The Green Book: Inspired By
The Green Book won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2019 for a story ‘inspired by’ true events. It was controversial with some challenging its depiction of American racism. That aside, the movie can provide an interesting writing lesson.
What does ‘ inspired by’ mean?
Movies seem to make three distinctions:
A true story is a pretty close to real life events, sometimes using transcripts or historical records.
Based on a true story allows artistic license to perhaps combine real life people into one character or alter the flow of events to increase the drama.
Inspired by a true story is a kind of all-bets-are-off movie. The real events can be a springboard for the writer to weave in scenes and characters which may not have existed. This is the category closest to, but perhaps not actually, fiction.
All this is fine as long as the viewer knows what he’s getting. But for the writer, the ‘inspired by’ category can cause problems, perhaps illustrated by The Green Book.
How does this apply to the Green Book?
On his 1960s tour of the Deep South, a black pianist is forced to stay in black-only accommodation, generally depicted as down-at-the-heel places. His white chauffeur is not confined to these choices.
The exception occurs when the pianist, his chauffeur and two of the chauffeur’s (white) buddies all stay at the same hotel. Now, I can imagine that white people might have stayed at black-only hotels during this era. However, given that segregation of accommodation is an important premise, I think that the movie makers made a mistake by not explaining away this seeming anomaly.
But I also wonder (just wonder) whether the ‘inspired by’ allowed the writer to get carried away.
The incongruity just discussed could have been caused by information edited out in the final cut or because it was assumed that everyone knew white people stayed at black inns but not vice-versa. I grant what I am about to propose is pure speculation but bear with me.
Generally speaking, interest is heightened when the protagonist faces a challenge. After the pianist and the chauffeur have started to understand and even like each other, the chauffeur’s buddies offer him a job. To set this up dramatically, the pianist needs to overhear the other men discussing the offer and agreeing to meet later to finalize the details. It is only with this knowledge that he knows he’s in danger. So, the writer needs a setting where all four characters are present and a hotel is chosen, even given the jarring aspect.
Because the setting is at variance with the major premise of the movie and is not explained, it made me wonder whether the meeting actually took place or whether this was just the writer heightening things with some conflict. I.E. did he make it up?
Staying true to the spirit
A lesson can be derived for writers. Creative use of the material is of course important. This is true even in a memoir. However, in doing so, you need to stay connected to your setting, characters, and historical period. I understand the need to build a good story and applaud the effort. But you’ve gotta stick with the essence of the characters and settings you’ve created.
Depicting characters doing or saying things not consistent with who they are doesn’t make a better story. It might be better dramatically but it won’t ring true to the reader.
The Green Book is interesting in other ways. Next post.