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From Story to Screen

Biography on Television

By David Grubin | HUMANITIES, May/June 1997 | Volume 18, Number 3

The phone call finally came from the distinguished scholar in American history. I had sent him the video cassette and transcript of the first part of a film biography I was completing for PBS' The American Experience, and I was anxiously waiting his verdict. Now, he prepared to give it to me.

He was a man for whom I had enormous respect, a writer renowned for his wit and clarity, grown expert in his field over a long lifetime of study. We had enjoyed a sympathetic collaboration all through the preparation of the film treatments, and I knew him to be forthright and candid. He would tell me exactly what he thought.

"I've read the transcript, and I'll be sending along a marked-up copy," he said. "I'll look at the film tomorrow."

I was stunned. He had turned first to the page, rather than the screen. His critique would be based on the transcript. The film could wait.

After a long pause, I told him how surprised I was that he hadn't watched the video, that the words were important -- yes, extremely important -- but they had to be understood in relation to the film of which they were a part. He was as surprised as I had been. "I guess I'm a bit old-fashioned," he said.

Long force of habit had turned my colleague toward the transcript of the film rather than the film itself, but he is, as he himself recognized, increasingly out of step. Most Americans seem to prefer the image to the word. The American Experience, for example, garners six million viewers each week, not counting the millions more who see the series in reruns, on home videos, or at schools and colleges all over the country. Even a best-selling volume of history is lucky to find more than a million readers. More and more of us are learning our history from television. As a filmmaker, I've heard some scholars suggest that this may not be a very good thing. Of course, it's easy to criticize the historical programs that appear almost nightly now on cable television, knocked out by producers with neither the time nor the resources to do their job well. This is history distinguished more for the vigor with which it is marketed than by the care with which the programs themselves are made.

But even the best historical television, it has been argued, can't do much more than suggest the riches that are waiting to be found in books: Television is not suited for the discussion of ideas; it doesn't allow for the logical development of an argument; it can't handle too much information. Television histories are truncated histories, oversimplified and underdeveloped. The medium itself is fatally flawed.

As someone who works with this medium every day, I am sensitive to these criticisms because I agree with the assumption on which they are based. Television is a different medium from prose. The medium isn't fatally flawed, history on television doesn't have to be simple and reductive, but television is limited, just as prose is limited, and in its limitations lies its strength as well as its weakness. What needs to be understood is how the medium of television is different from the medium of the traditional historian and where its particular power lies.

But rather than begin with differences, I first would like to affirm what the traditional historian and the historical filmmaker have in common. Certainly we both have a commitment to present as complete and accurate a picture of the past as possible, and we share a scrupulous regard for the facts and the rules of evidence that guide their acceptability. The filmmaker might spend more time with the visual record and oral testimony (when available), the traditional historian more with documents, but the goal is the same -- to excavate and interpret the past. The differences arise not so much in the excavation of the facts. Our paths diverge when it comes to giving them definition, shape, and meaning.

Because the medium I work in lends itself so readily to narrative, I find myself inevitably telling stories. Although historians working in prose may also choose to write in the narrative tradition, many prefer to analyze rather than chronicle, placing their subject under a microscope and thoroughly dissecting it, emulating a scientific model. It is a rare history film that has a cold, impersonal scientific look. The medium is pulling in another direction. Filmmakers are synthesizers, using analysis as just another element in the storytelling, bringing it on stage to help explain an event as it unfolds, but not a moment sooner. The best films have the emotional force and integrity of a novel. Despite the fact that the idea of the narrative has been challenged for imposing the illusion of order on random events, I find myself continuing to tell stories, somehow persuaded by the medium I work in that there is real purpose in doing so.

I agree with Emerson that "there is properly no history; only biography." At their best, history films are peopled with strong characters whose lives are determined by complex causes and often have tragic outcomes. The medium does well revealing personality, less well rendering abstractions and ideologies.

But what separates the film historian from the traditional historian is even more fundamental than method. The traditional historian draws upon all the resources of the written word to understand the past. The film historian summons other idioms, and in the end, appeals to other dimensions of the imagination.

Filmmakers do not work with the written word. We work with the spoken word. The spoken word brings with it nuances of feeling which extend beyond the word on the page. The ear is tuned to vibrations far subtler than we are even aware: a dramatic pause, the lift of the voice at the end of a sentence, a gentle touch of irony render history on television spontaneous and direct, less cerebral, more emotional.

I recently had the chance to look at a cross section of the brain as recorded by a PET scanner, one of the intriguing new imaging technologies that allows us to eavesdrop on the brain in action, part of a fascinating study that made clear to me that the spoken and written word are profoundly different. As scientists took pictures of her brain, a young woman was asked to read a word. Then the same word was presented to the same woman, but this time the word was spoken aloud. The results were clear: the PET scan image revealed that the part of the brain that was active when the subject read the word, was inactive when the subject heard the word. And the part of the brain that was active when the subject heard the word was not active when the subject read the word. The scientists could see no overlapping areas in the brain at all.

There seems to be a fundamental difference between the oral and written experience. To poets who read their work aloud, this will come as no surprise. As Stanley Kunitz once put it, "The page is a cold bed." For filmmakers, becoming sensitive to the resonant difference between the spoken word and the written word is at the heart of what we do.

Film is in fact closer to the oral than it is to the literary tradition, in some ways recalling an earlier time, when the power of the spoken word held sway. Nineteenth- century Americans had no difficulty listening for hours to a political speaker out on the stump. Eighteenth-century New Englanders might spend an entire day at church, ears tuned to the singing and the sermonizing. And long ago, the storyteller held an audience spellbound with a tale chanted around the campfire.

