At the beginning of the film Hans Christian Andersen there’s a little text crawl which announces that it’s not history, but rather a “fairy tale about a great teller of tales.” Which, when you get right down to it, is true of all historical fiction. It’s story first and history second. I was thinking of this because a friend mentioned Christopher Hitchens’ critique of The King’s Speech: that in pursuit of its story it glosses over, or rejiggers, a good bit of known history.
I understand the complaint; I know a good deal more about 18th and 19th century British history than I do 20th century, and even I noticed some of what Hitchens complains about (Churchill wasn’t initially as chummy and encouraging to the incoming George VI as the film suggests). But the narrative of the film, the story the writer and director wanted to focus on, is a very familiar, old-fashioned story of a person overcoming a disability to meet a challenge. It’s also a buddy-story about the bond between George VI and his speech therapist, Australian Lionel Logue. What would adding Churchill’s support for Edward have added to the story?
When you’re writing about history or historical figures, you have to choose a place to stand. For example, I have a lot of sympathy for the Prince Regent, later George IV. He was a lousy king; but I think he was set up, situationally, by fate and by family, and it would have been hard for him to be a better one by the time he finally attained the throne. Or take Josephine Tey’s wonderful mystery The Daughter of Time. Reading it got me reading about Richard III; Shakespeare took a side in that story, but with all respect to the Bard, I believe real history tells a different tale. That doesn’t detract from Richard III as a hell of a piece of fiction.
The minute a writer takes a stand, decides on the story she wants to write about an historical event, the project takes on a Heisenbergian quality. The process of writing a story with a distinct viewpoint means that other viewpoints will, necessarily, get short shrift. The minute you take a stand, someone’s going to take issue with it. So you should have a reason. Why that stand. Why that rock?
In The King’s Speech, writer David Seidler decided to portray Churchill as sympathetic to George VI. Would it have changed the story if he had been–as he was in life–a supporter of King Edward? Would that have been a distraction from the Our-Hero-Overcomes-Adversity storyline? A more interesting question is: what did writing it this way add to the film? It supports the film’s view (borne out by everything I’ve read about him) that Edward was a petulant, self-involved man who would have made a poor king. Churchill, even now, is a name to reckon with. If the film’s Churchill supports the film’s King Edward VIII rather than his brother, that might erode the faith the viewer has in the rightness of George VI’s rule. Which might have made it a more politically nuanced film–but the nuances the storyteller was most interested in were not political, they were personal.
So, yes, I think there was a reason Seidler and director Tom Hooper choose that particular rock to stand on. I might have done it differently. But choosing a rock and standing on it allowed them to make what I found to be a very satisfying film.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and a double-handful of short stories which are available on her bookshelf. She has just finished The Salernitan Women, set in medieval Italy, and is now working on the new Sarah Tolerance novel, The Sleeping Partner.