What Does the Adapter Owe to the Source Material?

Martin Luther King Jr.

“Do you love me?”

You might not remember this scene from Ava DuVerney’s Selma, but it certainly stuck with me. Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) confronts her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) with this very question. King responds with a quick, “Yes.”

“Do you love any of the others?” Coretta asks. Dr. King’s eyes bounce around the room nervously, and a painfully long silence passes before he croaks, “No.” Coretta leaves the room, and the scene ends.

It’s a powerful moment that’s well-acted on both sides. But what really struck me about that scene, and really most of the film, was this: how much of it is actually accurate to history?

There have been plenty of articles written on this very subject, many of which express disappointment over “historical inaccuracies” in the film. A lot of people are specifically upset about the depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson. For context, in Selma, Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) is portrayed as a mostly unwilling participant in the equal rights movement, preferring instead to focus upon other issues and push King’s agenda back to the following year. Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, claimed that the filmmakers felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.”

I agree with Mr. Califano in one respect at least. It did make for a better story.

When it comes to adaptations of any kind, many people seem to be so preoccupied with what happened. It seems like every historical fiction film or novel that comes out has people complaining that it’s not accurate, or that the artist changed too much. But that’s what it’s called historical fiction. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his afterword to Lolita, “It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author.” In other words, don’t consume fiction and expect to learn any facts about anything.

Let’s say Selma did not portray the King/Johnson relationship with such strong conflict. Let’s imagine a film in which Johnson is fully on board with Dr. King’s plans. That’s a story without conflict, and, without conflict, you don’t have much of a story.

I suppose I understand why people close to the issue might be so upset. Indeed, there’s sometimes a certain presumptive quality to a piece of historical fiction, an unspoken suggestion that this was the way it really happened. But writer/director Ava DuVerney addressed the topic thusly, and I couldn’t agree more: “[Selma is] not a documentary. I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller.”

Indeed, Selma is not a documentary. It is historical fiction. Perhaps we should remember that fiction is meant to entertain, to tell a compelling story, to make the audience think, and to make the audience feel. Even if a work of fiction is based on real-life occurrences, the artists allegiance should not lie with absolute truth; it should lie with the story.


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