Will 'The King's Speech' Lose the Oscar for Rewriting History?


It's an Oscar season tradition as old as the red carpet and complaints that the Academy Awards ceremony is too long: Every year, in the weeks and months before the Oscars, nominated movies are attacked for playing fast and loose with the facts.

This year, the two top Oscar contenders attracting the most criticism for factual inaccuracies are The King's Speech and The Social Network. As The Wrap pointed out last week, The King's Speech—which has been nominated for 12 Oscars—is the victim of two recent attacks for its take on British history: Christopher Hitchens wrote for Slate that it "perpetrates a gross falsification of history," while the New York Review of Books' Martin Filler criticized the film for ignoring the fact that its subject, King George VI, was widely considered to be a "nitwit" and a "moron."

Slate went after The Social Network as well, pointing out that its depiction of power dynamics at Harvard "is as black-and-white as it is outdated." The Awl had much harsher words for the film after it won the Golden Globe for best drama last month: "Any film that treats history as flippantly as The Social Network does deserves to be taken as seriously as the new Yogi Bear adaptation."

This kind of hand-wringing is nothing new, of course. Last year's Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker, was attacked for being an unrealistic portrait of the war in Iraq. Here at The Atlantic, former infantryman Brian Mockenhaupt wrote that the filmmakers "tried so hard to make a great and important film that they transformed their story into caricature." Writing for Newsweek, a veteran said, "those of us who have served in the military couldn't help but be distracted by a litany of inaccuracies that reveal not only a lack of research, but ultimately respect for the American military."

As far back as 1930, the World War I film All Quiet on the Western Front attracted criticism for its pacifist stance on war—the American Legion organized a boycott against the film. But the Academy gave it a Best Picture Oscar nonetheless.

Indeed, though much gets written every year about whether a film's factual inaccuracies will hurt its awards chances, there are very few cases of Oscar contenders losing out because of their bad history. One of the only examples of this happening was in 1999, when Saving Private Ryan was up against Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture. After Spielberg's World War II film came out, his research methods were questioned, and the Oscar went to Shakespeare instead.

This year, such an upset is unlikely to happen. History suggests that the Academy agrees with Aaron Sorkin's take on movie-making: As the Social Network screenwriter told New York magazine this fall, "I don't want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling."

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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