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May 19, 2011

Book Notes: No need to embellish a good story

---- — For some reason Hollywood seems to think that to make a movie watchable, it has to change a perfectly inspiring true story and make it more “dramatic” in their eyes. It is especially galling when the truth  is riveting enough withoutchanging it, or when it makes one of the characters out to be a complete doofus. In a recent column, I mentioned how much the producers took literary license with “Amelia” to make Amelia Erhart a bigger icon and sleazebag (i.e., adulterer) than she actually was or needed to be. She was an impressive figure without the added hullabaloo or innuendo. The end result was a miserable film.

This practice is even more irritating when the film is actually good. About 20 years ago there was an inspiring “true” story called Rudy that depicted a poor, pint-sized football player who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame in the 1970s. Through hard work and determination he actually got accepted to the school, made an appearance in the last game of his senior year, and was carried off the field.

It sounds like the perfect end to a perfect story. The only problem is that the director decided that an evil character  was necessary to give the film moregravitas. He convinced Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine to take on the role of antagonist in order to make the story more “dramatic.”

The coach appears as a cold-blooded snob that wasn’t even planning to suit Rudy up for the game let alone play him. According to the film, Devine only put him in after the entire team and crowd started chanting “Rudy.” The truth is that the coach had always planned on playing  him. Letting facts get in the way of a good story simplyleft Devine tarnished for life as a callous jerk.

Today, the best example of misrepresentation or “literary license” is “The Blind Side,” a movie that came out in late 2009 starring Sandra Bullock (who won the Oscar for Best Actress that year).

t’s a wonderful story of a homeless African American, Michael Oher, who overcame poverty growing up in a Memphis ghetto to graduate from college and play football in the NFL. Bullock portrays Leigh Ann Touhy, the wife and mother of the white family who takes Michael in and provides him with the stable home life he had never experienced.

What was most amazing about the story was that Michael apparently didn’t have the slightest clue of how to play football. There’s a scene where the son of the Touhys is using salt and pepper shakers to educate Michael on the basics of running a play. It’s quite impressive that someone could go from complete cluelessness about football to being heavily recruited by major colleges in less than two years. Of course, it isn’t true. It turns out the real Michael Oher didn’t exactly appreciate being portrayed as a boob when it came to football. He had  played the sport his entire life. It helpedinspire him to write his autobiography, “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond.” The book is a terrific rags-to-riches story of perseverance.

There was no need to embellish the movie script to make “The Blind Side” more “presentable.”

Oher’s book itself is eminently readable but lacking in depth in certain areas. He certainly covers his childhood and how he escaped the ghetto, but glosses over his high school years and pretty much skips his college career at Mississippi. Oher basically wants to talk about what it takes to escape poverty and make something of oneself, and put to bed the myth that he didn’t know anything about football. He  certainly succeeds in those areas. Both “Rudy” and “The Blind Side” are highly entertaining and inspiring movies. But they expose the idiocy of Hollywood and the need to embellish a good story.

It’s not necessary. As Michael Oher reveals in “I Beat the Odds,” truth is sometimes better than fiction.

The library has just received a copy of a new book by Oneonta resident Jim Loudon called “Electric Lake: Oneonta’s Forgotten Gem.” It is the story of a manmade lake that once served as one of the city’s main recreational attractions.

The 50-acre pond was drained in 1954 after the New York State Electric & Gas Company ceased operations at its hydroelectric plant in Oneonta. The book provides a nostalgic look at a bygone era in Oneonta history. It is being celebrated in  an exhibit at the Greater Oneonta HistoricalSociety at 183 Main Street in Oneonta. The special exhibit runs through June.

DAVID KENT is the Cooperstown village librarian.