Robinson Crusoe: Based on a True Story*
Published nearly 300 years ago, Robinson Crusoe is regarded as one of the earliest novels written in the English language. The text’s widespread success throughout Europe immediately catapulted Daniel Defoe to literary fame and has since served as a sterling example of how captivating a “just History of Fact” can be (3). Well, sort of.
In the novel’s preface, Crusoe’s editor claims there is not “any Appearance of Fiction” in the entire work, delivering instant credibility and realism before ever reaching the first page (3). While the story is allegedly based on Alexander Selkirk’s experiences sailing near modern day Chile, the Scottish sailor was recast in favor of a more malleable protagonist – one that never actually existed (Selcraig). In four brief paragraphs, Defoe grounds Crusoe’s improbable epic, saving the story from being lost in a sea of previous nautical folklore. Though the editor’s note is far from factual, Defoe’s deceitful introduction continues to be imitated to this day.
Try going to a movie theater without seeing at least one preview that does not begin with “Based on a True Story” or “Inspired by Actual Events.” Horror films, sports flicks, and war dramas have all capitalized on blurring the line between fact and fiction. From MTV’s Hills to TLC’s Honey Boo Boo, the entire genre of reality TV is based on writing, producing, editing, and filming life in its scripted, natural state.
Admittedly, Defoe was not the first author to lie for a story’s sake. However, he was one of the first novelists to make a profit off of it. And as evidenced by the recent success of The Social Network, Argo, and The Conjuring, Hollywood still deeply admires Defoe’s ability to turn fiction into non-fiction, and non-fiction into dividends.
While Robinson Crusoe may have laid the groundwork for countless works after it, there are obvious dangers associated with bringing lies into literature. For instance, quotes can be tailored to illustrate the author’s opinions, races can be unjustly dismissed as savages, and entire cultures can be skewed by a single line of text. Despite these risks, the reward for manipulating and creating inaccurate accounts seems to trump any real-life ramifications, as the demand for reality entertainment continues to climb.
Though published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe’s legacy can still be seen on tablets, TVs, and movie screens to this day. Defoe not only provided a blueprint for the English novel, he also continues to influence scripts written today. Whether you Keep Up with the Kardashians or Remember the Titans, we all owe a debt to Daniel Defoe – and that’s no lie.
Defoe, Daniel, and Michael Shinagel. Preface. Robinson Crusoe: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1994. 3. Print.
Selcraig, Bruce. “The Real Robinson Crusoe.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Media, July 2005. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.