Back in the good ol’ days, before the entire world shut down, I was visiting my local movie theater almost weekly. Regardless of what I was there to see, there was usually at least one “based on a true story” film featured in the coming attractions. I remember one time when all the trailers were based on a true story, except for one. In the spirit of full disclosure, I probably rolled my eyes at many of these “inspired by real events” movies.
I don’t have a problem with the people featured in these stories — many of them took incredible risks that changed the course of our world. Others showed great courage in relative obscurity that we might not otherwise know about. I think that bringing these stories before millions can be a worthy goal.
My question is: do we need so many of them?
For a time, it seemed like every new movie being released was either a sequel or based on real events. And I get it. Studios need to make money, so they’re going to produce films they know will get eyes on their content and, whether I like it or not, “true stories” sell tickets.
But I can’t help wondering if these types of films are the best way of telling these particular stories. There are a number of pitfalls with recreating a true story and they’re not always the most memorable, even if they’re well made. At the end of some of them, I end up asking myself if the story would’ve been better told as a work of fiction.
So let’s talk a little about this true story trend!
The Difficulties of Handling a True Story
Though films “based on a true story” tend to attract a lot of attention, they need to be handled with extra care. And because the film centres around a person who really lived, those who knew that person will have an opinion on how their story was told.
2018 was quite the year for films based on a true story! Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book were both released that year. Both were nominated for plenty of awards. I’m still upset that Green Book won the Academy Award for ‘Best Picture’, as BlacKkKlansman is the far better film in my opinion.
But I don’t bring these two films up to rant about poor Oscar selections (though I’d be happy to discuss that too). I think these two films illustrate the difficulties of handling a true story.
BlacKkKlansman is based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth, the black police officer who really infiltrated the KKK and spoke with David Duke on the phone multiple times. Stallworth had conversations with people involved with the production, including Spike Lee and John David Washington. He even did interviews promoting this particular film — so not only did Stallworth give his blessing to this production, but he was involved in its creation.
Green Book took a different route. This film explored the relationship between a white driver and a black musician as they travelled through the segregated American South in the 1960s. Dr Don Shirley was an accomplished classical pianist — a truly impressive feat — but this story focuses more on Tony, the white driver. Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, claims to have gotten Dr Shirley’s blessing to turn their story into a movie, something that’s since been contested. Dr Shirley’s family detailed to the press how the creative team behind Green Book shut them out of the process and ended up portraying Shirley in a way that was utterly false.
Of course, we’ll never know the truth of what happened between these two men, but the handling of this story did cast a pall over the film. While I remember certain scenes from Green Book, what stands out in my mind most clearly about the film is the protests from Dr Shirley’s family.
BlacKkKlansman and Green Book remind me that bringing these true stories to the big screen is a delicate process. These films can be the first (and sometimes only) introduction of a real person to an audience. These stories, if not handled with care, can cause serious harm to people’s reputation. Even if the person has passed away, an insensitive or incorrect portrayal can bring further grief to the family left behind.
Responding to a True Story
As I’ve given more thought to this ‘true story’ genre, I’ve realised that these films don’t stay with me like fictional ones. When I know a film is based on real events, I tend to mentally check out. Instead of taking an active part in imagining myself in the story, I take a more passive role. I become an observer of the events. I no longer see myself on a journey with the characters; instead, I’m plopping myself into someone’s biography.
These films also tend to be largely event-driven — we’re watching a person accomplish a notable thing that changes the course of history as we know it. While there’s almost always some type of character growth, that tends to be secondary to the events of the protagonist’s life. Often (though not always), we’re more concerned with what a person did rather than who they became. And, for better or worse, event-driven films don’t affect me like character-driven stories, even if they are incredibly well made.
While clicking through lists of ‘true story’ films while writing this article, I was shocked by how many I have seen that I have completely forgotten about! Lincoln (2012), for example — which won two Oscars and was nominated for 10 others — is a great movie I can’t remember to save my life. Though I’ve read and loved Team of Rivals, the book Lincoln is based on, the movie doesn’t stand out in my mind.
Spotlight (2015), which won the Academy Award for ‘Best Picture’, is another great movie that has, sadly, faded from memory. Even though I only watched it a few months ago, all I remember is enjoying it. The characters, their journey, and the hard work they put in aren’t seared into my mind.
