Murder at Harvard v. Dead Certainties

This film isn’t really a documentary of the Parkman-Webster murder case. Instead, it’s more a documentary of the writing of Dead Certainties. Schama says that the point of both is to try to figure out what really happened. However, the film goes further, intertwining the story of the case with an explanation of Schama’s thought process in writing the book and the methods he used to develop his version of the story. It uses the expository mode of documentary filmmaking, as explained by Bill Nichols, which is a method that “emphasizes verbal commentary and an argumentative logic.” All elements of the film (the voice-of-authority commentary, logical rhetoric, images, historical information, expert testimony) are combined together to recount the history of the case and support Schama’s arguments about it, something which Nichols claims is essential to documentary film as a genre. The film is nonlinear, jumping between recreations of the trial, its historical context, the story from the perspectives of the major players, Schama’s writing process, and the views of prominent historians.

The film and the book present different material, starting with the story structure. In the film, Webster is presented first and is shown very sympathetically. Parkman is then shown negatively. This immediately causes bias towards Webster rather than Parkman, which is enhanced by the presentation of Littlefield as a macabre and bitter man who should have been one of the main suspects. The book tells these stories reversed, with the tale of Webster coming after Parkman and Littlefield, making Parkman the sympathetic character and Littlefield seem misunderstood. There is also a lot of historical information presented in the film but not the book, including the Boston Brahmins, how the case fit into Boston’s history and society, the media frenzy, and the effects of the case. This contextualizes the case in the film in a way that is impossible in the book, making the book seem more like a historical novel than a piece of scholarship. Finally, the film’s focus is different. It looks much more closely at the ambiguities and contradictions of the case. The book makes it seem more cut and dried, while the film shows the fact that the evidence is inconclusive. While both eventually come to the same conclusion, that Webster murdered Parkman, the film is much more focused on a logical argument which examines all sides and evidence before arriving at this decision.

This conclusion shows some of the danger inherent in presenting history in less traditional formats. Neither the book nor the film is objective history, although the film makes more of an attempt. Both present information which is imagined by Schama. He even creates scripted scenes, which he explains by saying, “I felt I had enough information to put words in these characters’ mouths.” While in the film he immediately follows this with historian testimony explaining the problems with doing this, he is still presenting it as history. He acknowledged that he was crossing the line between history and fiction. At one point in the film, based on the feelings and motivations he assumes Littlefield had, he declares him to have been innocent, something which can not be proven. It doesn’t matter how much research he did or how much these added elements could have been true, he is still making things up and presenting false information as history. This will misinform people. As Daniel Willingham explained, people will remember the false information as truth unless they are given specific warnings about what was made up. Schama does this in the film, but not in the book. In the book, the reader has no idea what is real and what isn’t. Because of this, writing historical fiction and trying to pass it off as legitimate is a dangerous way of presenting history.

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3 Responses
  1. jlapple says:

    Your posting had several valid points which provoked a few thoughts.

    First, your comment about the film’s departure from linearity was interesting because of the parallel to history. Even though you were discussing it in the context of how the film was structured, it made me think of how often history is presented as a clear-cut linear progression of events, when that is not often the case. In this light, the film does justice to organic nature of history, placing an emphasis on history as created and recreated through the perspectives and insights of many voices. This allows history to be viewed as an ongoing process of information gathering and presenting, rather than the strict linear presentation that is often the approach of early education systems.

    Second, you made an interesting point about the order in which the characters are presented. While this does create an unfair bias, especially in a historical context, it can also be viewed as a useful tool in storytelling. The creator can direct the viewer’s focus to certain characters that will make the story as compelling and as engaging as possible. For example, should the villain be introduced first, to create an immediate suspense? Should the story start in the middle of the action? Just a thought,

  2. cwarburton says:

    I thought you made some good points as well. Your comment about the film being nonlinear was very interesting. Personally I think it’s very difficult to pull of a non-linear storyline on film. At least it’s much harder than a book. I found this true with reading/watching the Time Traveller’s Wife. The book was good, the movie, very stilted and confusing (and all through it I was glad that I had read the book so I knew what the plot was!). I found the same to be true with Schama, the book, though non-sourced, was at least easier to follow, while the movie seemed to go off on different rabbit trails and became confusing. I think this is something to keep in mind, particularly for this class when we will have very little time to construct a non-linear story. I think it’s very appealing to people, but difficult to pull off.

  3. Chris King says:

    I agree with you (and Jenny and Carrie) regarding the nonlinear nature of the film. Jenny also has an interesting thought about the organic nature of history versus the clear-cut linear progression of history books. And while I also agree with you that neither the book nor the film can be considered objective history, an interesting thought occurred to me as I was making my other blog comment tonight.

    The objectivity of both book and film can be questioned separately, but what about when considered together? If you add in the website, suddenly we are talking about transmedia after the fashion of our Henry Jenkins reading. With the book providing the narrative, the film revealing the process of researching and writing history, and the documentary’s website presenting the written sources, suddenly we are looking at the whole package. A traditional history told with three different media channels.

    The dangers of presenting history in less traditional formats is not reduced, however. If the audience is unaware of the need to consult three distinctly different sources to get the full historical experience, it is not doing the readers a service. The readers need to understand that they need to read the book, watch the film and consult the website before making their conclusions. In this both Schama and the filmmakers fail. To me, this just highlights the need to get a better understanding of how to integrate less traditional formats into the scholarship!