“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible,” Janet Malcolm famously began her book The Journalist And The Murderer. Her subject was the lawsuit involving Jeffrey MacDonald, an American convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1970, and the writer Joe McGinnis, who befriended McDonald and wrote about his case.
MacDonald thought McGinnis was on his side. Shocked to discover that the journalist had tricked him and had decided he was guilty, he sued McGinnis in a case that was eventually settled out of court for $325,000.
Malcolm’s subject was journalistic subterfuge and bad faith. She wrote of the journalist as “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse”. The irony in the MadDonald case was that the journalist’s prey was an alleged killer. Who held the moral high ground there?
The vexed relationship between journalists and the killers whose stories they tell has been of lasting fascination to film-makers. Next month sees the re-release of a restored version of Richard Brooks’s In Cold Blood (1967), adapted from Truman Capote’s true crime “novel” about two drifters convicted of slaughtering a farming family in rural Kansas. Some critics felt that Capote had manipulated and betrayed the two young men whose story he told. They were eventually hanged, at which point Capote’s book was published.
“When lives are threatened, observers and recorders who shrink from participation may be said to betray their species: no piece of prose, however deathless, is worth a human life,” the English critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, implying that Capote had somehow failed the pair just as they were being sent to Death Row. This prompted Capote to accuse Tynan of having “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly”.
Rupert Goold’s recent film True Story dealt directly with the relationship between the journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and convicted murderer Christian Longo (James Franco). The twist here was that the alleged killer was the one using and manipulating the journalist. It all made a very rich subject for a character-based movie exploring ethics, deception and self-deception.
Jim Carrey is reported to be in the frame to star in the film True Crimes, based on the New York journalist David Grann’s investigations into the extraordinary case of Krystian Bala, a brilliant young Polish writer with a Raskolnikov complex who was convicted of murder after publishing a novel which seemed to contain clues to a crime committed a few years before. Its British screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, suggests that it will be less a straight adaptation of Grann’s original article than a fictional story inspired by it.
In all of these books and articles about writers and alleged killers, the journalist’s motives are seldom straightforward. They are unreliable narrators telling stories of unreliable narrators. Each is trying to use the other. There are layers and layers of irony and deception – and that is what appeals to the film-makers.
The movies that their jousting inspires may seem at first glance to be conventional courtroom thrillers or murder stories, but the original crime itself is always in the background. Their real subject matter is psychology, identity and the ever-shifting nature of trust and friendship.
‘True Story’ is on release now.
‘In Cold Blood’ will be re-released on 11 September