Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about the 2005 film, Capote in which the brilliant
The author Truman Capote reconstructs the 1959 murder of the Clutter family by Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock. But he cannot finish the non-fiction novel because he lacks an ending and a detailed account of how the killers committed the act.
He befriends the killers, especially Perry Smith, by flattery, persuasion and promises of help to get the details he feels he must have. Although he stays connected to them through the appeals of their death sentences, he knows he needs them to die in order to have the dramatic climax his story demands. A review by the late Roger Ebert provides an excellent analysis of the film but I want to focus on one aspect of it.
Guilt and Capote
Although the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood was massively successful and revealed a new way to amalgamate fiction and non-fiction, it greatly damaged Capote himself.
He felt enormous guilt for the way that he had manipulated the two young men to get the details he needed of the murders. Capote recognized that he both cared for them as people and exploited them. He also wanted their execution not only to provide an ending to his book but to rid himself of the unwanted friendship.
His guilt was so boundless that he started to drink and self-medicate heavily and never completed another book. He died in 1984 of liver failure.
Guilt and writing
Capote is obviously an extreme case of the writer’s obsession to get at both the truth and a good novel.
But when I saw the movie, I insisted that two friends go see it. We discussed whether we felt that passion. And we all admitted that we did. Although hopefully none of us would go as far as Capote did to assuage his obsession, we nevertheless recognized the desire to capture the perfect story, the flawless seizure of the moment.
We also discussed how far we might go ourselves in this pursuit. We take our observations of the people around us and thinly disguise them as characters in our stories. The portrayals need not be accurate or fair or true. Nor kind nor generous. Because it’s fiction.
Do we feel guilty? Well, occasionally maybe as little twinge but the answer is to change more details of the character so that it is less recognizable as the real person. It is not to ask if by doing this we aren’t at one end of the continuum for which Capote provides the other anchor. Next post: The Morality of Writers.