Tasha: In 2013, as in every year of this millennium, we’ve seen a handful of prominent films advertised as “based on a true story,” and more are on the way as the fall prestige season kicks into gear: Fruitvale Station was one of the summer’s more notable and celebrated films. The Butler premièred a few weeks ago; Blue Caprice opened this past weekend. I previewed Steve McQueen’s much-praised upcoming 12 Years A Slave and Ron Howard’s racing drama Rush last week. Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is on the way. All of them feature the “based on a true story” tagline prominently emblazoned on their posters. And that’s not counting 2013’s many minor variations on the tagline: The Grandmaster went with “inspired by a true story” for the posters; Peter Berg’s upcoming Lone Survivor is billed as “based on true acts of courage.” Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is “based on actual events.” The surprise hit The Conjuring is “based on the true case files of the Warrens.” Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain was unusually bold, with a flat, declarative “This is a true story.”
In all these cases, whatever the exact wording, the “true story” tagline is meant to convey narrative authority, human interest, and a hint of respectability: The film isn’t some made-up stuff, it’s history. It’s real life. It’s meaningful, providing insight into the human condition that goes beyond what fantasy could provide.
Except in my experience, “based on a true story” movies are none of these things, because they invariably bend the truth at least a little, and usually a lot. At a minimum, they necessarily invent huge swaths of dialogue, but often, they invent virtually everything, taking history as more suggestion than fact. Frankly, “based on a true story” as a tagline turns me off a film faster than any other form of advertising, because it seems so disingenuous. Does the phrase really mean anything that “based on a play for respectability” couldn’t cover?
Genevieve: It’s interesting to see you list all the different permutations recent films have made on the “based on a true story” claim, Tasha. It speaks to the fact that these films are employing a nebulous, ultimately meaningless designation. The inverse of this is the “This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead” disclaimer that appears somewhere, either in the credits or more conspicuously, on pretty much every film (or novel, or TV show) that isn’t “based on a true story.” That claim is theoretically a form of ass-covering, a way to fend off potential libel suits, whereas the “based on a true story” claim is willingly opening itself up to specific comparisons between real life and what is, essentially, fiction.
But in the end, neither really means anything: Creators are always drawing on real-life experiences, either personal or more universal, and just because a work is “fiction” doesn’t mean it isn’t rooted in a true story. Witness (500) Days Of Summer, which opens with a disclaimer that reads “Any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental… Especially you, Jenny Beckman… Bitch.” Co-writer Scott Neustadter hasn’t actually confirmed that the inspiration for Zooey Deschanel’s character is named Jenny Beckman, but has has admitted that his script was inspired by an actual romance. So is (500) Days Of Summer “based on actual events”? It wasn’t marketed tas such, but it certainly seems that way. Conversely, the recent David Mamet-directed HBO TV-movie Phil Spector opened with an odd disclaimer stating that it is a work of fiction, although the film centers on the real-life trial of its titular fallen record mogul. But that trial is only a framing device for a much different story (which, full disclosure, I haven’t actually seen, only read about) about the leadup to the actual trial. Is that not “based” on real events? Leave it to Mamet to open a film with such a linguistic conundrum.
My point is, every narrative film is a work of fiction to some degree, so “based on a true story” essentially boils down to a marketing term. Personally, I don’t get too fussed about such things, though it seems you have a stronger opinion, Tasha. But even if it is nothing more than a marketing term, it’s a sticky one, especially when it comes to important, possibly tragic historical events—I’m thinking Zero Dark Thirty, Flight 93, or hell, Pearl Harbor. And then there’s the case of biopics, which cover a wide range of “truths” about their subjects. Do either of you consider either of these types of “true stories” more valid than others?
Keith: Let me make a case for “based on a true story” as something other than just a marketing tool. I recently rewatched the 1988 film The Accused, whose poster doesn’t say “Based on a true story” but does say “The case that challenged the system and shocked a nation.” That’s effectively the same thing, and while The Accused takes considerable liberties with the real-life rape case that inspired it, I think it’s important to know going in that it does have some basis in fact. In this case, it’s because the film is about the setting of a legal precedent, so knowing that its inspiration really did set a precedent helps give it greater context. And it also gives viewers a standard against which to judge whether the film works: Does what we’re seeing feel real? Does it feel like something that happened? For some films, saying “Based on a true story” is a way of announcing, “This happened in your world, so we’re going to take pains to make it feel grounded in the world you know more than a stylized movie-reality.”
