05 March 2016

The Truth in all its Fiction

I meant to post my Oscar predictions last week but there was not enough time before the TV program to allow sufficient debate. All in all, I was as right as I usually am: 55%. One thing that happened that piqued my interest was Leonardo DiCaprio's Best Actor award for his role in The Revenant. The film also was a winner for Alejandro G. Iñárritu, winning Best Director, and for cinematography.

I have nothing against Leo, although I've never really been a fan of his, probably just due to the choices of movies he is in. I have nothing against the film itself, although in several ways it seemed "less" than what I expected. It was more like a comic book version of a revenge tale. Indeed, an earlier film version of the same story, Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris, was better told in my opinion. Between the two films there are significant differences in the story - beyond the bear attack and the abandonment.

I first became interested in The Revenant while writing my vampire book A Dry Patch of Skin and researching vampire legends and various diseases which mimic the traits of vampirism. I learned that "revenant" was a term used to identify a person who was as good as dead yet still walked among us--more akin to a zombie than the common idea of the vampire. So I used the term to describe my protagonist, a man afflicted with the vampire disease: he did not die and then come back to life as the typical vampire does. No, he was descending into a horrible life where he looked like death yet could not actually die and be relieved of his horrors. Then the first advertisement for the film popped up on Facebook.

When I saw that it was a retelling of the Hugh Glass story, I was very excited. I recalled the film Man in the Wilderness and how it had been a seminal artistic experience. Several of the ideas, tropes employed in that film, I have made use of in my writing and in life in general. I was probably 14 when I saw it, a romantic age for a boy back in the pre-computer era. My family was once again on summer vacation, heading up the Alaska Highway for a month of fishing and camping in Alaska, our final destination being the town of Homer on the Kenai peninsula south of Anchorage. 

However, we stopped for the night at the village of Burwash Landing on the shore of Kulane Lake in the Yukon territory of Canada. After checking in at the lodge, we wondered what there was to do here on the shore of this huge lake high in the mountains. It was a beautiful location, certainly, though lonely and isolated, especially after dark. 

"Well, they're showing a movie tonight in the community center," said the hotel owner, standing at the front desk.

So we walked over to the community center. Inside, a couple dozen folding chairs had been set up and at the front of the small room a movie screen also had been set up. At the back of the room was the movie projector. Every so often, we paused to let the person running the projector change the film reel. That barely affected my enjoyment of the film, however. I quickly forgot I was lost in the Yukon, instead following poor Hugh Glass as he struggles to keep from dying, then marches through the wilderness driven by his revenge against Captain Henry, the man he blames for abandoning him. Of course, in The Revenant Captain Henry is a good guy and blameless; it is another trapper who is the target of Glass's vengeance.

I remember feeling rather nervous as we walked back to the hotel after the film. It was dark by then, one street lamp, and the wilderness was literally all around us. Probably a few bears were watching us. That is what I liked to think, anyway; I had a big imagination. The truths of the film, however, impressed me greatly. The Hugh Glass of Man in the Wilderness was a humble introvert who Captain Henry had essentially rescued from a hopeless life. Hugh had a son back on the east coast, left with the grandmother after Hugh's wife died during childbirth - as the film depicts. Once Hugh catches up to Captain Henry and the others, he has a change of heart against exacting revenge - perhaps due to the experiences he has along the way. Now, he just wants to go home to see his son. Being a son myself, I wondered if my father would have trekked that far for me.

I learned much later that Man in the Wilderness was based on (or "inspired by") a book called Wilderness written by my favorite science-fiction author Roger Zelazny, his only foray into Westerns (co-authored with frontier expert Gerald Hausman). I learned that it was based on true events. I knew authors may take liberties with true events but I assumed the basic narrative was true in the film.

Now comes The Revenant, based on a 2002 book by the same name written by Michael Punke. My first thought on learning the film was coming soon was to try to understand why they had given it the title they did. With Man in the Wilderness flowing back through my head, I could understand the thinking: almost killed by a grizzly and left for dead, Hugh nevertheless returns to haunt his company of trappers. Makes sense. You leave a man to die - he was bound to die soon anyway - then he likely does die but then you see him around every tree, following you like a ghost....