Today the voice of the television narrator forges a community of feeling around the glow of the television set. What we filmmakers are always looking for is a narrator who can draw us together, a David McCullough, for example, whose warm intelligence can infuse the words on the page with a quiet emotion, bringing them to life.

The weight of the spoken word is further enhanced by another non-literary element -- music. Music appeals to inarticulate recesses of the mind, arousing emotions for which there are no words. It's always been a mystery to me just how I communicate with composer Michael Bacon, who has done the scores for all my films. Many filmmakers hold the music in the background, but because Michael writes such beautiful themes, I like to make his music a central element in the storytelling. At the same time, Michael is aware that music cannot be used for its own sake, but only as a dynamic complement to the word and the image.

When people think of historical documentaries, they don't think of music or the spoken word, they think of images -- antique photographs or brittle black and white films with their ghostly evocations of a once vivid present. These images speak with a near tyrannical authority. They are representations of the world for which no verbal equivalent could possibly be as striking or revealing. It's one thing to describe Franklin Roosevelt's smile, quite another to see him flash it, and watch as it lights up a room.

In his classic biography of the young Franklin Roosevelt, Geoffrey Ward artfully describes Roosevelt's efforts to mimic the act of walking. In telling detail, he recounts how, by leaning on a cane and the strong arm of one of his sons, Roosevelt found a substitute for crutches, which he feared would evoke pity from voters and keep him from elective office. In the film FDR, we found two and one-half seconds of film of that counterfeit walk, slowed it down, and repeated it again and again. Suddenly the awkwardness, the strain, the continuous fear of falling become apparent -- all in just two and a half seconds.

Film brings the past alive. When we watch a historical documentary, we are not learning history; we feel as if we are experiencing it. History told on film has an immediacy that the written word cannot rival. What distinguishes the most successful historical documentaries is the seamless weaving together of image, music, and spoken word to offer a sensuous apprehension of life.

Historical documentaries are in fact closer to spoken poetry than they are to prose. Much as poetry concentrates insights into dense nuggets of language so tightly packed they seem to explode as they are uttered, films live by time-enforced compression. Writing a historical documentary is a bit like writing haiku: with no extra adjectives -- music and image are our adjectives -- no wasted details, the task is to make the image come alive in the moment.

Wordsworth described poetry as "felt thought," which gives us a clue to the way in which historical documentaries deal with ideas. It is not the density of the ideas, but the weight of too many facts that has caused many a good film to buckle and collapse. The flow of the narrative is all too easily obstructed by examples that add credibility to the argument but force the story to veer off course. Good prose histories layer one fascinating example on top of another to paint a convincing picture, and at the same time establish a feasible chain of cause and effect. Film has an altogether different method, suggesting new possibilities and meanings. In film, as in poetry, emotion and intellect are inseparable. History films appeal to both the heart and the mind, evoking the way in which an idea feels, making thought visceral.

Historical documentary is a kind of poetry resting on a foundation of fact. Herein lies both its beauty and danger. History has traditionally been written in prose, myth in poetry. Chronicling history on film -- a poetic, emotional medium -- can veil the hard facts with an impenetrable cloak of romance, lulling an audience into accepting a world that has no basis in reality.

It's not hard to manipulate an audience with film. Even the image can be made to lie. Over seventy years ago, a Russian filmmaker conducted a famous test. He lifted a shot of a Russian actor from a feature-length film -- it was a close-up with no discernible expression -- and then intercut it with shots from another film. First, he juxtaposed it with shots of a bowl of soup, next with a child playing with a teddy bear, and then with a woman in a coffin. When he showed the various arrangement of shots to an audience, the audience applauded the actor's ability to portray hunger, to sympathize with the child, to grieve for the dead woman. Same image, but editing created different realities. Hollywood action films rely on the same method, producing a kind of hormonal art, designed to stir our emotions, with little concern for how the image itself mirrors reality.

There are also techniques now available to manipulate the very image itself. Filmmakers can take a photograph and alter it without the audience ever knowing -- deleting one participant from an event, adding another, creating a world that never existed. If feature filmmakers can put Elvis side by side with Forrest Gump, what is to prevent documentary filmmakers from creating their own realities?

That is why, as historical documentaries become more and more popular, it is significant that filmmakers and scholars are trying to work together. After completing a fine cut of TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt for The American Experience, I sent a copy to a noted scholar, who objected to a scene in the film's third hour. "The great white fleet" is steaming into harbor, the climax of a voyage around the world. Roosevelt had sent the ships, against the wishes of Congress, to demonstrate the might of the United States Navy, and now they are coming home. It's a great day for Roosevelt, and photographers and newsreel cameramen left a stunning record of all the excitement. But when my colleague saw the way we had edited the scene, he pointed out that the expedition had not been a complete success. Roosevelt had hoped that the fleet would intimidate the Japanese, and in that, the mission had failed. My colleague's critique included a detailed history of Japanese-American relations, and based on his analysis, we re-edited the sequence. When he saw our revision, he was delighted that we had incorporated his views. The balance of the scene had been tilted to reveal that Roosevelt, in the midst of the celebration, was well aware of the limitations of the voyage. The moment was now freighted with irony and poignancy. How had we done it? By adding just one photograph, twenty-three words, and modulating the music. That is film's unique power, and both scholar and filmmaker were satisfied.

The first time a film was ever screened in the White House, Woodrow Wilson was President. The film was a historical fiction -- The Birth of A Nation -- and Wilson, who recognized at once the force of the new medium, said, when it was over, "It is like writing history with lightning." If a movie is like a single lightning storm, television is like a lightning storm striking everywhere in the country at the same time. It's a wonderful opportunity and a daunting responsibility to harness the power of television and turn it toward understanding our history and ourselves.

About the Author

David Grubin is a film producer whose work includes TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt and FDR. His latest film, Truman, will appear on PBS this fall.