The latest episode involved "Lincoln," and the revelation that Spielberg and his screenwriter, the Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner, took liberties depicting the 1865 vote on the 13th amendment outlawing slavery. In response to a complaint by a Connecticut congressman, Kushner acknowledged he'd changed the details for dramatic effect, having two Connecticut congressmen vote against the amendment when, in fact, all four voted for it. (The names of those congressmen were changed, to avoid changing the vote of specific individuals.)
In a statement, Kushner said he had "adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what 'Lincoln' is. I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters."
His answer wasn't satisfying to everyone. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd called on Spielberg this weekend to adjust the DVD version before it's released — lest the film leave "students everywhere thinking the Nutmeg State is nutty."
One prominent screenwriting professor finds the "Lincoln" episode "a little troubling" — but only a little.
"Maybe changing the vote went too far," says Richard Walter, chairman of screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Maybe there was another way to do it. But really, it's not terribly important. People accept that liberties will be taken. A movie is a movie. People going for a history lesson are going to the wrong place."
Walter says he always tells his students: "Go for the feelings. Because the only thing that's truly real in the movies are the feelings that people feel when they watch."
Carson Reeves, who runs a screenwriting website called Scriptshadow, says writers basing scripts on real events face a constant problem: No subject or individual's life is compelling and dramatic enough by itself, he says, that it neatly fits into a script with three acts, subplots, plot twists and a powerful villain.