Based On True Story Movies Comparison Essay
Frontiers are always changing, advancing. Borders are fixed, man-made, squabbled about and jealously fought over. The frontier is an exciting, demanding – and frequently lawless – place to be. Borders are policed, often tense; if they become too porous then they’re not doing the job for which they were intended. Occasionally, though, the border is the frontier. That’s the situation now with regard to fiction and nonfiction.
For many years this was a peaceful, uncontested and pretty deserted space. On one side sat the Samuel Johnson prize, on the other the Booker. On one side of the fence, to put it metonymically, we had Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. On the other, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Basically, you went to nonfiction for the content, the subject. You read Beevor’s book because you were interested in the second world war, the eastern front. Interest in India or Kerala, however, was no more a precondition for reading Roy’s novel than a fondness for underage girls was a necessary starting point for enjoying Lolita. In a realm where style was often functional, nonfiction books were – are – praised for being “well written”, as though that were an inessential extra, like some optional finish on a reliable car. Whether the subject matter was alluring or off-putting, fiction was the arena where style was more obviously expected, sometimes conspicuously displayed and occasionally rewarded. And so, for a sizeable chunk of my reading life, novels provided pretty much all the nutrition and flavour I needed. They were fun, they taught me about psychology, behaviour and ethics. And then, gradually, increasing numbers of them failed to deliver – or delivered only decreasing amounts of what I went to them for. Nonfiction began taking up more of the slack and, as it did, so the drift away from fiction accelerated. Great novels still held me in their thrall, but a masterpiece such as Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venusmade the pleasures of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin seem fairly redundant. Meanwhile, my attention was fully employed by shoebox-sized nonfiction classics such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Caro’s life of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, or Taylor Branch’s trilogy about “America in the King Years”: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan’s Edge. I learned so much from books like these – while I was reading them. The downside was that I retained so little. Which was an incentive to read more.
I look forward to the day I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history
While it’s important not to convert prejudices into manifesto pledges, my experience is in keeping with actuarial norms: middle-aged now, I look forward to the days when I join that gruffly contented portion of the male population that reads only military history. More broadly, my changing tastes were shaped by a general cultural shift occasioned by the internet, the increased number of sports channels and the abundance of made-for-TV drama. Not, as is sometimes claimed, because they’re making us more stupid, rendering us incapable of concentrating on late-period Henry James (which I’d never been capable of concentrating on anyway), but because our hunger for distraction and diversion is now thoroughly sated by all the football, porn and viral videos out there.
As a consequence, the one thing I don’t go to fiction for, these days, is entertainment. Obviously, I still want to have a good time. I share Jonathan Franzen’s reaction to the joyless slog represented (for him) by William Gaddis’s JR but I don’t want the kind of good time that ends up feeling like a waste of time. Chaired by Stella Rimington, the Booker year of 2011 was in some ways the belated last gasp of quality fiction as entertainment – or “readability”, as she called it. It was belated because David Hare had provided the epitaph a year earlier when he wrote that “the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’” (which sometimes feels like the aspirational, if commercially challenged, cousin of genre fiction).
Within the sprawl of nonfiction there is as much genre- and convention-dependency as in fiction. Nicholson Baker has argued persuasively that a recipe for successful nonfiction is an argument or thesis that can be summed up by reviewers and debated by the public without the tedious obligation of reading the whole book. In exceptional cases the title alone is enough. Malcolm Gladwell is the unquestioned master in this regard. Blink. Ah, got it. Some nonfiction books give the impression of being the dutiful fulfilment of contracts agreed on the basis of skilfully managed proposals. The finished books are like heavily expanded versions of those proposals – which then get boiled back down again with the sale of serial rights. Baker’s study of John Updike, U and I, on the other hand, is irreducible in that there is no thesis or argument and very little story. The only way to experience the book is to read it. Which is exactly what one would say of any worthwhile piece of fiction.
The appeal of Touching the Void is dependent absolutely on Joe Simpson being roped to the rock face of what happened
Don’t let me be misunderstood. The novel is not dead or dying. But at any given time, particular cultural forms come into their own. (No sane person would claim that, in the 1990s, advances were made in the composition of string quartets to rival those being made in electronic music.) Sometimes, advances are made at the expense of already established forms; other times, the established forms are themselves challenged and reinvigorated by the resulting blowback. At this moment, it’s the shifting sands between fiction and nonfiction that compel attention.
The difference between fiction and nonfiction is quite reasonably assumed to depend on whether stuff is invented or factually reliable. Now, in some kinds of writing – history, reportage and some species of memoir or true adventure – there is zero room for manoeuvre. Everything must be rigorously fact-checked. The appeal of a book such as Touching the Void is dependent absolutely on Joe Simpson being roped to the rock face of what happened. In military history, as Beevor commands, no liberties may be taken. As the author of many nonfiction books which are full of invention, I second this wholeheartedly.
