True to both worlds.Posted: January 16, 2015
Photo: a still from the film Apocalypto.
As part of research for my next novel, I re-watched the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto in my new home theatre setup. It was a thrilling multi-sensory experience. Mel is good at creating those. It’s clear he and his team did a ton of research, but used it to serve an already-existing agenda: namely, a parable about the moral decay of a civilization.
Even with my amateur knowledge of the ancient Maya, I got exasperated: Why are they in the jungle? Most of the Maya lowlands were cleared for agriculture. What the hell kinda creation story was that, told by the fireside? There’s nothing like that in the Popol Vuh. What time period is this? The film ends with the Spanish coming ashore, which didn’t happen until six hundred years after the urban centers were abandoned. And yes, the ancient Maya practiced violent human sacrifice—including by decapitation and heart excision—but on an individual level, never en masse. It might have made more of a cinematic spectacle, but it was counterfactual, and therefore, morally and spiritually untrue.
But there were also so many moments of truth in the film: The elites in jade, fanning themselves. The ghostly limestone quarries. A prized obsidian blade. Bloodletting like scattering corn.
I thought to myself, “If Mel had adhered to known historical fact for the whole movie, and not just some of it, not only would that be a stronger moral choice, but it would make a better story.”
But. How do I know that?
It’s an instinct I have trouble articulating. I feel that, by doing exhaustive research, by adhering to all that is known, by creating a story that could only have occurred within the parameters of what we know of the ancient Maya, I will write a better story than if I contradicted known data.
Because for an artist to accomplish her agenda in both the world of the book and in our day-to-day world, she must obey the rules of both, as well.
Back to the books.