Novelist condemns Hollywood's yen to rewrite history as cultural imperialism
Fiachra Gibbons for the Guardian, 20th August 2001
The novelist Robert Harris yesterday hit out at the "cultural imperialism" and "sheer stupidity" of Hollywood films which reduce world-changing events to "slushy romances".
Harris, whose own thriller Enigma, about the code breakers of Bletchley Park during the second world war, has now been turned into a film starring Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott and Saffron Burrows, said the American reflex to rewrite history so they "always came out top" had become so deluded it was now dangerous.
"It's a form of cultural imperialism. No matter what the situation, or where the film is supposed to be set, an American has to be central, to be seen as the good guy, or to save the day in some way," Harris said. "This domination of the popular imagination has been allowed to go to ridiculous lengths. What worries me most is that it has become an almost instinctive reaction now, so you have British and European films incorporating these pointless American elements now too. That is very worrying and quite dangerous."
His fears were echoed at the Edinburgh book festival by the US novelist and screenwriter Gore Vidal, who said the twin American desire to "dominate and to be seen as entirely innocent at the same time... had led to the casual disregard of history and all its lessons. We now see ourselves as the one indispensable nation".
Their attacks follow furores over big budget Hollywood movies which have taken liberties with history, including U-571, which had the Americans rescuing an Enigma machine from a sinking U-boat, when it was the Royal Navy which pulled off the coup.
The capture of the machine which the Germans used to encode their messages was one of the turning points of the war, allowing the "boffins of Bletchley", led by Alan Turing, to read communications.
Harris said his book Fatherland was a victim of Hollywood dumbing down. But he added that he was delighted with the way the playwright Tom Stoppard had adapted Enigma. "Fatherland was supposed to be an all-singing, all-dancing number until the studio bosses consulted the target audience, 16- to 21-year-old Americans, and discovered that they didn't even know there had been a second world war let alone who had won it," said Harris. "Enigma is different, thankfully, it takes no prisoners in that way, it is very British, and it is also quite intellectually demanding for a mainstream movie."
Winslet, who attended Enigma's premiere at the Edinburgh film festival at the weekend, said she had no trouble playing the bespectacled heroine Hester, "a bit of a dumpy potato", in the film because she had been pregnant with her first child, Mia. "I just go so fat we had to strap everything in," she said. Combining motherhood and the pressure to look glamorous, however, had been a little more tricky. "I have to remind myself to check my clothes for carrot and snot before I go out. That's the main problem. But I'm lucky because I can take her to work."
Winslet, who is playing the Irish-born writer Iris Murdoch in her next film, alongside Judi Dench, admitted neither role would do much for her reputation as a sex symbol. "Iris is not my pulling film either. I look like a soap dodger."
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