These are two very good films that followed the source material closely because they had to. Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous Presidents America has ever had. And the investigation by the Boston Globe is big enough news that the stories couldn’t be told any other way. These couldn’t be fictionalised and they benefit from the audience knowing they’re based on a true story.
But I wonder if other lesser-known stories based on the lives of real people could benefit from being presented as a work of fiction. Could there be a better way of bringing these important stories to life?
Being Surprised by a True Story
The “unexpected true story” is my favorite version of this genre. These are films centred on less famous names that don’t let you know it’s based on a true story until the end or, sometimes, not at all! After sitting with a group of extraordinary characters for 90+ minutes, it can be a shock to find out they weren’t entirely a work of fiction. When a film ends by disclosing this information, it always sets me on a researching spree.
I remember when I finished watching Raging Bull (1980) earlier this year. I know nothing about the boxing world, so I didn’t realise this particular movie is based on a true story. Martin Scorsese brilliantly chose not to disclose this information. I thought I was watching a work of fiction about a boxer who destroys his life. For once, my ignorance about a sport was to my benefit! Imagine my shock when I discovered that Jack LaMotta was a real boxer!
The story was good enough, the characters relatable enough, and the film entertaining enough that I didn’t need to be enticed by the allure of the “based on a true story” label. LaMotta’s story pointed me to larger themes about life and the world around me. And, honestly, I was hooked the entire time.
Raging Bull gave me the best of both worlds — I connected with the themes and the story and I got to be astounded by the fact that Jack LaMotta really lived.
A Better Way of Telling a True Story
One of the questions I’ve been asking myself about the true story trend is this: how does one select the right true story to bring to the screen? There are billions of true stories out there, so how do you determine if you want to bring it to the fore as fact or fiction?
Netflix’s recent “based on a true story” release, Hillbilly Elegy (2020), has made me to think more deeply about this particular genre. This film is based on J.D Vance’s memoir published in 2016. It’s all about J.D’s family, his upbringing, and his quest for the American Dream. Though he grew up poor, he makes his way to Yale Law School — so it’s that classic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tale we love so much.
I did not enjoy Hillbilly Elegy. I struggled to get through the film partly because of the narrative structure and the constant unnecessary flashbacks. While watching, I kept hoping for a serious payoff for all the emotional trauma the film was subjecting me to. Unfortunately, no payoff ever came.
To me, one of the problems with Hillbilly Elegy is that they chose the least interesting true story to tell about this particular family. This film, in my opinion, rests on its laurels, hoping that the fact that it is based on someone’s story will draw viewers in and maybe garner some award nominations.
I think there are far more interesting ways to tell a story about Appalacian values, but they would involve derailing from the true story that was written.
I would’ve been riveted by a story about the women in J.D’s family. Imagine watching Bev and Lindsay repeat Mamaw’s mistakes — the very ones they both had sworn they wouldn’t succumb to. Or watching Lindsay attempt to care for her mother and grandmother while trying to stay afloat with kids and dreams of her own.
A plot like that doesn’t need to be labeled a true story to get people to connect with it. If written well, the story of generational survival can work because it’s so relatable.
I remember when my grandmother, mother, and I, all lived under the same roof for a few months when I was just starting college. Though both were in good health, I still felt a burden to care for both of them. And I would imagine many children have felt a similar burden at various points in their lives. While I have never lived in the Appalachian region, I would be able to relate to a woman trying to make a life for herself while reflecting on the ways previous generations have affected her.
I think a fictionalised work that shows a character growing in the midst of their situation, inspired by the real-life stories of men and women in the region could’ve been fascinating. If the goal of Hillbilly Elegy was to showcase Appalacian values, I think this could’ve been a better and possibly more accessible way to go.
Films depicting the heroic or inspiring actions of real people can be entertaining. Making these movies can be an incredibly worthy endeavor. And I think there’s an art to deciding what story to tell and how to tell it. Instead of resting on the novelty of being “inspired by true events”, I wonder if some of the more obscure stories could be told as pieces of fiction that draw us into the characters, settings, and cultures we might otherwise never experience.
The ‘true story’ trend is alive and well, but I think some of these stories could be told in a better way. While some benefit from the audience knowing it’s based on a true story, I think other films could better serve the viewers and the subject matter as works of fiction.
In the future, I hope we get more memorable, character-driven works, instead of event-driven biographical works that quickly fade from memory. Making a great movie is good, but making a memorable movie really is something special.