We saw Argo last night – terrific movie – and it made me think again about the differences between history and historical fiction. (And no, it doesn’t matter if you’re telling the story as a script or a novel.)
Because the film is high profile and nominated for a number of awards, there have been any number of people prepared to take aim at its claim to be based on a true story. The guts of the dispute are: The group of six were hidden in the homes of two separate Canadian officials rather than one. The Iranian housekeeper who in the film keeps their secret was a composite character and they didn’t really perceive any threat from the local help. They didn’t do a location run, deciding it would be too dangerous. They were neither interrogated nor almost stopped at the airport, but in fact walked through the security checks and boarded with no difficulty. There are other quibbles, but those are the main ones.
As a writer of historical fiction who takes enormous pains to be accurate, I look at this and say, bravo, Ben Affleck and co. You did a great job. At no point does Chris Terrio’s script (written with the real Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who led them out) distort reality in a way that gives a false impression of what actually happened.
The emotional roller coaster endured by those whom the Canadians called their Houseguests is absolutely accurate; how could it be otherwise? And no way there must not have at least been some concern about the Iranians with whom they were in daily contact. (Making the salute to the composite character’s ultimate loyalty entirely accurate and emotionally honest.) As for what happened during the escape: no one could have known how it would play out when they began that early morning ride to the airport. Argo tells it as it may have been, leaving in place the fact that they got away; and, as the Houseguest’s themselves tell us, the moment of exquisite relief when the Swissair stewards announced they had cleared Iranian airspace and alcohol could be served. (Apparently the round ordered by Mendez was bloody Mary’s rather than Champagne, but hey we’re talking Hollywood.)
I have more than a passing interest in this argument about fact and fiction. In the Tudor section of my new novel BRISTOL HOUSE I write about a group of separatist Christians who consider themselves the keepers of true Catholicism, and the official Church led from Rome to be impostors. Such claimants have been around since at least the third century. I made up the True Obedience of Avignon, the group in my story, and I have them infiltrate the very real order of hermit monks known as Carthusians. Not true, obviously, but it could have been. More important, I’ve worked hard to be accurate about the life of the monks – saints and sinners – and their London monastery known as the Charterhouse.
Thomas Cromwell plays a big part in my story, and I have less sympathy for him than Hillary Mantel does in her novels. I paint Cromwell in black and white terms and save my shades of gray for the two characters I created out of whole cloth: Dom Justin the monk and Giacomo the Lombard, a jeweler, also known as the Jew of Holborn. That two novelists looking at the same historical facts come up with different interpretations of why things happened as they did is not just okay, it’s what fiction is all about. It’s what makes it “true” rather than factual.
In the contemporary sections of BRISTOL HOUSE (the story goes back and forth between the two eras) I made up Annie my heroine, and Geoff the TV pundit who is drawn into her mystery. But the world they inhabit, the politics, the London streets, the museums and their collections, that’s all real. And those secret tunnels and their incredible origins, absolutely real.
As for whether the monk and the jeweler could speak their truths loud enough for us to hear… you’ll have to decide for yourself. Personally, I have no doubt whatever.