Yesterday I went to see Argowith a friend. For those who don’t know it, Argo is based on the true story of how six Americans were rescued from a safe house in Tehran at the height of the hostage crisis by posing as members of a Canadian film crew making a non-existent film.
Talk about tense! There were no car chases or scenes of gruesome violence, but I was gnawing my knuckles throughout. I’m no film buff – I normally insist on a happy ending before venturing into a cinema – but I thought it was brilliantly acted and not even the profusion of Seventies facial hair was enough to jar me out of the story.
I was interested reading the reviews afterwards to find out where the screenplay diverged from the ‘true story’: individuals and events were conflated, and some incidents added that didn’t happen in real life. And yet many of those who were involved at the time are on record as saying that the film felt authentic.
Historical novels try to do the same thing. In Time’s Echo (not strictly a historical novel, I know, but let’s not split hairs) I tried to convey a sense of Elizabethan York that would feel authentic to the reader but I admit that I sacrificed fact on occasion to the demands of the story. For instance, there was no major epidemic of plague in York between 1558 and 1604. Whether this was due to luck or to measures taken by the civic authorities is unclear. However, other cities in England did suffer in the way the fictional York does in Time’s Echo, and in that case the needs of the story trumped historical accuracy.
In a novel, as in a film like Argo, it always will. I don’t think it makes the story any less authentic. There’s a primal structure to good story telling that is precisely what distinguishes it from real life. The true events behind Argo are remarkable. Ben Affleck could have directed a film that showed exactly what happened – but instead of making a documentary he made an engaging story with astonishing pace and tension that may in the end have given the audience a greater sense of ‘what it was like’ than a strictly accurate portrayal would have done. I hope that Time’s Echo does the same for Elizabethan York!