Just a warning, I talk about the new movie Gone Girl. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest reading this blog post after you have seen the movie.
I watched the blockbuster Gone Girl recently with some friends. Along with the rest of the audience in the packed theater, we gasped, we laughed (sometimes), we sat literally on the edges of our seats. But a reaction maybe only the three of us had was excitedly noticing a medical student in the corner of a hospital room while a patient is talking to reporters and detectives. The short white coat gave the poor guy away, standing awkwardly behind the patient. We empathized with his discomfort.
We also questioned, long after the movie was over, why the patient was allowed to the leave the hospital absolutely covered in blood. That doesn’t happen in real life. Even in the operating room, when blood or disinfectant remains on the patient, it’s cleaned off immediately. Most strikingly, I’ve seen patients have their hair washed in the OR because it would be rude to leave the post-surgical mess on them before sending them back to the floor (where their room is in the hospital). In those moments, the OR is kind of like a full-service salon too. Respecting patients includes providing them with bodily dignity. So seeing the patient in yesterday’s movie just walk out of the hospital drenched in blood was definitely unsettling, off-putting, and snapped me back into realizing that I was watching a fictional story unfold. For the remainder of the film, I was painfully aware that the scenes were just the enactment of a script, and to be honest, something as simple as that took away some of the intrigue.
Apart from the obvious “medical magic” that happens in movies and TV–fantastical ailments and their deus ex machina resolutions–there are more subtle errors that “break the fourth wall” of the narrative too. And in fact, for me at least, it is these errors–the blood left unwashed, the lapses and omissions in medical protocol–that are more likely to leave me questioning the judgment of the filmmakers, more so even than the doctors kissing in closets and the noncontagious illnesses that become violently airborne.I get it, though. Why invest in perfecting the details that few will notice and in fact most would prefer to leave inaccurate for the thrill of the stunning visuals that result? And especially when it comes to the term “medical drama,” everyone knows it’s really the drama that comes first and the medical is just there to add to the story. I’m sure those in the legal profession, law enforcement, aviation, politics, and other fields also take issue with how many aspects of their work are inaccurately portrayed in such stories as well, so medicine is not alone in this regard.
On a slightly different note, I think I’m also starting to understand why, as a writer myself, most of the stories I’ve written have revolved around things I know. I often write about people in medicine. I often write characters similar to myself and to the people in my life. Maybe it’s because accuracy is important to me (perhaps more than novelty, even), and I don’t want to make false assumptions about people and events that I feel I have no business writing about. It feels really weird to me that non-healthcare professionals write stories about medicine, non-lawyers write stories about law, and people who may not have true intimate knowledge of a country or people write stories about this culture that isn’t theirs. And yes, many authors do excellent research prior to writing. But is it fair? Is it enough? Where does authority come from in storytelling? Is it okay to tell anything less than the truth?
But it is fiction after all.