The film The Killing Fields is based on Sydney Schanberg’s New York Times article, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” Bruce Robinson, screenwriter of The Killing Fields, accurately adapted the facts presented in Schanberg’s account into this film. The historical events of Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran’s lives are fairly illustrated and not exaggerated to satisfy the blockbuster needs of Hollywood. If anything, the inability for a movie to cover such complex and extensive issues as America’s involvement in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge’s deadly reign, and Pran and Schanberg’s friendship in a two-hour time span significantly reduces The Killing Fields’s drama in comparison to the drama present during the actual historical events.
Many things in this film, for the sake of brevity, are glossed over. Some of the events omitted, such as Pran’s temporary position as “mayor” of a small village in Khmer Rouge Kampuchea, can be done so without detracting from the film’s overall quality. Other omissions, mainly in reference to Schanberg and Pran’s relationship, more seriously alter the history and negatively affect the film for this reason. For example, in The Killing Fields Pran is portrayed as blindly accepting and subordinate to Schanberg, whereas, in reality, Pran, like Schanberg, was a proud man. In the New York Times article, Schanberg recalls an instance when Pran stubbornly refused to translate information for him: “I wanted the whole truth. Finally [Pran] retaliated. ‘I can’t tell you the whole truth – I can only tell you 80 percent,’ he snapped. ‘Twenty percent I have to keep for myself '" (19). Later, when Pran escapes from the Khmer Rouge and is greeted by his life-friend Schanberg, Schanberg asks if he still gets “only 80 percent.” Pran responds with a resounding “No.” In Schanberg’s article, one can truly feel how this friendship grows, and The Killing Fields is a lesser film for lacking this detail.
Schanberg, Sydney. “The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia.” New York Times Magazine 20 Jan. 1980, 16-65.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Wendy Elizabeth Kuhn, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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