‘Poetic license’ turns history and fact on their ends

Published 11:50 am Friday, July 24, 2015

Every time I watch a movie on television or a DVD based on some actual historic event, especially one based on a book I’ve read, I’m surprised at how the producers and writers managed to twist and turn the facts and the events to play to the plot.

The act is called “poetic license.” I call it an eight-letter barnyard word that I’m not allowed to use in the paper (we’re a community newspaper).

My disgust at a screenwriter’s, or a producer’s or director’s, liberty to play fast and loose with an author’s work arose the other day as our publisher, Tim Reeves, and I discussed the HBO miniseries, “The Pacific.” The series is great TV, and a great story about a true event, but the producers took, I believe, too much liberty on one of the books used as a basis for the series.

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The series is based on two superb books I’ve read, Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa,” and Robert Leckie’s “Helmet for My Pillow.” The series’ third source is a collection of material on Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone, who died on Iwo Jima. All three men served with the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific during World War II. Basilone later joined the 5th Marines for Iwo Jima.

The series does a very good job keeping close to Sledge’s book. As for John Basilone, he was the real deal, and the series does a good job with his story.

What the series does is booger up Leckie’s story. I realized that when I read his book after seeing “The Pacific” twice. Reading a book after you’ve seen the movie is not a good thing. I learned that lesson, which I forgot, after reading from “Here to Eternity” after seeing the movie that also took extreme liberties with the book, especially with Frank Sinatra’s character, Maggio, but I won’t go into that. If you’re curious, drop me an email.

The reason for my carrying on is not to call people in the movie business liars, but to point out sometimes they try to stretch things a bit too much for the sake of a blockbuster or to turn what they believe is a dull story into something great. That was done once with an unknown fictional play called “Everybody Comes to Ricks.” That script was rewritten and reworked and became “Casablanca,” my favorite movie. Trying to do that to nonfiction just doesn’t work.

So don’t take what comes across on the silver screen as gospel when you see the words “based on a true story.” If you want the “true story,” find the book and read it. Then if you want to see the flick, go see it.

And you might end up doing what I do. Mutter at how wrong it is (at home I shout at the TV). But then I also repeat the dialogue during “Casablanca.” It drives my wife and daughter nuts.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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