I recently watched The Danish Girl starting Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Based on a fiction book of the same name by David Ebershoff, the story is based on the real life Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who was one of the first identifiable people to undergo sex reassignment surgery in the early 1930’s. Despite being critically acclaimed, the film has also been criticized for a number of reasons, including using a fictionalized account of Lili’s life rather than relying on her posthumously published autobiography as source material. As I was watching the film, and scrolling through what I could find about Lili Elbe online on my phone – some might see this as a horrible habit when viewing a movie, but it is one I enjoy from the comfort of my living room when I’m watching a film based on real people – I started to think about what happens when history and fiction cross paths.
In the historical drama Bridge of Spies starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, we learn about the story of lawyer James B. Donovan and the prisoner exchange of Rudolph Abel for Frances Gary Powers in Berlin during the escalating tensions of the Cold War in 9162. Directed and co-produced by Stephen Spielberg, the film is somewhat based on the book Strangers on a Bridge by James B. Donovan. Again, although the film was critically acclaimed, there were liberties taken with events to amp up the tension in what was otherwise a procedural legal drama. For instance, in the film it shows Donovan witnessing the brutal shooting of civilians attempting to scale the Berlin wall to escape from East to West Germany as he crossed over by train during the negotiations to free Powers and Pryor. However, Donovan never witnessed these shootings, although they did happen months after. While this portrayal of events wasn’t strictly accurate, it did reflect the frightening things happening at the time.
There are some films that use real life characters and events in a fictionalized way, but don’t even pretend to be based on a true story. This is definitely the case in the Joel and Ethan Coen film Hail, Caesar! Centering on the real life Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), the film both pays homage to and lampoons the tumultuous time in Hollywood when the studio system was in upheaval, the threat of Communism and McCarthyism loomed, and the order of the day for film making was complete escapism. While the events and most of the characters are completely fictional, with Mannix the only real name used, they are reflective of the time period, with many of the characters having an equivalent historical character – a Kirby Grant type character who plays singing cowboys, an Esther Williams type character who does aquatic musicals, a Gene Kelly type triple threat, and feuding gossip columnists the like of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
While historical fiction and non-fiction can both enlighten, when the two dance together they have the potential to either create something beautiful or stumble all over each other. In the case of Hail, Caesar! I felt immersed in the time period that the Coen brothers were illustrating, warts and all. In the case of Bridge of Spies, while the liberties were taken with the events of the time, it created a springboard to learn more about those events. Going back to The Danish Girl, the waters are a little more muddied. While the film does respectfully portray a segment of our population that is under represented in media, the truncated timeline of Lili Elbe’s life may do her a disservice. While it does a beautiful job of portraying Lil’s self-discovery and transition in a world hostile to transgender people, she was certainly much more than the surgery she is famous for having undergone, and I feel like that is a piece of her history missing from the film. Even so, as with Hail, Caesar! and Bridge of Spies, during The Danish Girl I was on the lookout online and in our library catalogue for the true story behind the film and came away learning something that I hadn’t known about before – and perhaps that’s the point.
*Originally published in County Life August 2016.