Last night I finally finished reading the book version of The Revenant. (Full disclosure: I bought the book first but saw the film before I started to read the book.) My reactions? Simply put, the film takes a lot of liberties with the story. Not unexpected, of course. The second half of the book does not get into the film. Instead, the film invents its own second half. The author of the book makes a point of citing sources of information about the true events in Hugh Glass's life - still an amazing story. 

And yet, was the author's purpose to tell an interesting tale or to make available a recording of the facts albeit told in an entertaining way? In the Revenant film, Leo's Hugh reaches the fort then goes out again after Fitzgerald, the man who left him and, in the film, also killed his half-Pawnee son. In the book there is no son to be killed. In the book, Hugh's revenge seems driven by the theft of an excellent rifle as well as being left for dead even though he eventually recovered. In Man in the Wilderness, revenge is against Captain Henry and Hugh's son is way back in the east - ironically, Hugh has abandoned his own son, so that idea provides balance in the film's plot.

At the end of the Revenant book, Punke offers the final events as Hugh returns to Fort Atkinson on the Missouri River (north of today's Kansas City) to catch up with Fitzgerald. There is a courtroom scene and an attempt by Hugh to shoot Fitzgerald with a pistol. Once the story is done, Punke offers a section of notes, separating the facts from the fiction. I read with disdain his declaration that the courtroom nonsense was all fiction. 

Repeat: I read the last chapter about the final confrontation between Hugh Glass and Fitzgerald (Captain Henry is still back in the mountains) then, in the following two pages, the author essentially tells me "Oh, by the way, that last scene is all made-up." True or not true, it was intended to be part of the story. The story! There went my suspension of disbelief.

Sure, all books marketed as fiction are presumed to be "all made up" but when there is an underlying true story involved, it seems disingenuous to then announce quite baldly which parts are true to the facts, which are fictionalization of less certain details, and which are completely fabricated. 

I am reminded of my own recent effort, A Girl Called Wolf, which deals with the same issues in its telling of an orphan girl's life in Greenland. (Read about our collaboration here.) It is a novel (by definition a fiction) based on or "inspired by" a true story (story by definition means fiction) or "true events"; quite a cumbersome thing. In my case, the principal person, the heroine the novel is based on, is still alive so how could I write the true ending to the story? There were two options: Leave it at that feel-good moment when we know that "everything's going to be fine from now on..." or write what the next logical event should be in order to achieve an appropriately heroic climax to the story. I chose the latter, with the heroine's permission. 

Now I feel a strange brotherhood with Mr. Punke and his book (novel?). We both started with real events, put them together with some fictional caulking as needed, and employed a completely fictional conclusion for the sake of telling a good story. 

In the end, the story is king (or queen, in my book's case). The reader cares less that the facts are reported accurately, down to the letter, than that the plot - the story arc - makes sense in the context of the events. Truth may be stranger than fiction and yet many who read understand that fiction is often more truthful than the facts. For the author, it is the story that must be forged. If we want the straight-forward facts, we have newspaper archives and old correspondence - and even that is subject to the whims of memory and the vagaries of its recording. So worry not about the truth. Worry instead about the solidarity of the experience and of the universal insights gleaned from a work of art, not pesky details from a work of reportage.

Now let me return to my current work-in-progress, an epic fantasy (with dragons), where I willingly employ 100% fiction without apology.

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I didn't know the other books!!!! I gotta read the Revenant book now!!!! Thanks for the reviews!!!!!

  2. I completely agree about how odd it is to announce which parts are true and which are not. However, suspension of disbelief aside, this is another great post.

    1. You may be amused to note that in "Man in the Wilderness", the final credits identify a certain James Doohan of Star Trek fame ("Scotty") as the French fur trapper, with beard and French accent. As the film came out in 1971, that would have been after the original Star Trek had its run on TV. He was obviously looking for work, any work....

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks. I do what I can to please the masses!

  4. Hey my friend also wrote about the movies!!!!

    1. You can watch video on the page that has Revenant sound with Man in Wilderness pictures!!!!! #clever

    2. Thanks for the link! I'm pleased I'm not the only one interested in the history of the legend in film and print.