“Based on a True Story”

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noskilz writes:

"My least favorite words to see in conjunction with any film is "based on a true story", because I tend to assume, unfairly or not, that films given the choice between "interesting" or "accurate" tend to go with "interesting." It just doesn’t occur to me that if I want to know more about something, I ought to catch the movie. How widespread this negative bias is, I have no idea."

I think the effectiveness of a movie (or a song,or a play) to shape mass consciousness with regard to a real-life event is directly proportionate to the talent of the artist involved. In the case of William Zantzinger, discussed yesterday, you have a world-class mega-heavyweight artist, Bob Dylan, weighing in on an event that is mere hours old when he sets his pen to paper. Zantzinger has been sentenced, the news has been reported, Dylan has read the headline, and by the end of the afternoon the heart-stopping classic "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" has been completed, which will then go on to shape the public’s perception of William Zantzinger forever.

Zantzinger never stood a chance — Dylan nailed him, immediately. It doesn’t even matter that Dylan’s song was biased, distorted and utterly unfair — he captured a moment that felt utterly "right," and that became the definitive version, in the public eye, of the story of William Zantzinger. No mere newspaper account or court record could compete with Dylan’s artistic vision and peerless sense of craft. No artist, as far as I know, has even attempted to tell another version of the story of William Zantzinger — and why would they?

Now, William Zantzinger is a relatively obscure footnote to the civil rights movement. What about a more famous character, like, say, Adolf Hilter? There have been dozens, hundreds of portrayals of Hitler in movies, plays, television shows, radio shows, so forth, often from wonderful, skilled, talented actors, but I would argue that none of them, not one, has really stepped forward to knock the original off his pedastal in the public’s imagination. No movie has emerged that has really defined Hitler, artistically, with the exception of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl "got" Hitler in a way that no Hollywood crew could hope to (although I did very much enjoy Bruno Ganz’s performance in Downfall).

T.E. Lawrence was guy few people in the United States had ever heard of, much less spent much time thinking about, and David Lean’s magisterial Lawrence of Arabia became the definitive version of the story for more than a generation. No movie "based on a true story" can hope to ever really capture the complexity and nuance of the true-life event, but Lawrence presented a story so compelling and so visually dynamic that there was little any lay-person could do to find fault with it — whether it was an accurate depiction of Lawrence’s life or not.

Then there’s Spartacus. Spartacus was a real guy, who kind of, more or less, did something like the things Kirk Douglas shows him doing in Kubrick’s movie, but Spartacus is based on a novel, not any kind of comprehensive historical record, and its compression of about 200 years of Roman history is laughably profane to any serious student of the subject. If Spartacus had been a story about American history instead of Roman history, the story would have George Washington teaming up with Abraham Lincoln to free Hitler’s slaves — that’s about the level it approaches its subject matter. And yet, I notice that no one else has come forward to "re-make" Spartacus in a version slightly closer to the historical record.

Think of Johnny Fontane, a minor character in The Godfather. Johnny Fontane is the singer who wants the part in "that war picture" and Vito cuts off the producer’s horse’s head to get it for him. Even when the movie came out, Everybody "knew" that this is the story of how Frank Sinatra got the part in From Here to Eternity — whether or not it has any basis in reality, who knows? It feels right, and it fits the way we think about Sinatra, Hollywood, the Mafia, and all that. Mario Puzo andFrancis Coppola created a fictional Mafia so compelling and so "right" that it, to this day, forms our impression of what organized crime in the 1950s was like — and did so, even to gangsters. Think of that — a movie comes along that captures a fictional reality that feels so right that it changes the behavior of the real-life people the movie is based on. And yet, there had been hundreds of gangster movies before The Godfather and none of them — not one — feels anything like real life.

Bonnie and Clyde had been celebrated and reviled in song and story for decades before Warren Beatty re-imagined their lives as a "doomed lovers on the run" story, and as a result when we think of Bonnie and Clyde now, we see in our minds Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, not the actual people. What real-life desperadoes could hope to compete with that kind of high-wattage starpower? Beatty brought the bank-robbing couple to life in a way no one ever had before — until someone else comes along with a better idea, Beatty owns them. You could say the same thing about Patton, or Gandhi, or Harvey Milk — whatever the faults or omissions of their respective bio-pics, odds are that when you hear those names, you don’t see the originals in your minds eye — you see George C. Scott, Ben Kingsley and Sean Penn. These actors captured their subjects with such precision and clarity that, for us, the originals can’t really compete. An actor in a movie is costumed, lit, framed and placed in a dramatic context that is tremendously compelling — much more so than their real-life counterparts could ever hope to be.

