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Truth be told

Fifty Dead Men Walking director Kari Skogland faced huge challenges in adapting the IRA informant memoir for screen, including criticism from the book's author, Martin McGartland.



When Canadian filmmaker Kari Skogland adapted Fifty Dead Men Walking---Martin McGartland's 1997 memoir of working as an informant against the Irish Republican Army---the events she choose to portray from the non-fiction book were also indicative of the battles she had to fight off-screen.

The film Fifty Dead Men Walking tells the story of McGartland's recruitment by anti-terrorism officer, Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley), as an inside man in the IRA and McGartland's attempts to thwart IRA violence by passing along key information to the police.

Skogland, whose last film was the Margaret Laurence adaptation The Stone Angel, responded to McGartland's book when she discovered "the voice of an everyman who rises to the occasion when the right and the wrong of things is harder to discern. That was a story that I felt was relevant to modern times," she says. "That was the story I wanted to tell. Not a political story, but a human one."

However, while McGartland was sure to name names and be faithful to his story in his book, Skogland distanced the movie from any suggestion of pure non-fiction. There is a prominent disclaimer at the end of the film that states McGartland did not approve the screenplay and his book provided inspiration for the story.

"The dumb thing is, is that he's since approved it," Skogland clarifies. "It was a bit of a tussle at one point, so we put that in there for his benefit, and he's since said how much he likes the film."

Skogland realized that the larger context of The Troubles---the Northern Ireland violent conflict that lasted from the 1960s to the mid-1980s---would have to be established for the audience, in favour of more detail from McGartland's story. As well, real people from McGarland's book would have to be molded into fictional characters for legal and practical reasons; for example, his four real-life police handlers were distilled into Ben Kingsley's weary Fergus. More information has come to light since McGartland's book was released about British informant activities within the IRA that Skogland wanted to use, to illustrate her point about "just how murky it was." While McGartland has since been mollified, these changes caused tension between the filmmaker and her subject while developing the film.

"I didn't want to make a political document---that wasn't my plan, and I think he did. I think he wanted it to be very anti-IRA, as compared to pro-IRA," says Skogland. "I wanted it to walk the line, because it was a human story, because it was about the fact that people, when they get involved in any extremist group---and you could argue that the government is an extremist group, only on the right side of the law---remain people that can do extraordinary things, both good and bad."

Skogland reports that Northern Ireland Screen---that country's version of Telefilm---initially said that they did not do films on The Troubles, but came around on the strength of her script. "The fact that it wasn't an us-versus-them movie," Skogland says.

"On the question of 'How do you tell a story within the dramatic paradigm?' You have to take certain license. My goal was to stay true to the spirit of what happened and who we were dealing with. I believe I achieved that, but I couldn't be absolutely accurate for all these other reasons."

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