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.


  1. David,

    This is completely nuts. It also seems libelous, so to speak, to the entire state of Connecticut. Why create additional drama when the reality was that the vote was close?

    1. It all does feel vicariously vindictive against Connecticut. Playwrights and writers are infamous for hiding personal jabs and jewels in their work — aka Garry Marshall using his birthday in the opening of “The Odd Couple” TV series — and one wonders if this CT slight is a not-so-subtle jab from Kushner at Senator Joe Lieberman:

      TK: I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: Anyone that the Democrats run against Bush, even the appalling Joe Lieberman, should be a candidate around whom every progressive person in the United States who cares about the country’s future and the future of the world rallies.

  2. Once again the line between fact and fition has been blurred – and deliberately so. Does fact have to be turned into fiction for it to be entertaining ?

    1. That’s an excellent point, Nicola — it makes no sense — and Tony Kushner, I argue, has a greater responsibility to the truth because of who he is and what he has accomplished. He isn’t any work-for-hire hack. He has a reputation and a prudence to protect. He was adapting a historical biography for the screen!

      The fact that Kushner deliberately modified history, and is actually proud of it is just so incredibly disappointing because, you know, I know, and Kushner knows, that this movie will become the de facto “Lincoln Biography” shown in schools all over the world for the next century — and I ask you, how many teachers are going to stand up in front of their class when the movie is over and say…

      “Hey, you know that important voting part where the two representatives from Connecticut voted against making slavery illegal, well, it didn’t happen that way. The writer, Tony Kushner, who won a — ‘Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, an Oscar nomination, an Arts Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Laura Pels Award for a Mid-Career Playwright, a Spirit of Justice Award from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and a Cultural Achievement Award from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, among many others‘ — made it all up!”

  3. That was exactly where my thoughts were going – we just know it IS going to be used as a teaching aid. Maybe we need a fiction and non fiction rating for films – if not for us but for future generations.

    1. I want Tony Kushner to tell us why so much money was spent on costumes and sets if the entire production was not trying, as best they could, to be “historically accurate” in every sense.

      Then I want Tony Kushner to explain to Sally Field why her gaining 30 pounds to pay Mary Todd Lincoln was not really necessary to properly, and historically, fill out her character.

        1. I’d love to know what Spielberg thinks about all of this — and I want to know when, exactly, he found out what Kushner did, and what, if anything, he said or did to prevent that mangling of history.

          1. I am finding it quite hard to understand why they changed such an important detail – I really do not get it – and why would they want to set such a bad example – well they lied about this – how can we trust them on anything else . It really is a dangerous line to walk. It will be very interesting to see if there are any further explanations forthcoming .

          2. Right! It doesn’t make any sense, and the fact that Kushner is treating us all like idiots for expecting him to actually follow history and the lead of the Kearns Goodwin book he was adapting is especially infuriating:


            After Spielberg spills what he knew and when he knew it about the Kushner deception, I want Kushner to provide us with a list of everything he knowingly and willingly changed in his script to go against history and what really happened — and then give us an explanation as to why he made the changes.

    1. I would love to hear him honestly address the issue — including similar decisions he might have had to make against history with Schindler’s List and the like.

  4. This is a very interestin article article David. I cannot believe that someone would think that changing such a critical detail wouldn’t bring up any issues. Especially, such a critical detail such as a vote a crucial to history as that one. What’s next?

    1. If you’re going to write a historical drama — you need to stay tied to the important bits of that history — like, official votes on slavery…

      Otherwise, you might just as be making movies about Abraham Lincoln as a Vampire killer! SMILE!

    1. I still don’t get it, Katha, but Tony Kushner is doubling down on what he did is right in today’s NYTimes:

      And then there’s the kerfuffle over “Lincoln,” which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery.

      “They were trying to be meticulously accurate even down to recording the ticking of Abraham Lincoln’s actual pocket watch,” Courtney told me. “So why get a climactic scene so off base?”

      Courtney is pushing for Spielberg to acknowledge the falsity in the DVD, a quest that takes on more urgency now that Spielberg has agreed to provide a DVD to every middle and high school that requests it.

      Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright who wrote the screenplay, told me he was outraged that Courtney was getting his 15 minutes by complaining about a 15-second bit of film on a project that Kushner worked on for seven years.

      The writer completely rejects the idea that he has defamed Connecticut, or the real lawmakers who voted “Aye.” He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for “a blow-by-blow account,” it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama. It’s ridiculous. It’s like saying that Lincoln didn’t have green socks, he had blue socks.”

      He feels that if he had changed the margin of the vote, or made someone a villain who was not in real life, that would have been inappropriate. (He’s one-up on Shakespeare there.) But he wants “wiggle room” on some things.

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