Chasing the Dead
Finding the Truth in Historical Fiction
Matthew LaBarbera

Film director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin were recently discussing their latest film in a roundtable format for Time Magazine (23 September 2010). The Social Network, released in the fall of 2010, tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, a twenty-six year old who became the world’s youngest billionaire after founding the hugely popular social networking website, Facebook.

Fincher and Sorkin refer to two separate yet closely related entities: Mark Zuckerberg and “the Mark Zuckerberg character.” When speaking about Mark Zuckerberg, they talk about the actual human being with whom, if you were in the right position, you yourself might interact. Sorkin says, “[the producer] made as aggressive an effort as you can make to get the cooperation of Mark [Zuckerberg] and of Facebook.” Sorkin is speaking here about the actions of the producer toward the living, breathing person, Mark Zuckerberg.

Then there is “the Mark Zuckerberg character,” the facsimile of the real Zuckerberg that Fincher and Sorkin created for their film. This representation is meant in every way to be Mark Zuckerberg, and yet he is purposely not Mark Zuckerberg. Fincher touches on this ­contradiction in the roundtable when he discusses the casting of the actor Jesse Eisenberg for the role in the film. He says, “I got a clip from Jesse’s manager of him doing the first scene in the film, and… I mean, it’s not Mark Zuckerberg. Mark Zuckerberg in none of the file footage that I’ve found talks anywhere near that fast or has that kind of facility. But it was the perfect representation of the character” (emphasis added). Here, Fincher is speaking of the fictionalized creation, claiming that Eisenberg’s portrayal is more accurate by being inaccurate, because rather than trying to be Mark Zuckerberg, he is trying to be “the Mark Zuckerberg character,” as imagined by Fincher and Sorkin for their film.

The absurdity of this situation is thrown into relief by the film’s being contemporary to its subject. This kind of fictionalizing is something that happens all the time in the arts. We fictionalize real human beings, using their lives and their actions as vehicle for a narrative, for an idea, or a message; but the oddity of this process is most obvious when the subject is recent. Try to imagine a film about your life being made for worldwide consumption. The makers of this film do not know you and have never met you; however, they have read court records about a recent legal dispute you had and have watched some footage of attempts at public speaking that you made at age twenty. Then, to finish it off, they say they created a fictional version of you that better represents what you are than you yourself do. You might feel like Mark Zuckerberg, who commented, “I just wished that nobody made a movie of me while I was still alive” (Quoted in “Zuckerberg in the Hot Seat at D8,” http://news.cnet.com, 2 June 2010).

 This test of empathy is not meant as an attack on one specific film or even on the genre of historical fiction in general, but as an invitation to think more carefully about these types of stories. Their strangeness is most obvious when the project is focused on the contemporary world, but the same problem exists in fictionalizations of the more distant past. The one thing that good historical fiction must do is the one thing that we should be most wary of, that is, conflating the fictionalization created for the story with the actual human being. This conflation is part of the appeal of the genre. We want to feel that we have an intimate, personal knowledge of the most influential people in world history, and we also want this knowledge to be correct. If the fictionalization is drawn too harshly or too kindly, this intimacy is spoiled, because the perceived inaccuracy inhibits our ability to conflate the actual with the fictionalized. We want to be fooled.


This process of fictionalization and conflation is seen in Hilary Mantel’s excellent novel, Wolf Hall. The book focuses on the events surrounding the reign of King Henry VIII of England, the monarch who married six wives, had two of them executed, and in the process managed to separate the Church of England from the Catholic Church and further the spread of the Reformation. The characters and basic story will be familiar to anyone who has seen any of the numerous other artistic adaptations on these events, whether it is Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the Showtime television series The Tudors, or the Robert Bolt play A Man for All Seasons (which later became an Academy Award-winning film). Each character in Mantel’s novel is portrayed quite differently than in other works, although the author keeps the basic, well-known facts unaltered.

In Mantel’s telling, the protagonist of the age was Thomas Cromwell, a former servant to Cardinal Wolsey who rose to great influence at Henry’s court. Anyone who reads Mantel’s work could be forgiven for being a bit envious of her Cromwell character. He is intimidating in demeanor, but an enlightened husband and father. He is wealthy, fashionable, a great persuader, and attractive to almost every female character in the novel. All this despite being born into the lower class in a society obsessed with social hierarchy. It is a credit to Mantel’s writing that such a glowing portrayal can even seem real to us. Yet, in other accounts, such as Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Cromwell is a great villain, a pudgy bureaucrat who intimidates and lies to get Henry his coveted divorce from Katherine of Aragon.

Conversely, in Mantel’s telling Thomas More, the scholar and Catholic saint, is a zealot, quick to send those he deems heretics to the torture chambers, and personally distant from most of his unhappy family. This too is a radical departure from the Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. In that telling, More is a loving family man who grudgingly accepts a “heretic” courting his beloved daughter with little more than a disapproving scowl. Mantel’s More would have had him on the rack.

 Yet, in the novel Mantel is meticulous about accepted historical facts—about dates, titles, and the structure of English society at the time. Does this mean her telling is definitive? Of course not, because it is still a fiction. It succeeds vividly in painting the picture of life at that time, but it does so by providing details that no historian could ever know. We know that as Thomas More awaited execution in the Tower of London Cromwell visited him there, but we can never know what words passed between them.

Showtime’s The Tudors has been especially free with altering historical facts for the purposes of its narrative, yet the show’s inaccuracies are ultimately beside the point. Even if every element of The Tudors were presented to the best of our historical knowledge, it could not actually give us what it claims to, a glimpse into the hearts of these men and women who lived so long ago. Historical fiction appears to give us a clear vision of the past, but it cannot really do so. No matter how precise the prose or how inspired the acting, it is only the fictionalization that is really clear. We still see reality as St. Paul did, through a glass, darkly.

Historical fiction is most compelling when we allow ourselves to lose sight of the actual in favor of the created. Fiction of this type resonates with us, precisely because of its connection to the actual. We want to see the past the way God sees it, perfectly aware of every word and motivation, when, of course, this is not possible. In another interview, Aaron Sorkin, the writer of The Social Network, said, “…­fundamentally, you could tell the same story about the invention of a really good toaster” (“Inventing Facebook,” New York Magazine, 17 September 2010).  Fundamentally, you could, but, of course, he didn’t. Sorkin understood the power of connecting his story of invention and betrayal to actual events. The narrative in the public mind about this recent history was a rich source of details and symbols that allowed Sorkin to write a much more interesting screenplay than he ever could have from pure imagination.

If historical fiction is not giving us an account of reality, what is it giving us? Mantel offers her own thoughts through one of her Cromwell character’s internal monologues. She writes, “It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives” (531). Historical fiction is the gift that we give ourselves. We are both the playwright and the audience, and we use the veneer of the past to pretend that we aren’t talking to ourselves.

The worst historical fiction is nothing more than a fantasy where we wish that the lionized figures of the past would say what we want to hear. The very best historical fiction, such as Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, and The Social Network, uses the past as a common touchstone to illuminate realities about ourselves. Yet no matter how well it uses the past, it still sheds more light on our own lives than on the lives of those who came before. We create the stories, and whether they pander to us or challenge us, they cannot help but misuse the legacies of the real people who lived the lives that would become our narratives. The dead cannot object to such use, but the living often find it intolerable.


Matthew LaBarbera graduated from Valparaiso University in 2009.  He currently resides in St. Charles, Illinois.

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