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.