internally consistent and rich in detail. These are all things that can only be achieved through careful research and fact-checking, things that fiction simply cannot offer.
Why Is The King’s Speech So Special?
Aside from the fact that it’s based on a true story (sort of like The Godfather Part II or Forrest Gump), what makes The King’s Speech significantly different from other biopics is that it is a masterful blend of fact and fiction. While the setting and major themes of the film are rooted in reality, its narrative structure, characters, and dialogue are all thoroughly fictionalized.
What this means is that unlike most films based on real events, The King’s Speech doesn’t simply stick to the facts of the story. Instead, it uses the facts as a starting point for exploring the many themes that are relevant to the human condition. It is in this way that the film transcends factual biopics and becomes something more.
The fact that The King’s Speech is a fictionalized account of real events makes it a bit more complicated to gauge the film’s overall success. After all, it would not be unprecedented for a work of fiction to become a major motion picture. But this would still only account for a portion of what makes The King’s Speech so significant, for it is steeped in themes, subplots, and characters that are as interesting as, if not more interesting than, its largely factual narrative. In other words, while the facts of The King’s Speech may not be exceptional, what happens next is something else entirely, and it is to that final portion of the story that we now turn.