Why “Based on a True Story” May be a Bad Thing for the Movies

Freaky-Stories-Cockroach

Happened to a friend of friend of mine.

In the late ’90s, on the Canadian children’s channel YTV there was a show called Freaky Stories. It starred a giant purple cockroach who narrated three animated urban legends while scampering around the counters of a dirty, dilapidated diner. But before he began any of the tall tales he always prefaced his stories by telling the audience it happened to a “friend of a friend of mine.” While this was obviously a wink to the absurdity of such stories being true (i.e. crocodiles swimming in New York City’s sewers – obviously false, or is it?), films choose to use a phrase that sounds more legitimate, but means exactly the same thing: “The following is based on a true story.” And it’s starting to get a bit ridiculous.

This fall, it’s been hard to go more than a week without hearing about the latest “true story” movie. Here’s a brief snapshot of some of the most acclaimed or anticipated movies of 2013: 12 Years a SlaveCaptain Phillips, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, Lone Survivor, and The Wolf of Wall Street. And all of them have to prominently remind audiences that what they’re about to see are films “inspired by” or “based on” true events. It’s maddening. And I’d argue that it’s a bad thing for the movies.

based-on-a-true-story

How I feel when the magic words are uttered.

When did being based on a true story become a barometer for a movie’s quality? Honestly, it’s really just a trivial detail about the making of a film that has no bearing on whether the finished product is good or not. And for some reason it’s the only trivial detail about a movie that’s acceptable to tell whenever anyone mentions the film title. Like: “I really liked The Conjuring followed up by “did you know it’s based on a true story?” Here’s a fun experiment: tell someone that you like a fact-based well-known movie (i.e. Apollo 13, Rush, every other Ron Howard film) and six out of ten people will remind you that it’s based on a true story. True story.

I would be fine with movies claiming to be “based on a true story” if they at least did it honestly. Like “inspired by reading a first-hand account about what happened from one party’s perspective, ignoring other viewpoints, eliminating extraneous characters, making artistic choices and warping the chronology of dialogue and moments to fit the film’s thematic purpose to the point where the actual film is unrecognizable from the actual events that occurred.” So much better, and we could avoid the confusion that occurs when people conflate the events of a “based on a true story” film with the events that actually happened. I.e. the backlash against Argo‘s depiction of Canadians would be minimized if the film had an honest disclaimer indicating that it only has a tangential relationship with reality.

Prefacing a film with the “true story” claim is also an exercise in laziness. Part of a filmmaker’s job is to get the audience to “buy-in” to the reality that’s playing onscreen (i.e. suspending our disbelief). The “true story” claim does the legwork for them – i.e. all of this happened, you don’t have to be wary of the film’s authenticity because it really happened. So instead of, y’know, orienting the audience or properly laying the groundwork for why we should care about these people, most films of this ilk engage in checklist storytelling – i.e. going from event to event (often in chronological order) with subtitles denoting the date and time when it occurred. Generally speaking, this isn’t engrossing filmmaking.

This is not to say that all films based on a true story are bad. One of my favourite films is The Social Network, which is also ostensibly based on events that actually occurred (even though there are inaccuracies, blah, blah, blah). My argument is that films are good in spite of being based on a true story or not, so heavily underlining that a film is a “faithful depiction” is irritating. It’s just a piece of trivia that has no bearing on the quality of the film itself.   And then even if a “true story” movie is actually entertaining and intelligent, it gets deconstructed for how historically authentic it is. So even if a movie based on a true story is “good” it will be criticized for its inaccuracies, which entirely misses the point (going back to the Freaky Stories comparison, it’s like criticizing the teller of a good urban legend that the story actually happened to a friend of a friend’s cousin, rather than just a friend of friend). The purpose of a film “based on a true story” is to strive for emotional authenticity rather than historical authenticity. The  label only works to obscure this point.

If you want a movie based on true events, rent a documentary. Although even those may misleading too.

Sidenote: I recently rewatched City of God (think of it as the Brazilian Goodfellas) and the film uses the “based on a true story” trope as a twist ending. Just before the credits, and after you’ve watched over two hours of gang wars, drug dealing, and tense shootouts does the film then flippantly note that the entire thing is based on true events. At this point, you’re already engrossed in the film because it’s a story well-told without the added baggage of “being based on true events.” You either buy-in to the events happening onscreen or you don’t, without the manipulation of a claim to legitimacy.  Another good subversion of the “true story” claim is Fargo, which claims to be based on true events even though it isn’t. The Coen brothers simply use the claim as it was intended: to legitimize what would otherwise be a tall tale.

 

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