“Interstellar,” a big new movie based in part on the work of physicist Kip Thorne, rocked the box office this weekend, and so the season of fact-checking pieces is upon us once again. Slate warned us about “what the movie gets wrong and really wrong about black holes, relativity, plot, and dialogue,” only for the writer to follow up and explain his own mistakes in the original. Neil deGrasse Tyson has weighed in enthusiastically, though with some caveats.
These kinds of pieces have become increasingly popular in recent years, and not entirely for bad reasons. Audiences want to debate the ideas in pop culture, and these sorts of pieces help them do it. I have even written pieces like this (or at least pieces with similar headlines). But I have come to hate “What x gets wrong about y” as a mode of pop culture criticism. This kind of framing is meant to spark discussion. But it shuts it down instead, and these pieces diminish the power of art in the process.
I do not think anyone is surprised by the idea that fiction is a departure from reality. The people in novels, film, television, comics and songs are nonexistent or licensed versions of real ones, for reasons both creative and legal. And the demands of storytelling inevitably put pressure on history and science, warping them to conform to the length of a 120-minute biopic or a 12-episode prestige television season.
It has become common, though, for creators of fiction and their fans to make claims of authenticity or accuracy as marketing devices. “Interstellar” will show you what it is really like to pass through a black hole! Tarantino enthusiasts battle with ‘12 Years a Slave‘ partisans over the history of American cruelty! When artists and the marketing departments that support them float these ideas, they are inviting audiences and journalists to test those assertions.
When observers go digging, they inevitably find something that went factually wrong. And if they were fact-checking biography or history, these discoveries might be proof of shoddy research or a flawed thesis such that the work ought to be rejected out of hand. But with fiction, diversions from fact are not disqualifying. Instead, they invite further questions. Do writers know they have diverted from the facts? If they do, why did they make those decisions? Are the changes matters of storytelling economy, or pure dramatic bang for the buck? Or are the creators trying to say something significant about the world we live in and the alternative they are imagining into being?
In the case of something like “Dallas Buyers Club,” what are the incentives to portray AZT as dangerous and the government as untrustworthy, given the progress both treatment regimens and bureaucrats have made from the early days of the AIDS crisis? What is the political alchemy behind the relative fantasy of sexual assault investigation and prosecution that is a show like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”? Where does the drive to try to claim historical figures as gay in biopics come from? What narrative constraints does “The Wire” operate under by hewing closely to David Simon’s nonfiction reporting on the war on drugs, and what innovations does the show come up with as a result? If an industry is depicted as less diverse than it really was at a given point in time, as is true with the Madison Avenue of “Mad Men,” what does that mean for our assumptions about the pace of progress in the past and what is possible in the future?
History and nonfiction are constrained by what is true and what we can reasonably ascertain. It is fiction’s liberty and fiction’s responsibility to take us further. Interrogating pop culture’s relationship to the facts is a way of thinking about how well art has done in transporting us or making us see things differently. Some fiction can make major revisions and still get us someplace remarkable. And being factually accurate is no guarantee that a story will launch and help us take flight beyond ourselves.