No one is sacrosant «

    No one is sacrosant

    Is there a new craze in Hollywood, television, theatre and novels for basing works of fiction on real people or events? If so, is that a good thing, or has something gone wrong with the creative process? And if the screenwriter, playwright or novelist bases their work on a real person or events, what are their “responsibilities” towards their subject? Recently, some fact-based films have been big box-office draws. The King's Speech and The Social Network are notable examples. In a forthcoming film about her premiership, Margaret Thatcher will be played by the Oscar-winner Meryl Streep. Television has served up Nigel Slater in a dramatisation of his life (Toast). It's also given us the Yorkshire Ripper-inspired Red Riding, biopics of Fanny Cradock and Kenneth Williams, and coming up is an ITV drama about Fred West. In fiction we’ve had Wolf Hall, based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, and Adam Foulds's novel The Quickening Maze about the poet John Clare. A S Byatt drew inspiration from the life of E Nesbit for The Children's Book, while Peter Carey has given us a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville in Parrot and Olivier in America. Does this all add up to a new trend? Nobody would be daft enough to say that there's anything new about basing a creative work on a real person, or historical events. Shakespeare did it, and undoubtedly he wasn’t the first. But has there been a cultural shift in recent years that has resulted in what one commentator referred to as a “flood of fact-based storytelling”? David Lodge, who has recently published a novel about H G Wells, thinks so. “Increasingly in society,” he said in a newspaper interview, “there has been a general interest in narrative rooted in fact.” I’m not so sure. Don DeLillo had Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra (1998) and Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason in Underworld (1997). The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham featured Virginia Woolf writing Mrs Dalloway and committing suicide. E L Doctorow's Ragtime (1975) contained a lavish assortment of “real characters” including Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Sigmund Freud. The examples going back through the years are numerous. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that this really is a trend. Critics have lamented the “shift in recent years away from works of pure imagination” and that “the concentration on reality stops writers using their imagination for storytelling”. I can’t figure out what this means. When, at literary festivals, readers pose that old chestnut, “where do you get your ideas from?” it's not actually such a dumb question. They do come from somewhere, even if we sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint their source. Even a writer who wants to lock herself in an ivory tower to keep her imagination unsullied must venture down sometimes to eat or speak to someone. She must, surely, read. I would venture to suggest that there must, indeed, be some engagement with the real world in order to have something worth writing about. “Pure” imaginations are for children and Victorian ladies. But perhaps it's one thing to draw from real life and events when those people and events are not famous (the death at the opening of my last book, for example, was taken from a newspaper story about a kitchen porter), but when they are well known does this – and should this – limit the writer's imagination? Different writers have different attitudes to this. Speaking about A Man of Parts, his biographical novel about H G Wells, Lodge said: “I haven’t invented any action that has significant consequences for the persons concerned.” Trying to be faithful to the facts and the people involved is one possible way to go. But as Lodge himself admits, “inevitably, you have to imagine certain circumstantial details in a novel”. I would argue that you have to imagine more than that. When The New York Times reviewed Joyce Carol Oates's novel Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe, the reviewer wrote: “If a novel can’t deliver Monroe's beauty… it can give us her interior world.” It is, of course, an interior world that is imagined (based on research), along with those “circumstantial details”. To complicate the picture in terms of crossover between fact and fiction, more and more works of non-fiction now borrow narrative techniques from fiction – The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, for example, or James Kaplan's recent biography of Frank Sinatra. The historian Antony Beevor points to one potential problem with real people and events being used as the basis for fiction in films and novels. He makes a cogent argument that the blurring of fact and fiction is “bound to be corrupting in historical terms”, picking out as one example an ITV drama series based on the German prisoner-of-war camp Colditz. Novelists too, he implies, should think carefully about their responsibilities if they wish to “rewrite events or characters for dramatic effect”. (Beevor is not in any way urging writers not to look for inspiration in the real world. “By all means borrow the basic story,” he says.) I think each novelist must be free to write as they wish. But Beevor's suggestion for novelists writing about well-known people is a good one. “A change of name, indicating a parallel yet still recognisable universe, provides that one remove which prevents the reader from being misled.” My new novel, Untold Story, draws on the life and circumstances of Diana, Princess of Wales. But Lydia, my fictional princess, is living incognito in small-town America – a far enough remove, I hope, to present such a “parallel universe”. Famous people have frequently been portrayed in fiction over the years. But should there be some kind of demarcation between “legitimate” famous subjects such as Tony Blair (frequently portrayed in fiction from Channel 4's The Deal to Robert Harris's The Ghost) and subjects which should remain somehow sacrosanct, such as the modern royals? My view is that anything can be a subject for fiction. Alan Bennett's novel, The Uncommon Reader, featured the Queen as the protagonist and had her regularly visiting a mobile library. Stephen Frears's film The Queen combined fictional portrayals of Blair and the reigning monarch. I enjoyed Bennett's book and Frears's film a great deal, but their approaches, of course, were different. Bennett's warm-hearted and humorous novel clearly belongs in the realm of make-believe. Helen Mirren's superb performance in the movie, on the other hand, has us believing that we are seeing almost directly into the life and mind of Elizabeth II. To my mind both works share another factor in common. They are feats of the imagination. The fact that they draw – to differing extents – on real people is not an indication that the creativity involved was diminished. The real world feeds the imagination, rather than starves it. We engage with, and feel so deeply about, works of fiction for many reasons, and part of that is interpreting, reflecting and refracting the world in which we live. *Monica Ali’s Untold Story is published by Doubleday at £16.99 T £14.99. To order from Telegraph Books ring 0844 871 1515

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