Is faithfulness important?

Matt Damon and George Clooney on the set of The Monuments Men (photo courtesy )

Matt Damon and George Clooney on the set of The Monuments Men (photo courtesy )

As I mentioned in last week’s post, The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel is currently being adapted as a motion picture. As a student of art crime, I’ve been both curious and anxious as to how faithful the movie was going to stay to the book and to history. Clooney et al have a fantastic opportunity to showcase an often glossed over part of WWII history, but will the producers end up changing aspects in order to make a more Hollywood-style film?

Does it matter if they do?

We’ve all heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Is this true in the case of historical movies? Does it matter how faithful the adaptation is to the facts if it’s also serving the purpose of getting the word out to the public? Millions of people will most likely see this film when it’s released in December, and thus millions of people will learn about the extent of Axis looting during WWII. If Clooney changes a few facts along the way, will that negate the increased publicity? Does faithfulness matter?

And what about fictional visual productions that involve other aspects of art crime? Every time I mention my field, people bring up The Thomas Crown Affair as a point of reference. I’ve spent years telling friends that while Pierce Brosnan stars in an extremely entertaining film, its story should be taken entirely as fiction. Art theft does not happen like that. ‘White Collar’ on the USA Network does a better job with fact-checking, but even that show has made some mistakes over the years (come on, a professional thief would never roll up a Rembrandt and store it like that for years if it wasn’t necessary!). But at least people are watching and learning a little bit about the prevalence of art crime in the modern world?

All of this may be a moot point with regards to this latest foray into art crime. I’ve been assured by a connection in the film industry that the producers of The Monuments Men are sticking pretty closely to the book. It remains to see if this is true or not. But if they don’t, I’ll gladly spend the next few years explaining to everyone why the movie is wrong! WWII-era looting is an under-studied, under-funded part of history, and at least this movie will give fuel to the public discussion.



3 thoughts on “Is faithfulness important?

  1. Meghan Bartels

    I have this problem with history-inspired films all the time! (I’m sure this shocks you.) The response I’ve settled on is that as long as the changes are plausible and don’t directly contradict the best historical understanding we have of what happened, I try to let it go. (And if something is billed as terribly historically inaccurate, I avoid it like the plague.) But I imagine that leaves a different range of acceptability for me, concerned only with pre-cannon-obsolescence events, than for you.

    The Thomas Crowne Affair doesn’t make any pretense of being based on real events, does it? That’s my other big qualification–I don’t mind fiction if it’s billed as such.

    1. Katherine Luer Post author

      The Thomas Crown Affair doesn’t purport to be based on real events, but because it is one of the only mainstream representations of art theft, I find it often gets taken as plausible and realistic by its audience. Like you indicated, it’s easier to differentiate between plausibility and fiction when an event or a subject is well known. When it’s not, that’s where the problems begin.

      Representations that actually bill themselves as facts are a serious problem. Don’t even get me started on Dan Brown’s novels professing to be entirely accurate. That man has done almost as much to harm the intelligence levels of the world as Stephanie Meyer.

      1. Meghan Bartels

        Ahh that’s a good point about it being one of the only mainstream representations. At least SOME non-history people can sniff out the total BS in certain particularly bad classical/British themed films.

        And I totally have your back on Dan Brown…


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