That, of course, gets abused. Horror movies have lately been guilty of using “Based on a true story” as a meaningless hook. I’m not even thinking about The Conjuring, which was based on a real case, however much the film heightened the events. (Since there are no such things as ghosts, it heightens it considerably.) And sometimes the wording tries to manipulate too much, setting viewers up for a tale made all the more heroic because it’s real. (E.g. the Lone Survivor poster.) And sometimes films just lie, hilariously, to play with the convention. Fargo claims to be based on a true story, and I remember talking to people who vaguely remembered the real case at the time. (It never happened.) And I’m particularly fond of the title at the beginning of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints: “This happened in Texas.” (It didn’t happen anywhere.)
All things being equal, however, if something’s based on a true story, I’d prefer to know going into the movie. What’s wrong with that?
Tasha: To jump back to Genevieve’s unanswered question first… Biopics and historicals are equally problematic for me, for essentially the same reason: They both generally attempt to pare the complexities of the world down into a simple, honed, easily approached, emotionally evocative narrative arc. With biopics, this approach often involves defining an entire life via one formative experience or event. (For recent examples, see W., The Iron Lady, or J. Edgar.) With historicals, it usually involves glossing over complications (particularly unsympathetic behavior on the part of anyone designated as a protagonist), or villainizing or ignoring opposing viewpoints. I don’t consider either of these based-on-a-true-story subgenres inherently more valid than the other, or more valid than narrative films based on real-life events; in all of these cases, it’s more about an individual film’s approach, particularly its scope.
I generally feel that the more time and depth a movie tries to encompass, the less it’s likely to have to do with the truth, and the more artificial it’s likely to be. Paul Greengrass’ excellent United 93 achieves verisimilitude because it focuses on a narrow window of time and a small group of places, so it doesn’t have to elide over or omit as much real life to tell its story. It isn’t trying, like the biopics above, to gloss over decades in a few hours. But more than that, it values verisimilitude. Most based-on-a-true-story movies demonstrably don’t: They value emotional impact instead, generally at the cost of the truth. That’s what bugs me in all this: “Based on a true story” is a phrase used to get the word “true,” and the impression of truth, on films that sometimes have little or no relationship with the truth.
Yes, this can make for great movies. Keith, you cite The Accused, which is a powerful, emotional, well-acted, and seemingly well-intentioned film. But it still bothers me that it’s presented as a real-life landmark judicial case, when virtually all the key elements of the court case in the film are fictional. (There wasn’t a cheering crowd of non-participants watching the gang-rape at the center of the story; they weren’t separately prosecuted in a groundbreaking legal case; the victim was a married mother of two, not a judicially problematic young barfly.) That doesn’t make it a less moving experience on its own. But where’s the value in saying it stems from a true story? Especially if it then becomes most viewers’ only encounter with, or understanding of, the actual events, which were very different?
Genevieve, you say “based on a true story” is meaningless, but that doesn’t bug you. Keith, you say you like to know going into a film that it’s based on reality. So I have the same question for both of you: Why? Why isn’t it annoying to be asked to respect the truth value of something that isn’t true? What do you get out of a “based on a true story” movie that I’m not getting?
Genevieve: “Based on a true story” doesn’t bug me for the same reason “Based on the hit novel” doesn’t bother me: It’s just a starting point, not a directive about the lens we’re supposed to view a movie through. The movie is the movie, and it succeeds or fails on its own merits, by how well it tells the story it sets out to tell, not by how well it does or doesn’t adhere to a predetermined template. Getting too caught up in how the movie is being sold to us—be it as a supposed mirror of true events, or as an adaptation of a beloved pre-existing property—invites a certain A-to-B comparison that I think is detrimental to both how movies are perceived and how they’re made. Biopics and historical narratives aren’t meant to stand in for history books; they’re meant to evoke certain ideas or emotions that are pertinent to that person or event. How well they do that is a matter of adaptation.
Just as an adaptation of a novel ideally shouldn’t be concerned with hitting every beat and turn of the original book (though this unfortunately happens far too often), when it comes to “based on a true story” movies, the historical event or person is just the framing device. There are a million different stories that can be told in that frame, as you cite with your biopic examples, Tasha. Or witness World Trade Center, a film that took a drastically different approach to the same horrible day as United 93, with drastically different results. I realize it sounds a little crass to cite important historical events as fodder for adaptation, but few filmmakers—mainstream ones, at least—set out to make a movie with the mission of showing things exactly as they happened. That’s the purview of documentary, not narrative filmmaking. (And even in the case of documentary, comprehensiveness is rarely achieved, or even attempted.) Narrative filmmaking is meant to entertain and enlighten, to tell a story. Real-life events don’t unfold in a neat, entertaining narrative that adheres to a broader theme or message; they must be adapted into a story that does so.
