Thursday, February 03, 2011

Lt. Mary Sue Frey, who singlehandedly talked Hitler to a standstill

I was chatting yesterday about the backlash against The King's Speech, which is a very enjoyable film but is historically inaccurate in several respects. The tweaks to the narrative didn't bother me, as in most cases (such as the Churchill bit), the changes are not really relevant to the focus of the film, which is the relationship between Logue and Bertie and Bertie's struggle to overcome his disability.

My interlocutor then pressed me: How can one despise mendacious memoirists (as I do) but not care about historically inaccurate film narratives? And then I realized that this is all about fan fiction.

Fans love fanfic, and the British monarchy has a lot of fans: history buffs, royalty-obsessed weirdos, pretentious Anglophiles, etc. So we get The King's Speech, which appeals to Windsor worshipers AND people who own the DVD of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth. There is a sense in which the viewer joyfully collaborates with the filmmaker to celebrate their mutual appreciation of these historical characters. It is not that the appropriation of extant historical or fictional characters for purposes of short-cutting world-building or characterization is illegitimate; on the contrary, the whole point is that the degree of attention to the desired focus is made possible by invoking our preexisting knowledge and emotional associations. Where the story (here, the story of a friendship between two men of very different backgrounds and of a privileged person being forced to ask a "lesser" man for help) is facilitated by certain facts being elided or altered, it is perfectly reasonable for such changes to be made---the tale is not about Churchill, or Edward's fascist sympathies, or the precise timeline under which Bertie underwent therapy. Adherence to the facts in all instances would distract and detract from our focus, and from our appreciation of the setting and characters for which we already feel such affection.

The James Freys of the world take advantage of this affection for self-aggrandizement. The creation of the narrative is no longer about the world or characters that the writer and reader both love, but about gratifying the ego of the author. Instead of being immersed in a world from the inside, from the perspective of one of its natives, we are shoehorned into a deceitful incarnation that cannot provide the satisfying interactions with our characters and setting we desire as fans or readers: cannot, because each interaction must center around the Sue, not organically grow from what we know about who and what surrounds it.

Nobody likes a Mary Sue. But The King's Speech doesn't have one, and so it didn't bother me.
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