Sunday, November 23, 2008

Brilliant dude, pity about the illustration

“Verisimilitude in a narrative is always more important than veracity.”

The late Michael Crichton again, in a talk he gave to the AAAS at Anaheim in 1999.

The man whom Tim Blair summed up as a “novelist and warmy-mocker” — the latter being, for the Muftim, the really important, if typically shallow, distinction — was in fact a trained scientist and physician before becoming a novelist, screen writer and climate-change sceptic. Blair’s studiedly trite remark, of course, illustrates the very point Crichton was making above.

Although the point generalises, Crichton was specifically referring to movies, and to illustrate he drew on the following example:

If I understand the new film Elizabeth correctly it shows Mary, Queen of Scots secretly poisoned at home; although in fact she was publicly beheaded 15 years later. That’s like making a movie where JFK dies by being hit by a bus sometime during the Reagan administration.

That’s a neat and colourful illustration, but in fact Crichton hasn’t ‘understood’ the film Elizabeth at all correctly.

Mary, Queen of Scots barely features in the 1998 production Elizabeth, from memory, if at all, and is certainly not poisoned. Two Marys, however, do meet their untimely deaths in the film. Queen Mary Tudor dies of some mysterious illness, possibly poisoned. And Mary of Guise is assassinated in Scotland, as suggested in the film, by the silkily sinister Sir Francis Walsingham, turned Lothario.

No, Mary, Queen of Scots is in fact dispatched more in keeping with historical rigour in the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, released eight years later.

But still, we all know Crichton’s statement about verisimilitude, veracity and narrative is absolutely spot on.

Why? Because it has verisimilitude!

(N.B. Note that the ABC transcript of Crichton’s talk misquotes the word ‘verisimilitude’ as ‘milieu’. See the transcript at Crichton’s website, from which, however, the Elizabeth illustration seems to have been expunged.)

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