BY DEFINITION, fiction is the creation of the writer, but several recent books and films raise the question, do novelists and playwrights have a literary license, or a moral right, to transmogrify real people and events in their works?
Four years ago, the film director Oliver Stone produced an outrageously spurious account of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, essentially presenting that tragic event as a vast conspiracy by the highest officials of the government to carry out a murderous coup d'etat. Many writers swiftly challenged Mr. Stone's bogus history, but the damage was done: One poll showed that three out of four people who saw the film believed it to be based on fact.
Now another acclaimed film, ''The English Patient,'' is coming under attack for serious factual distortion. The New York Times revealed that the film's romantic hero, Hungarian Count Laszlo Almasy, was not a pitiable man caught up in the chaos of war; rather, he was a willing and eager collaborator with the Nazi regime. Moreover, according to the Times' account, the object of Almasy's passionate entreaties was not a beautiful English woman, as the film depicted, but rather a young male officer in the German army.
Yet another film belongs right along with ''JFK'' and ''The English Patient'' as a historical libel -- none other than Arthur Miller's ''The Crucible.''
Mr. Miller wrote ''The Crucible'' in 1952 as an allegory intended to expose the McCarthy inquisitions as being the same kind of mass hysteria that occurred in the Salem witch-hunts of 1692. Nothing wrong with that -- if Mr. Miller had stuck to the facts.
The central character in his play is John Procter, an upright farmer in colonial Massachusetts who becomes involved in an adulterous affair with a young woman, Abigail Williams. This aspect of the original play was relatively subdued, but in the newly released film -- which was adapted by Mr. Miller himself -- the story gets sexed up to meet the minimum standards of tawdriness which Hollywood deems essential these days to get a line at the box office.
The trouble is, in reality, Abigail Williams was only 11 years old, and there is no evidence that John Procter ever had an extramarital affair with anyone. Probably John Procter, as a godly man, would have been more outraged at being falsely accused of adultery than at being accused of witchcraft.
Granted, Mr. Miller carries a brief statement as a preface to ''The Crucible'' that the play was ''not history'' and that ''Abigail's age has been raised.'' Still, he goes on to say that the characters were drawn ''in conformity to their known behavior.'' After that ambiguous disclaimer, the reader would have every reason to believe that Procter was an adulterer and Abigail Williams was a slut.
The real power of John Procter's story is not, as New York Times film critic Janet Maslin suggested, a ''dramatic tale of marital betrayal and infidelity'' but rather his willingness to confront rampant hysteria in order to stop the madness that was sweeping his community.
But for the courage of John Procter, and a few others like his devout neighbor Rebecca Nurse, who chose to go to the gallows rather than surrender their integrity, the death toll at Salem in 1692 doubtless would have been far greater than the 19 who were hanged as witches before the colony came to its senses. After all, tens of thousands were put to death in Europe and England at the same time during similar outbreaks of hysteria.
Ever since it first appeared, Mr. Miller's play has been studied by high-school English students for its rather ham-handed allegorical lesson. A far more useful text, I submit, would be Marian Starkey's exquisite little history of the Salem witch trials, ''The Devil in Massachusetts.'' That book appeared just three years before Mr. Miller wrote ''The Crucible,'' but you have to wonder whether the playwright ever read it, because he didn't even spell Procter's name correctly in the play.
When people like Arthur Miller, Oliver Stone and Michael Ondaatje (the Canadian writer on whose novel ''The English Patient'' is based) are called to account for playing fast and loose with the truth, they usually cite Shakespeare in their defense. And it is indeed true that Shakespeare, especially in ''Richard III,'' fashioned brilliant literature out of corrupt history.
But isn't this a spurious defense? After all, the writers could have invented their own names rather than use the names of authentic figures, and thereby have spared themselves the criticism they richly deserve.
In the original version of ''The Crucible,'' in his last words as he mounts the gallows, John Procter cries at the grimly fanatic Puritan judges: ''I have given you my soul; leave me my name!'' How ironic that this good, brave man's words would better have been directed at Arthur Miller than his persecutors at Salem 300 years ago.
Ray Jenkins is the retired editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun.
Pub Date: 1/06/97