So while I agree with you, Tasha, that it’s somewhat irksome to be hammered over the head with “Based on true acts of courage”-type pre-release propaganda, I don’t find it an immediate turn-off the way you do. It’s no more or less annoying than any other type of pervasive film marketing. It’s simply a signal that, “Hey, real-life events inspired someone to write this story, which will hopefully be compelling in its own right.”
Keith: I’m just going to echo Genevieve. It’s a “the more you know” situation, really. Knowing going in that a film is based on a true story is akin to knowing who wrote and directed. (Though, before you raise the issue, not as important.) It’s a good fact to take into a movie, even if it ultimately doesn’t have that much to do with whether or not the movie’s any good. Citizen Kane, which makes no “based on a true story” claims, would be brilliant with or without the knowledge that it’s inspired by William Randolph Hearst. But knowing what I know about Hearst only makes me appreciate what the movie’s up to even more.
Let me pose a hypothetical question: Would you like Zero Dark Thirty more or less if you somehow had no idea that it was based in fact?
Tasha: I admit I would like Zero Dark Thirty less if I didn’t know its background, largely because the film on its own doesn’t do much to contextualize what’s going on. We’re expected to know this context: The protagonist is hunting Osama bin Laden, and we already know who he is and why she wants him, and why she’s willing to go to any extremes to get him. The real-life setting in this case grants her actions and motivations an intention not fully spelled out within the film itself. So in that sense, I can see “based on a true story” helping, by shorthanding things the film doesn’t need to spell out. That’s certainly some grist for thought for me.
But Genevieve, you say the “based on a true story” tag is “not a directive about what lens we’re supposed to view a movie through,” and I absolutely disagree. As I said at the beginning, I think it is a directive, a demand that viewers consider a narrative impressive and authoritative specifically because it’s “real,” and interpret what happens within a given film as “the truth.” And that’s probably the core of my problem: I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to think or feel about a movie, especially if what I’m being told is a self-serving lie. I don’t like it any more than I like it when soaring strings or a whimpering piano line crashes into a film scene to demand a specific emotional reaction. As much as possible, I want to preserve the illusion that I’m appreciating a film’s aesthetics without being ordered to experience them in a particular way.
Here’s what “based on a true story” evokes for me. When Disney’s Pocahontas came out, I read a couple of gushy interviews featuring Disney PR flaks talking about how it was educational, a film kids should experience as a valuable conveyer of American history. Then when the film opened, and critical outlets griped about the massive historical inaccuracies—including a happy ending where the white settlers pack up and go back to Europe—I read one interview where a Disney representative answered the accusations dismissively. The tone was, “This is entertainment, and it’s meant for kids. Why are you taking it so seriously?” This isn’t necessarily Disney’s fault; the two messages didn’t come from the same person, and it’s hard for a company that big to get everyone marching in message lockstep. (Though if anyone could, it’d be Disney.) Still, this example stands out for me as encompassing the central hypocrisy of “based on a true story,” the attempt to have it both ways: to demand the respectability of “This really happened!” while not operating under any obligation to what really happened.
Genevieve: Tasha, you say you don’t like being told how you’re supposed to view a movie, and I get that, but I just don’t share your outrage over it, which I think is what our disagreement fundamentally boils down to. I just can’t get upset about something that’s so easily ignored. You equate “based on a true story” hype with oppressive music cues, but you’re talking about two different things; the music is part of the movie, part of the story. The “based on a true story” tag is, to use our colleague Scott Tobias’ term, extra-textual. I’m not as hardline as Scott about such things, and I’ll admit that in some cases, knowing the true story a film is adapting might make me more or less inclined to see it, or appreciate what it’s trying to do. But it’s never going to turn me off of something simply by its inclusion.
Keith: Fair enough, Tasha, but it still feels to me like you’re blaming the label and not those who abuse the label. “Based on” and “Inspired by” are not synonymous with, “This film is exactly like it really happened” and movies shouldn’t feel obligated to conform to documentary-like accuracy unless they make that claim. And it’s not like it’s better not to know if a film has real-life roots. Personally, I enjoy researching the inspiration after seeing a film and seeing where it aligns with the facts and where it diverges from it. It’s yet another way filmgoing can be an enlightening enterprise beyond the experience of watching the movie itself.