Assuming the artist is talented.

Taking an extreme example, we have William Shakespeare’s Richard III, which bears almost no relationship to the actual British king Richard III. Shakespeare formed his portrait of Richard for a specific purpose, for a specific audience in a specific time, but he was such a goddamned talented artist that the real Richard is almost totally lost to history, known only to students of British history. And the same could be said of any number of Shakespeare protagonists — as my father once said, "Who said ‘Et tu, Brut?’ It wasn’t Julius Caesar, it was William Shakespeare." Shakespeare captured the moment of Caesar’s betrayal and death with a force and precision so elegantly shaped that it’s hard to imagine, at this remove, that Caesar didn’t react the way Shakespeare had him react. It’s like, if he didn’t say "Et tu, Brut?" he should have.

At the other extreme we have the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The invasion of Normandy has been depicted many, many times in movies and TV shows, but it wasn’t until Spielberg staged his version that the terror and chaos of it became clear — Spielberg crystallized and made vividly, viscerally real something most people had only wondered about before. To hear, from men who had been there, say after the movie "Apart from the smell of the cordite, yeah, that’s it, that’s what it was like, you captured it" must be one of the supreme compliments an artist can receive. 



61 Responses to ““Based on a True Story””
  1. laminator_x says:

    The storyteller and the minstrel were the reporters of news long before the dawn of journalism as we know it.

  2. While this doesn’t comment on the core of your post, one of my personal favorite “Based On A True Story” from the movies is Fargo. Yes, Fargo wasn’t based on any real event but because that statement begins the film the audience automatically gives credence to everything they are about to watch.

  3. Interesting insight.

    It seems to me that, where popular culture has rewritten history in a compelling way, people likely have tried to correct the historical record and failed. Not because of lack of talent — historians should not need to be adept storytellers — but because human beings prefer a compelling reality to a bland truth.

    This is a lesson that can be applied to writing fiction. Truths can be boring. Writing should seduce the reader with pretty lies, instead of relating boring truths.

    • Todd says:

      “Truths can be boring.”

      Truth is never boring — however, it is often dramatically problematic. If it makes the story more compelling to change things around, leave stuff out, cut stuff down and make up stuff out of thin air, artists will do it until the most compelling version of the truth comes forward.

      And, as discussed above, journalism is absolutely no different in this regard. Nor is history. It’s true, historians should not need to be adept storytellers, but they’d better be if they want anyone to pay attention to what they have to say.

  4. nom_de_grr says:

    My favorite (to talk about) Based-on-a-True-Story film of recent vintage is 300; I can’t think of another straight-up fascist piece of shit where people rush to its defense as “history”.

  5. richaje says:

    Suetonius, a great gossip-monger and source of many classical aristic renderings of historical figures is the ultimate source of Shakespeare’s line. Suetonius’ “De vita Caesarum” – or “The Twelve Caesars” as it is usually called in English – might be one of the most influential gossip rags ever written (the other is probably Procopius’ “Secret Histories”, which is the nastiest “behind-the-scenes” biography ever written).

    Anyways, Suetonius writes that, although he believed that Caesar said nothing when he was killed by Brutus and the conspirators (which was also Plutarch’s account), some claimed that Caesar’s last words were a Greek phrase meaning “You too, my son”. Most artists went for the far more dramatic version given in the ancient sources – I don’t even think Shakespeare was the first to put “Et tu, Brute? in a play.

  6. stormwyvern says:

    I was trying to think of a film where a not as talented artist attempts to define who a historical figure is in the minds of the public, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? You don’t remember the ones that don’t supplant the real person. That said, in today’s media saturated world, I think it’s nearly impossible to replace a contemporary famous person with an actor’s portrayal of that person. Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Nixon may be brilliant, as may Josh Brolin’s take on George W. Bush. (I’ve seen neither.) But because they’re both contemporary figures who’ve received a lot of media attention, it’s near impossible for either performance to topple the real thing. If they had been made 50 or 100 years from now, maybe, but it’s still possible that the real thing would remain too powerful an image.

