An interesting story about Elie Wiesel (artist and Holocaust survivor) objecting to being a character in a fictional play despite being portrayed as the exemplar of decency and morality:
[Playwright Deb Margolin] says she used Wiesel’s persona in her three-character play (which includes Madoff’s secretary) because “his name is synonymous with decency, morality, the struggle for human dignity and kindness, and in contrast to the most notorious financial criminal in the past 200 years. That’s why he was there, and I felt I had treated his character with great respect — the respect that I genuinely have felt for him.”
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity had all its assets, $15.2 million, invested with Madoff and lost them when the Ponzi scheme unraveled. In addition, Wiesel personally lost several million dollars to Madoff.
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said the Wiesel Foundation was uncomfortable with having its founder’s name used in the play, but early on Wiesel had not objected. “It wasn’t until Wiesel read the play and found it to be exactly as Deb purported, a work of fiction . . . [that] Wiesel didn’t consent to it,” Roth says.
It reminds me a bit of a difficult conversation I had a few years ago with Evangeline about a blog I was writing at the time. I had given her a pseudonym then as now, but unlike now the readership largely consisted of people that knew her. As such, mutual friend Kelvin had discovered the site and I needed to tell her about it before he did. She was not depicted as evil, but she was depicted as someone that had treated me poorly and left me in a pretty wrecked state. It was kind of the opposite of Wiesel in that the portrayal was mostly accurate but her persona was not specifically her. And unlike Wiesel, she was definitely not portrayed as an exemplar of decency.
Anyhow, after I explained it to her, she actually had no problem with it and looked forward to reading it. She said, “I am a creature of ego and not self-esteem.”
Despite the many differences with Wiesel, my mind makes the connection because of that distinction. Despite the fact that Wiesel was portrayed positively and his presence was put in a place that it never was in real life, he objected to it. He didn’t need the ego injection that Evangeline did, I suppose. The sense of being important - whether as the villain or the hero.
From a writers’ standpoint, it’s an interesting question what liberties we are and are not allowed to take. What kind of protection should celebrities and public officials have in protecting their likeness from being fictitiously portrayed? What kind of protection should private citizens have? And on citizens and public personalities, at what point does a fictional portrayal become capitalizing on someone else’s likeness, which is something we generally frown down upon. Living in a predominantly black neighborhood, Obama’s likeness was everywhere and available on every possible article of clothing. A movie was made about a fictional assassination of George W. Bush but that was okay because it was art. And obviously, a lot was fictionalized in Oliver Stone’s W. and Nixon for the sake of story. And that’s okay because, again, it’s art.
Is it different for public officials than it is for celebrities? The show 30 Rock had a plot where Jenna was going to play Janis Joplin in a biopic but they couldn’t secure the rights. What kind of rights are required (other than the rights to Joplin’s music, which the show addressed differently)? Or was 30 Rock just having fun with copyright elements that don’t actually exist?
For a writer, I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions and more like I probably should. I am in the camp of fictionalizing as much as possible. This is not news to Hit Coffee readers, but it’s also true in my fiction. The President, if portrayed, is never the actual president unless he absolutely has to be. Microsoft doesn’t exist. The movie stars will never be Tom Hanks and the dirty celebrities Paris Hilton unless it’s such a passing reference that I need the instant recognition.