Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Not quite non-fiction

I just finished reading Bringing Down The House, the story of how a bunch of students from M.I.T. who, working as a team, counted cards and learned how to beat blackjack, taking Vegas for millions over the course of a few years. It's all Heidi's fault that I picked it up in the first place - we've been watching more Vegas movies than you can shake a stick at. We just finished a 10 episode series that we picked up at Wal-Mart for 5 bucks called Vegas: The City The Mob Made which taught us more about Vegas than we ever thought there was to know. The other thing we learned from this series is that there is more than one way to interview people rather than just having them look at the camera. One guy was photographed from below, focusing on his jowls, and another guy was always shot in a Streisand-esque profile, hiding the other side of his face. As near as I can tell, he is disfigured on that side from a nasty chemical burn.

So all this Vegas stuff has really piqued my own interest in it. I picked up Bringing Down The House because the movie based on the book (21) is in the watch-instantly Netflix queue. I know one thing for certain, it was a fast read. It started out a bit on the slow side, but wasted no time in getting to the action. After that, it read so quickly that it took me less than a week to finish it. And what was even better was that it was all true.

Or was it?

As it turns out, great literary license has been taken with the story. While it is based on "true events," the story told in the book is not strictly true, with some parts heavily embellished and other parts completely fabricated. Much like The Amityville Horror, a book debunking THAT supposedly true story I just finished reading, Bringing Down The House would not pass a polygraph test.

I don't have a problem with a little bit of literary license. Who among us is not guilty of adding little bits to a story to make it better? I've done it many times, but the difference is that when I have done it, I have not completely made up whole sections of the story and then tried to pass it off as true. To do this and then proceed to market it as non-fiction is misrepresentation at best and outright deception at worst. I suppose the reasoning behind the embellishment is to improve the narrative flow or to make the story more interesting, but if you're going to do that, please label it as a novel or other work of fiction. A similar argument was used in the marketing of The Amityville Horror ("who wants to read a book about a non-haunted house?") But if you make shit up or combine characters or change the order of things, you can no longer call it a "true story."

While I enjoyed the book, I found myself a bit mad at it for its dishonesty. Hidden in Bringing Down The House is an intriguing story, but you just don't know what to believe. That was distracting and made the book less than recommendable. I'm curious to see what is changed in the movie version - perhaps that version will be more accurate and true-to-life, but I'm not holding my breath.


mary35 said...

In my opinion, the movie was even further off base. It was pretty exciting, but not even as "true" as the book.

Dan said...

*sigh* That's what I was afraid of.

I think the thing that bothered me most about the book is that the most dramatic things (the physical assault in the Bahamas, the theft of $75,000 worth of winnings) NEVER HAPPENED. It's almost as if the author felt that the story wasn't good enough to stand on its own.

I know this phenomenon is not new, but it really bothered me this time around!