Nothing Bad Will Happen - how fiction can corrupt our sense of reality by Griselda Heppel

Macbeth: unlikely to turn
readers into mass murderers


Today’s post may well raise a few eyebrows, coming as it does from a keen fiction writer and reader. Because I want to talk about something that’s increasingly been bothering me: the power of fiction to corrupt. 

I don’t mean that reading Macbeth might turn you into a mass murderer; nor am I talking about mingling fiction with history to make a better story (eg Netflix’s The Crown– though that habit is problematic in the way it plants events in the public’s unconscious that never took place. 

What’s got me going is a superb series on BBC 4 called Wild Brazil. The programmes are beautifully made, with extraordinary photography, closely following animal activity in the stunning Pantanal and wild mountain regions of Brazil, focussing on three species in particular: giant otters, coatis and capuchin monkeys.

Giant otters 

So what’s my problem? 

Here’s a clue: the BBC website describes the series as ‘an intimate portrait of the ingenuity and resilience of three different animal families as they face the seasonal extremes and fierce predators of the Brazilian wilderness.’ 

Look at the vocab: ‘intimate’ ‘portrait’ ‘animal families’ ‘as they face’. A realistic scientific documentary this is not, however accurate and well-observed the individual details of animal behaviour.
Coati


Wild Brazil follows the pattern of every wildlife programme made in the last few years, in that it takes fabulous footage of animals in their habitats and weaves it all into an emotional narrative. Viewers apparently demand anthropomorphism. We want to identify with these soft, furry, plucky little creatures, watching heart in mouth as, for instance, the baby otter launches itself for the first time into the fast running river seething with caiman.

Caiman


Except... you know what? My heart wasn’t in my mouth. Because the commentary can intone all it likes about the dangers surrounding the kit (50% of all giant otter kits never reach adulthood, we are told, and this was a family of 9); we, the viewers, know for absolutely certain that Nothing Bad Will Happen. We are invested in this small, supercute creature just as we are in the baby coatis and the baby capuchins; no way will the programme makers let harm come to him.

Capuchin monkey


And that’s my point. Wildlife documentaries nowadays are not dispassionate scientific observations. They are edited and crafted into cosy narratives so as not to upset the viewer with too graphic a reminder that nature is red in tooth and claw. Some death has to be shown, of course, to make them look more realistic. A jaguar pounces on a caiman (far from cuddly, so that’s OK). Even when the prey is small and cuddly – a mouse, for instance – that’s OK too because, crucially, we are not following the mouse family. It would be a different matter if we were. 

I know, I’m carping at a truly marvellous series about the riches of Brazil’s wildlife. But I’m left with the sense we’re being manipulated by the use of narrative into imagining we are watching the realities of nature, when actually they are being carefully softened for us. 

Fiction, that wonderful means to escape into worlds of imagination and excitement, is here being used to corrupt our sense of reality. And that isn’t good either for us, or for the natural world we should be trying to understand.

OUT NOW
FINALIST in the Page Turner Awards 2021
by Griselda Heppel, author of 

Comments

Peter Leyland said…
That intriguing opening Griselda made me think I was in for a critique of romantic fiction along the lines of Jane Austen's satire on the Gothic novel. Surprise, surprise when I got going... I should have looked at the pictures first (which by the way are superb) but by the end I was left wondering about fictional (or is it factional) truth?

And what after all is truth? a philosophical conundrum which I find myself addressing more and more as I get older. Do researchers in wildlife programmes just point a camera or is there more to it? Isherwood said about his writing in Goodbye Berlin, 'I am a camera'. I have little experience of cameras but like to record events in my own life. Did this really happen or am I just making it up, fictionalising?

Thanks for the post.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thanks, Peter, you hit the nail on the head - truth becomes more and more fuzzy as our means of ‘spinning’ everything gets more and more sophisticated. Just look at Instagram! I think with wildlife programmes the director decides from the start to follow individual animals or families - because anthropomorphism is all the rage right now - but then the shaping of the film is done in the editing process. E.g while filming the family of giant otters, they may well have witnessed the odd death among the 9 babies but either they didn’t film it or they didn’t include that bit in the final programme, being too upsetting for viewers who’ve been encouraged to identify with the otters. The programme makers are there for months on end, even a year sometimes - it’s just not possible that some of these cute creatures wouldn’t have come to grief but showing that would spoil the narrative!

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