Author of the forthcoming novel, The Only Living Man With A Hole In His Head, inspired by the true story of Phineas Gage.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

History vs. Hollywood

History vs. Hollywood
My Top Five List of Historical Inaccuracies in Hollywood Movies

My upcoming novel, “The Only Living Man With A Hole in His Head”, is based-on-a-true story. I tried to remain faithful to the historical facts as much as possible. Having watched numerous “based-on-a-true-story” movies, only to be disappointed that the facts, dates, characters, etc. were wrong – or simply made up – I was determined to not take liberties with the important case of Phineas Gage. Having stated that, there were a few instances where getting a bit creative was necessary. One reason was because there were a few gaps in the Phineas story. Taking place in the mid-nineteenth century, there were time periods (such as when the main character was working as a stage coach driver in Chile) that were not well documented. Also, I added Elisa, a romantic interest for Phineas, to help demonstrate his change in personality post-injury and to help humanize the character. One other change from historical fact I took a liberty with was this: after Phineas's death in San Francisco, the body was exhumed and his skull and tamping iron (the object responsible was his gruesome injury) were sent to Boston to Dr. John Harlow, the physician whom had treated him after the accident. I felt it would be more dramatic and serve the story better if the good doctor actually made the trip out west to ask Phineas's mother for her permission to exhume her beloved son's corpse, in the name of science. Other than that, I was careful to keep the dates accurate, desciptions of the time period accurate (food, clothes, technology, kedical terminology, etc.) and even had a copy of Dr. Harlow's actual journals to help with my research.
I have always planned the novel as a movie as well and will do as much as possible to keep the overall truth of the actual events in the film.

Hence, I share with you my top five historical inaccuracies in movies:

The Elephant Man
Even though John Merrick was born with a congenital birth defect and Phineas Gage's disformity was the result of an accident, many readers may draw similiarities between the two men's life experiences.
As both men suffered as outsiders and psychologically. In the film, The Elephant Man, directed by the always interesting David Lynch, Dr. Treves rescues Merrick from a sadistic freak show manager, then brings him to a hospital. But, then the wicked manager returns to kidnap Merrick. In reality, there was no wicked manager. His real manager treated his main attraction quite well. On top of that, Merrick did not become a resident of the hospital until two years after he left the freak show.

Bonnie and Clyde
A landmark film when it was released in 1967, it does get many of the facts sbout the criminal duo's exploits wrong. Beginning with how the two met. On screen, Clyde first meets Bonnie when he tries to steal her mother's car. This did not really happen. The two partners in crime actually met under more ordinary circumstances, in the greasy spoon where Bonnie worked as a waitress.

Melvin and Howard
This 1980 movie about gas-station operator Melvin Dummar, who supposedly was left a good sum of money by Howard Hughes, after giving picking up the reclusive billionaire whom he found hitchhiking in the desert years earlier. The film glosses over many of the details that cast doubt on Dummar's claims. One example is that Dummar claimed no knowledge of the “Mormon Will” when the discovery of it was made public by the Latter-Day Saints. In the film version, however, an agent of Hughes or the Mormon Church conveniently left it on his desk at his gas station. After a court battle, a court determined the will to be a forgery.

Catch Me If You Can
An entertaining Steven Spielberg directed movie based on the real life exploits of con man/imposter/check forger extraordanaire Frank Abagnale, Jr., who began his criminal career at the age of 16. In the movie, as an internationally wanted criminal, he telephones, annually on Christmas Eve, his nemesis – the FBI agent played by Tom Hanks. That never happened. As Abagnale said, “Why would I do that? I didn't want the FBI to know where I was.”

Ed Wood
This 1994 Tim Burton film is based on the life of notoriously incompetent film director, Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp). His most infamous film was Plan 9 From Outer Space. Though Wood did enjoy dressing in women's clothes, Burton showed him directing some of his films in drag. That really only happened on the set of Glen or Glenda, and that was because Wood was in costume for his role. In another scene, Ed Wood meets another director that he greatly admired, Orson Welles, in a Hollywood restaurant. Such a meeting had never occurred.

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