'Chernobyl' Writer: What Really Happened, What Didn't and Why (Guest Column)

Courtesy of HBO; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
With 12 million viewers, Mazin's 'Chernobyl' ranks as HBO's most-watched miniseries since 2001 (Inset: Craig Mazin)

The writer-producer behind the Emmy juggernaut (19 nominations) explores the pressures to do the real-life 1986 tragedy justice — and the need to take a few liberties.

How do we tell the truth? More importantly — and here's the question every historian, documentarian, photographer and filmmaker of true events must confront — how do we tell the truth in such a way that people will listen? Even harder, how do we tell a story about the dangers of stories?

This problem occupied me for a long time while I was researching and writing the scripts for Chernobyl. It was clear to me that so much of what went wrong in the early hours of April 26, 1986, was the result of an all-too-human weakness for narrative. Someone tells a story, and it makes us feel powerful. Or loved. Or in control. Or safe. Or proud. This story must be protected and repeated. It must be elevated beyond simple narrative. It must become the truth.

Except it isn't. The narrative is still narrative, and the fact is still fact. We decide that 99 percent of scientists are mistaken, that they've placed their heat sensors too close to parking lots … and ice caps continue to melt. We concoct nonsense about vaccines and autism … and babies continue to get measles. We reassure ourselves that it would take nothing less than a total government conspiracy to bring down skyscrapers … and the world continues to be vulnerable to the havoc a handful of men can wreak.

I didn't want to be part of the problem. I didn't want to debase the truth. I committed myself to being as accurate as I could possibly be. And I honestly believe I was. But consider the arrogance required to think you can take two years' worth of existence — of people, decisions, events, reactions, conflicts and consensus — and represent it perfectly within five hours.

It's not possible. When you write an account of history, you choose what to portray and what to exclude. You choose perspective. You imagine conversations for which there are no records. You compress. You focus the events through a thematic lens.

The fact is, we must transform the complexity of reality into narrative because that is how humans instinctively process everything. Our brains narrativize information so quickly, we usually don't realize it's happened. A collection of facts hits our frontal lobe like shards of broken glass, and our minds go about the happy business of gluing them back together as if they were always meant to be that way. But just because we do it, is it right?

I'm incredibly proud of how accurate our show is. What you saw, what you heard and what you understood from the show is really, really close to fact. But is it better to tell 100 truths that no one hears or 99 truths and one lie that everyone hears?

It depends on the lie, of course. Do you intend to deceive or are you trying to express the otherwise inexpressible? Valery Legasov, the man portrayed by Jared Harris, spends much of the final episode of Chernobyl testifying at a Soviet show trial. In reality, he wasn't at that trial at all. If I abandon our hero in the final episode and introduce someone entirely new, if I violate the demands of the story-craving human mind, then who will pay any attention at all? Who will come to know what is true?

Legasov actually did face the same choices and dangers we depicted in that trial. He confronted them in the workplace. They manifested themselves through the internal politics of the Soviet scientific community, which would have required three or four hours of excruciatingly bad television. So I chose the demands of narrative.

But if I permanently obscure the truth, then I'm guilty of the same crime I'm decrying. This is why I created a companion podcast for the show; if I cannot escape the need to tell a story, at least I can tell another story about how I made changes to tell a story! I can hold myself accountable.

And here's the encouraging part. People listened. It didn't diminish their experience of the show. It enhanced it. What I took on faith, I now know to be so: The audience understands. They are completely capable of embracing a narrative and then exercising their curiosity to find out where the story strayed from fact.

As writers, now more than ever, we have to defend the truth. Happily, this doesn't require abandoning our narrative art. Quite the opposite! Hook 'em with a good story, and they'll come asking you for more. They'll come asking for the truth. And that is when you get to tell it.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.