The manipulations and inventions manufactured by Werner Herzog in the higher service of what he calls “ecstatic truth” leave the defences of documentary at large dangerously lowered. In my defence I would argue that the contrivances in my nonfiction are so factually trivial that their inclusion takes no skin off even the most inquisitorial nose. The Missing of the Somme begins with mention of a visit to the Natural History Museum with my grandfather – who never set foot in a museum in his life. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do Itwas categorised as nonfiction because that’s what the publishers deemed most likely to succeed – ie, least likely to sink without trace. One of these “travel essays” – as the book was packaged in America – involved a psychedelic misadventure in Amsterdam, climaxing with a peculiar occurrence in a cafe toilet. Most of the story – which had originally appeared in an anthology of fiction – is a faithful transcript of stuff that really happened, but that incident was pinched from an anecdote someone told me about a portable toilet at Glastonbury. All that matters is that the reader can’t see the joins, that there is no textural change between reliable fabric and fabrication. In other words, the issue is one not of accuracy but aesthetics. That is why the photographer Walker Evans turned noun into adjective by insisting on the designation “documentary style” for his work. Exporting this across to literature, style itself can become a form of invention. As the did-it-really-happen? issue gives way to questions of style and form, so we are brought back to the expectations engendered by certain forms: how we expect to read certain books, how we expect them to behave. The dizziness occasioned by WG Sebald lay in the way that we really didn’t know quite what we were reading. To adapt a line of Clint Eastwood’s from Coogan’s Bluff, we didn’t know what was happening – even as it was happening to us. That mesmeric uncertainty has diminished slightly since the Sebald software has, as it were, been made available for free download by numerous acolytes, but a similar categorical refusal informs Ben Lerner’s 10.04, “a work,” as his narrator puts it, “that, like a poem, is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them”. The flicker is sustained on an epic scale – in a thoroughly domestic sort of way – by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. A side-effect or aftershock of Knausgaard’s seismic shakeup was to make us realise how thoroughly bored we had become by plot. Rachel Cusk addressed and exploited this in her wonderfully plotless novel Outline, which was shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize.
Seeking to reward innovation and experimentation, this prize is a good and timely thing – but it’s unfortunate that it’s limited to fiction. While last year’s Samuel Johnson prize went to Helen Macdonald for her beautifully novel H Is for Hawk, much so-called experimental fiction comes in the tried-and-tested form of the sub-species of historical novel known as modernist. Had they been LPs rather than books, several contenders for last year’s Goldsmiths prize could have joined Will Self’s Sharkin that oxymoronic section of Ray’s Jazz Shop: “secondhand avant garde”.
Twenty-four years ago, I was surprised to see But Beautiful– a neither-one-thing-nor-the-other book about jazz – in the bestsellers section of Books Etc on London’s Charing Cross Road. “Is that true?” I asked the manager. “No, no,” he replied consolingly. “We just didn’t know where else to put it.” Nowadays, there’s an increasing need for a section devoted to books that previously lacked a suitable home, or that could have been scattered between four or five different ones, none of which quite fit.
It needs stressing that, as is often the case, a “new” situation turns out to have a long and distinguished prehistory
The danger, as genre-defying or creative nonfiction becomes a genre in its own right – with mix-and-match poised to become a matter of rote – is that no man’s land could become predictably congested. It also needs stressing that, as is often the case, a “new” situation turns out to have a long and distinguished prehistory. Where to stock Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941)? History? Travel (within the subsection of the Balkans or Yugoslavia)? Or perhaps, as she suggested, in a category devoted to works “in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. Maggie Nelson must have been very happy when proof copies of her latest book, The Argonauts, advertised it as a work of “autotheory” – happy because Roland Barthes had been saving a place for her in this hip new category. And so, as our proposed new section expands to make room for the diverse likes of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony or Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait With Keys, the most viable label might well turn out to be an old one: “literature”.
The nonfiction novels of Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) or Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) changed the literary landscape, but the scope for further innovation was quickly noticed by the young Annie Dillard. “We’ve had the nonfiction novel,” she confided to her journal; “it’s time for the novelised book of nonfiction.” The book she was working on, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a classic instance of the nonfiction work of art. Having won a Pulitzer prize for nonfiction in 1975, it went on to become the source of some controversy when it was revealed that the famous opening paragraph – in which the author awakens in bed to find herself covered in paw prints of blood, after her cat, a fighting tom, has returned from his nocturnal adventures – was a fiction. It’s not that she’d made this story up; she’d adapted it, with permission, from something written by a postgrad student. This was a shower in a teacup compared with the various storms that have swirled around Ryszard Kapuscinski
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.