Tony Kushner is a well-known playwright, and his latest success was found in writing the screenplay for the movie — Lincoln — starring Daniel Day-Lewis. With each chit comes a chipping, and Connecticut Congressman Joe Courtney is rightly angry that Kushner intentionally changed history to add fake drama to the movie by deciding to invent two members of the Connecticut congressional delegation who voted against the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to end slavery. In actuality, all four members of the Connecticut representatives voted for ending slavery. Why would Kushner so deliberately skew what really happened?
Kushner’s defense of his non-historical invention is both startling and disappointing:
“These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the 13th Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn’t determined until the end of the vote,” wrote Kushner in a letter. “The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.”
Kushner said the film changed the names of the congressmen voting against the amendment “so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn’t perform them.” He added a little sarcasm, writing, “I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.”
I am all for stealing ideas and themes.
I support the necessary difficulty of adaptation.
That said, I still do not understand why Kushner had to create drama when there was plenty enough of it in the story without his artistic inventions. Oftentimes, authors feel they are Gods and not servants.
In reading all of Kushner’s response, I am unconvinced by his excuses and the defense of his own work reads as if he’s lazy in meaning and lethargic in logic. Following Kushner’s Lincoln rationale, Roy Cohen in Angels in America could have been — a proud Gay man — and not affected the underlying drama of the story. Or, perhaps, Lincoln could have been knifed in the neck instead of shot. Same effect, right? Only the method of the killing changes. Who cares if it is historically accurate?
Why create deception and tomfoolery in a screenplay when history was fraught enough with dense tension and dramatic tightening? What did Kushner gain by creating two fake characters? Did the story get better? Or did he damage the history of Connecticut and slavery forever on screen with a purposeful, and malicious, miscalculation?
Tony Kushner’s mistake was in somehow deciding on his own that he wasn’t really adapting a historical book for the screen and that he didn’t owe complete veracity to a man who was tortured in life, celebrated in death, and used as a convenient cudgel today to rasp away the true meaning of his deeds.
Lincoln lived in an ugly, hateful, shameful time — and yet he always tried to do the right moral thing — Tony Kushner owed Abraham Lincoln at least that same deference in rewriting the life of the man.