Lots of TV shows and movies are “based on a true story”, but hardly any of them bother to be more than vaguely acquainted with the truth. Does this matter? My instinct is to say no, not at all: these are pieces of fictional entertainment and should be judged purely on how entertaining they are, not on how closely they hew to history. Leave strict accuracy to documentaries and let me enjoy Mel Gibson’s vision of medieval Scotland without bothering me with “facts”, please.
But sometimes doubts can creep in about this view of mine, intelligent and well thought out as it definitely is. The new series Chernobyl has become a massive hit, to the surprise of many, and as is the way of things, has also attracted more than its fair share of thinkpieces coming from every conceivable angle.
Chernobyl, for those who came in late, is the harrowing tale of the titular nuclear disaster, the people who were tasked with both cleaning up and covering up, and the way the Soviet system both caused the tragedy in the first place and militated against an effective or honest response.
The show has been lauded for its extraordinary attention to detail in recreating the Soviet Union in the 1980s, some saying it’s not just the best Western representation of that place and time on screen, but the best representation from any source. But while praised for its accuracy of setting, it’s also been attacked for fictionalising the story of Chernobyl and thereby misleading the world as to what really happened.
Again, my first instinct is: so what? It’s a TV drama, and if you think TV drama is real life, you need to wake up and smell the radiation. But no matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise, people do learn history from TV and movies. Moreover, the makers of Chernobyl have made a big deal over presenting their show as THE TRUTH – reflections on truth and lies are rife throughout, which assume a certain irony when you think about how much of the story they made up.
The problem gets more acute when you realise that the real story of Chernobyl, hushed up as it was at the time, is little-known. It’s also recent – just three decades ago – and involves issues that still have enormous relevance today. Spreading misinformation about what actually happened at Chernobyl feels more ethically dubious than spicing up the life of William Wallace or getting Mick Jagger to play Ned Kelly. Mostly, making stuff up about history doesn’t really matter, but when you see Chernobyl, you can’t help but feel that sometimes, maybe…it does.
But then, letting storytellers tell the story they want to tell, that matters too. Dictating to artists that they can’t use too much imagination is a real dick move: how do you not do that when you’re insisting that the truth be paramount?
Maybe the answer is simply to stop basing things on true stories at all. After all, for all the critical acclaim Chernobyl has gained, it’s over after five episodes, and Game of Thrones ran for eight seasons. Plus, nobody bitched that Jaime Lannister wasn’t speaking with a real Westerosi accent. Maybe if the makers of Chernobyl wanted to make stuff up, they should’ve had the nuclear plant destroyed by a dragon, rather than insisting they were giving us a history lesson before slipping in some good old-fashioned Hollywood bullshit.