How Movies, and More and More of Today’s Journalism, Can Be Kind of Fake

Hopkins and Pryce in “The Two Popes.”

Over the holidays I watched three good movies based on the lives of three real people:

“The Two Popes,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, is described this way: “Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.”

“The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is described as: “During World War II, the English mathematical genius Alan Turing tries to crack the German Enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians.”

“A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe, is described as “After John Nash,  a brilliant but asocial mathematician, accepts secret work in cryptography, his life takes a turn for the nightmarish.”

After enjoying the movies, I wondered if they were based on books. “The Two Popes” came from Anthony McCarten’s book The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World. “The Imitation Game” was inspired by Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges. “A Beautiful Mind” was based on the book with the same name written by Sylvia Nasar.

An article about “The Two Popes” by David Sims in the Atlantic is headlined “The Two Popes Is Entertaining: Fernando Meirelles’s new film tries to dramatize a philosophical debate between its title characters while shying away from knottier controversies.” Sims says the movie was “written in a kind of narrative shorthand. . .to make it mostly a buddy comedy, an odd-couple clash between an old-fashioned stick in the mud and his more easygoing replacement.”

A narrative shorthand is a good way to describe all three movies. Lots of important background is left out and scenes are invented to increase the dramatic effect. The result: a good story.

Today’s journalism, especially digital journalism—is more and more like the three biographical movies: Come up with a good headline and good story and don’t complicate things with any information that gets in the way of the dramatic effect of story and headline.


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