Non-Fiction Adaptation as Propaganda: Dead Man Walking

By Hamilton, John R. | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Non-Fiction Adaptation as Propaganda: Dead Man Walking


Hamilton, John R., Literature/Film Quarterly


The researcher conducted an empirical-critical analysis of the development of Dead Man Walking, following its adaptation from real life events to Sister Helen Prejean's non-fiction book, from book to screenplay, and from script to its final embodiment in motion picture form.

From the naive altruism of a little white girl on her way to the convent ("Even when I was a child there was something in black people that drew me to them ... so raw, so earthy, so uncushioned . . ."), to being on the set while her book, Dead Man Walking, was being filmed, Helen Prejean's tale underwent a string of bendings and modifications. In a relatively short time, her memories of service to Death Row inmates in Louisiana's famed Angola "Farm" went through the literary adaptation process to become a surprise box office success in 1995.

Dead Man Walking is a quintessential '90s feature film project, illustrating the way an experiential event, ostensibly non-fictional, can become a type of persuasive fiction through its transformation to screenplay and thence into the medium of the cinema.

When a story comes from "real life," with its messy side-plots and lack of three-act structure, a film adaptation is even more tricky than usual. How did director Tim Robbins create a watchable story, and how successful was he in achieving an ideological balance which respects the families of victims in heinous murder cases? What transformations occurred from the book about killer Patrick Sonnier, to the script character of Matthew Poncelet, and on into actor Sean Penn's embodiment?

Prejean and Robbins both claim they did not wish to make a tract against capital punishment, but to try to consider evenhandedly families, victims, and public sympathies. An examination of the various steps of adaptation may reveal how well this goal was achieved, and delineate the processes by which one person's truth can morph into another's fictional manipulation.

Indeed there are four experiences involved, including those who knew the reality of the original incident, perhaps in a different way than Prejean's personal interpretations (e.g., victims' families, prison guards, the general public). How might the "audiences" for the four "media" react and respond to: 1) the man himself, 2) Prejean's portrayal of him in her diary-like book, 3) Robbins's adaptation to shooting script, and 4) the iconographic represensation on the screen, including changes made from the script during the exigencies and second thoughts of filming and editing?

To begin with, let us observe that "real life" is itself a selected adaptation from the totality of Reality around us. The mind and persona filter an uncountable number of possible inputs using the classic "selectives" of communication theory: selective exposure, selective attention, selective perception, and selective recall. From this we construct our own realities, some true to the creational givens 'round about us, and others extant in various states of distortion, bending, and/or wishful thinking.

Thus a documentary film crew or nightly news team, for example, is never presenting us with "the way things are," but with a view-point inescapably shaped by their perspectives, biases, unspoken agenda, and unavoidable mental grids. These are the natural result of years of home life, schooling, media consumption, religious or humanistic training, peer group emphases, and the like. The screen mesh of our lives consciously and unconsciously serves to winnow and sift out what seems like chaff to us, and keep in place the only "facts" which have "value" in our personal cybersystem.

Therefore, a resultant "documentary" or "non-fiction" rendering of an event is perforce our personal or group consensus propaganda about that event. Step One is already an adaptation, if you will, of life into a non-fiction book, periodical narrative, news account, etc.

The word "propaganda" is not always pejorative; it is rather being used in its most essential sense from the Renaissance as a "putting forth" or "propagating" of an idea. …

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