While watching the latest mini-series about the Titanic recently, I came to a realization that for all our talk of people being equal and our derision of a rigid class structure, we have still been discriminating against the poor and less famous in our depictions of the tragedy in film, theatre, and books. Sure, they feature in most of our retellings of the story – they are usually starring characters. However, despite all of the research conducted on the lives of the passengers and crew on the ill-fated Titanic in April of 1912, I have yet to see a real-life character from third-class (and rarely the crew) get a cameo appearance.
For example, in James Cameron’s epic film from 1997, the wealthy passengers get a name-drop at the very least, if not an actual line of dialogue. Actors were hired to play Col. John Jacob Astor IV, J. Bruce Ismay, and Benjamin Guggenheim, among others. Astor and Guggenheim have no interactions with the main characters – they are cameo appearances at best. Some of the other wealthy passengers are only pointed at and named, or are not named except in the cast listing. However, the only fictional first-class passengers are the heroine (Rose, as played by Kate Winslet) and her family. All of the guests at the dining table who are not members of Rose’s family are historical characters, whether or not they are portrayed accurately.
Staying with Cameron’s Titanic, the contrast is remarkable when it comes to the third-class passengers. Not a single third-class passenger named is a real character. James Cameron invented them all, from the Swedish men that (luckily) lost their tickets in a poker game, through little Cora and her family, to the young woman who fell from the stern of the ship while staring Rose in the eyes. They and several others did not have to be fictional – they had as much interaction with Jack and Rose as Ismay and Molly Brown. This theme is repeated in countless other fictional stories about the Titanic, including the aforementioned mini-series that I just watched.
It isn’t as though the writers do not invent characters in first-class – they do, usually main characters. I have no problem with this. There is nothing discriminatory in inventing third-class passengers, either, particularly when these characters are your protagonists, like Jack (and his travelling companion Fabrizio).
I completely understand why any writer tackling a historical event, even one with a set passenger and crew list, would want to create their own characters. Real people did real things, and many of them have relatives who would rather not see their loved ones (particularly ones who were tragically dearly-departed) portrayed as doing things that they really did not do, or portrayed doing unflattering things that they might likely have done. Even after a century, James Cameron had to apologise to the family of First Officer William Murdoch. Imagine if Rose had been a real woman – her family might not take too kindly to her being shown about to commit suicide, particularly if this was an embellishment to her story, and they might not have taken too kindly at all to her being shown having a love affair with a man from third-class if, in fact, that romance was entirely fictional. Better to create Jack and Rose out of whole cloth, along with their families and backstories.
But just as the first-class passenger list was set in stone, the third-class list was also not open for debate. Yes, there were issues of translation, families being recorded differently, and virtually no one was anyone whose name would sell newspapers. However, these passengers also had families and backstories, just like Astor and Guggenheim. It might be harder to work a name-drop into a scene of dialogue, but I think that could be remedied: the protagonist might introduce someone, someone might introduce themself to the protagonist, or at the very least the character could have a real name in the credits. The little girl called Cora, for example, could have easily been called Jessie, and portrayed as having five brothers and sisters, and hardly a change would have to be made to the film, since we have no idea how Jessie Goodwin and her family died. There are no Coras on the passenger list, but lots of little girls about her age, and any one of them could have been immortalized in her part. That is the beauty of their stories being less well-known, after all – Guggenheim was last seen in the Grand Staircase dressed in his finest, but most of the third-class passengers who did not survive merely vanished. The people who last saw them, or who knew their names, also perished.
Likewise, all of the other fictional third-class characters could have been real. James Cameron did not portray any of them badly in his film. In fact, all of them are composite characters: Jack’s friend Tommy, Fabrizio’s girlfriend Helga, the Swedish men that Jack and Fabrizio bunked with after their friends gambled away their tickets, and various cameo roles most evident during the sinking. However, the cameo roles in first-class are real, not composites. Astor and Guggenheim are not composite characters, but Tommy and Helga are. The woman who tells her children a bedtime story as the ship sinks, although she could have been real in the way composite character could, is not a person that one could look up on the passenger list. Why not? There were mothers with small children who did not survive, who might have indeed done what she did. While there weren’t actually many who were Irish (in fact, only one – why wasn’t the character simply called Margaret Rice and show with several small sons?), the character did not have to be Irish.
Why this bothers me is that it is blatantly discriminatory. The rich and famous characters from 1912 are still getting nods today, while the poor are still being shoved to the periphery – ironically going against what most of the writers want to portray. It is also unnecessary, because we have a list of everyone on the ship, and for the most part, we know where their last residence was. Thanks to painstaking research by genealogists, biographers, historians, and enthusiasts, we also have information about their lives and families, even those who did not survive – all compiled online for anyone to use should they actually want to write a story. Because of this, anything created in the twenty-first century should have no excuse. (I’ll even give James Cameron a pass on this one – a lot of the hype from his film drove research further, but he himself did not have access to this information.) Mini-series in 2012 should have at least some cameo appearances by real third-class passengers. The fact that writers are still not doing this is disheartening. Rich or poor, everyone on the Titanic was a real person, with a family, friends, a past, and hopes for the future. They were not composites or the “everyman” or parts of a faceless crowd, any more than the wealthy and (at the time) famous, especially after a hundred years.
For sure, I write about the characters of my choosing. However, if they are going to be in real situations, they are going to meet real people, and they will live and die among them. In the case of major disasters especially, whose story am I really telling, anyway?