Memoir confirms ‘Black Dahlia’ series on TNT a mishmash of fiction and truth

Fauna Hodel memoir
Fauna Hodel’s memoir bore little resemblance to the TV series it “inspired.” (Photo: Indie Art South)

After viewing the limited series I Am the Night on TNT, I was thoroughly confused.

It was hard to discern fact from fiction, and some of the events depicted in this “Inspired by a true story” production were simply too outrageous to believe. Having read the book the series was “inspired by”, I came to the conclusion the series was a mess.

I’d read about the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, dubbed “The Black Dahlia” by media of the day. The murder remains unsolved officially, although author and private detective Steve Hodel believes he has the answers. The series included the story of Fauna Hodel (aka Patricia Ann Greenwade) who was given away at birth in a private adoption. The TV series, in my opinion, was a mishmash of fiction and truth saved in part by some stellar acting performances by Chris Pine and Golden Brooks.

In hopes of making sense of the TV narrative, I purchased Fauna Hodel’s memoir, One Day She’ll Darken.

As I read the book, I realized so much was lost in the leap from the printed page to the TV screen. In the book there are no bizarre scenes witnessed by Fauna at her grandfather Dr. George Hodel’s mansion in Hollywood. In the TV series, Dr. Hodel visits Fauna’s adoptive mother Jimmie Lee, and he attacks her with a knife. That didn’t happen in real life. There was no single reporter Fauna Hodel bonded with—she paid her own way to Hawaii the first time she met her birth mother. Fauna was never drugged by one of Dr. Hodel’s wives, and the bogeyman in the TV series, Sepp (played by Dylan Smith), didn’t exist in Fauna’s memoir.

All those flashbacks Chris Pine, as Jay Singletary, experiences in the TV series based on his service in the Korean War, are fiction like Singletary, as I mentioned earlier.

A man who was a significant influence in Fauna’s life, Homer, is completely omitted from the TV series. Fauna makes it clear in the book that Homer voluntarily took the role of father to her, becoming a mate to Jimmie Lee, after the Reverend Greenwade left Jimmie. Fauna devotes pages to Homer’s influence and goodness. It seems a shame to remove him from the TV narrative.

I’m not the only one who had qualms about the TV series. Steve Hodel has been investigating the Black Dahlia’s murder for years, and he’s presented a theory, backed by some evidence, that his father (Dr. George Hodel) was the young woman’s murderer. Of the TV series, Steve Hodel wrote at his website:

“Fauna Hodel in fact never met my father in life… 

[and]

“I’m not at all pleased with the TNT fictionalized version, IATN. The viewing public cannot distinguish truth from fiction and assume what they are seeing is all true.”

Filmmakers may have opted to play up Dr. Hodel as a wicked genius capable of horrendous acts in order to gain viewers. Hodel was admittedly strange and Steve Hodel, judging by his website and books, thinks his father was capable of great violence. However, filmmakers missed opportunity in bringing the book to the screen.

Fauna Hodel was born to one of Dr. George Hodel’s daughters, Tamar, before being given away to a black couple, Jimmie Lee and Rev. Chris Greenwade. Although the birth mother’s family swore the baby’s father was a black man, that wasn’t true. Yet Fauna was raised by her black family who assured her she was of mixed race and that one day, she’d darken. The Hodels were white.

Fauna came of age as civil rights began to gain momentum in the body politic. Her memoir is a fascinating account of that day, and it’s even more fascinating to witness her trying to fit into one world or another. Black people questioned her racial makeup. So did white people. This conflict comprises much of the book’s narrative, and embedded in that conflict is the conflict with her alcoholic adoptive mother Jimmie Lee.

By the time Fauna learns who her birth mother really is, the daughter of a powerful connected man, there’s enough of a story in her personal travails to fill a miniseries without fictionalizing it. Fauna, despite being born to a wealthy family, at times experienced poverty in her upbringing. Whatever Jimmie Lee lacked in discipline, however, Fauna confirmed that her adoptive mother made great sacrifices to keep her well-dressed and provided for.

Some of the outrageous scenes in the TV series may have been included simply as a means of luring viewers. Fact is, the series missed a great opportunity by fictionalizing so much of the tale.

I’m still not certain if there were any sources for some of the claims made in the TV series about Dr. Hodel. I ended up buying one of Steve Hodel’s books in an effort to determine what may or may not have been true about the doctor. I will give my thoughts on that book once it arrives and I have read it.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend Hodel’s memoir. It’s a page turner, and her personal story was a unique tale of suffering and eventual triumph over a most dysfunctional upbringing. Seems to me the filmmakers could’ve done a far better job of sticking to a little more truth and a lot less sensationalism. There’s very little of the Black Dahlia in Fauna Hodel’s book, and far too much exaggeration related to the murder in the series.

Perhaps if the series had been extended, the two backstories—Fauna’s journey to find her birth mother, and the Black Dahlia murder tie in—would’ve unfolded more smoothly for the viewer.

(Kay B. Day/March 11, 2019)

 

 

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