Beloved Husband and I watched Moneyball yesterday, and as we left the theater, we wondered aloud how much non-baseball fans would enjoy it. We love baseball, follow it nationally, and really dig the statistics and history of it, so we enjoyed the film very much. It did make me think, though, as ahistorical novelist, about how difficult it can be to turn real history into the stuff of fictional entertainment.
This problem intensifies the more recent the history is. In the case of Moneyball, the action all takes place in 2001 and 2002, centered around the World Series bid by the Oakland Athletics. Because we all know the As didn't make it to the Series, beaten out by the Minnesota Twins, the script can't end in the sort of triumphant victory filmgoers love. The writers (the film is based on a nonfiction book) had to find other ways to create that feeling of climactic success. Therein lies the challenge.
In writing historical fiction, distance is a great advantage. A story set in the twelfth century gives the writer a lot more creative freedom, because we only know so much about the characters and their lives in that period. Alternate history is something different, a genre in which authors play with actual fact, but for those of us who want to tell dramatic stories without misleading our readers, the challenge is to weave fictional events around actual historical ones.
Moneyball had the big story problem, of course, of a failing baseball team. However, since the team didn't win it all in the end, the throughline of the story needed another focus. Brad Pitt and the wonderful Jonah Hill have the charm and charisma to carry the movie, and there's a fabulous character, in the daughter of the Brad Pitt character, who features in an important subplot which, although subtle, works to provide that all-important sense that the characters win through in the end. It's no wonder it took nearly a decade to turn the original book into a movie, though. The journey apparently took the usual Hollywood twists and turns, and one of the real people on whom it was based insisted his name be taken out. He had to be recreated--so there goes historical veracity!
There are other adjustments that had to be made. Jerry Garrett has written a detailed post on the background of the film. It was first released at the Toronto Film Festival of 2011, and opened in theaters on the 23rd of this month. I'll be watching with interest to see how it's received by a wider audience. I wonder how many of them will, as I do, consider it historical fiction?