When Fantasy Is Reality

Study shows why Hollywood is a bad teacher.
June 4, 2012

In the blockbuster movie Titanic, First Officer William Murdoch is portrayed as a ruthless villain who shoots two men as the ship goes down. Problem is that never happened. The real-life Murdoch was last seen launching lifeboats and likely died in the water.

Seeing isn't believing: Films such as Titanic don't float on facts. [Ralph White/CORBIS]

It’s no secret that Hollywood plays loose with the facts when dramatizing real-life events. A recent Duke study, however, says those inaccuracies tend to settle in students’ minds as truth, making it more difficult to teach what really happened. In the study, Duke undergraduate students read a short text about a historical event or figure before watching a five-minute clip from a corresponding movie. The films included Glory and Amadeus, which intermingle true events and dramatized action. When asked to identify the inaccuracies in the clips, students only managed to find 35 percent of them. Worse, the students asked to separate truth from fiction came away with just as many misconceptions as students who were asked only to watch the clips.

“Unfortunately, students aren’t very good at catching the major historical inaccuracies in popular films, even when explicitly asked to do so,” says Sharda Umanath, a doctoral student in Duke’s psychology department and lead author of the study. She says the study underscores the need for teachers to reinforce the differences between movie fantasy and reality.