    I think this may tie into the discussion from a few posts back about why Iraq war and other current events movies haven’t been doing all that well lately. For better or worse, pretty much everyone has their opinions on the Iraq war down already because it’s happening right now. So a film trying to put forth a particular point of view on the event has to fight not only the potentially stronger images from the news, but the existing opinions that audiences have already formed and may not want to have challenged or event confirmed by a movie.

    The only film I can think of that comes close to The Godfather‘s success in so completely informing the public perception of organized crime right up to the criminals themselves is Scarface, though I don’t know if belief in that film’s world goes all the way up to real gangsters or just stops at the low level Tony Montana wannabes. Personally, I find the movie to be over the top almost beyond my ability to suspend disbelief, but that’s another discussion altogether.

    My memories of my Latin and English teachers from high school would like me to remind you that it’s “Et tu, Brute.”

  7. greyaenigma says:

    Now I always think of this comic when considering historical storytelling.

  8. swan_tower says:

    I’ve always had a personal distinction in my head between “based on” and “inspired by,” the latter indicating a much looser relationship to the truth. Unfortunately, I don’t the distinction is reliably maintained by other people, though I wish it were.

    As mentioned elsewhere, I think it’s harder to create a definitive artistic portrayal for recent and media-saturated figures, because the audience already has an image in mind, which has to be evicted to make way for the new one. Good luck doing that with Hitler. But a hundred years from now? Then maybe someone will make a film (or intravenous nano-sensory module or whatever) of Hitler, that will manage to reshape how that audience perceives the man. It’s easier to do with older figures like Bonnie and Clyde, or more obscure ones, like Harvey Milk.

    But all of that is not to say you’re wrong. A good artist (which in the case of film, means a confluence of writers, directors, and actors, plus help from others) is necessary to produce a vivid and memorable character or event, whether it’s fictional or real. And in the case of the real ones, they can overwrite the historical data, sometimes quite firmly.

    • Todd says:

      “Based on a True Story” makes me sit up and go “really?” but be “Inspired by True Events” puts up my defenses for some reason, and I wish filmmakers wouldn’t use it.

      Richard Nixon, for folks my age, might as well be Hitler for all intents and purposes, and folks like Urbaniak and I love to sort through performances of actors pretending to be Nixon. For instance, I thoroughly enjoyed Frank Langella’s Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but then I watched ten seconds of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews on Youtube and saw, instantly, how far short of the mark Langella fell.

  9. popebuck1 says:

    “Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” — Neil Gaiman

    • Todd says:

      “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” — The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

      Nothing against Mr. Gaiman, but I think John Ford just handed his ass to him.

      • robjmiller says:

        I had just looked up the exact wording of that, and when I tabbed back you had already posted it.

        Touché, good sir.

      • curt_holman says:

        Print the Legend

        My least favorite example of this is the sort-of biopic Cobb, in which sportswriter Al Stump* followed around elderly former baseball legend/major league @ssh*le Ty Cobb, considered writing a book about how awful Ty Cobb was. At the end of the movie, he decides to “print the legend” and write an “authorized”-style biography that avoids the ugly truths about Cobb’s personal life.

        But this comes at the end of a MOVIE that DOES air the ugly truths about Cobb’s personal life, so Cobb seems like it really wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

        * I’m pretty sure that was the name. It struck me that the main characters in the movie both had last names taken from truncated vegetable matter.

        • notthebuddha says:

          Re: Print the Legend

          But this comes at the end of a MOVIE that DOES air the ugly truths about Cobb’s personal life, so Cobb seems like it really wants to have its cake and eat it, too.

          The reporter’s decision to sanitize things at the end of two hours of caca isn’t cake-having, it’s irony.

  10. craigjclark says:

    I love it when a totally ludicrous movie claims to be “BASED ON A TRUE STORY.” Here’s an example of one that I watched fairly recently:

    The Beast of Bray Road

  11. The movie Memphis Belle about the plane and it’s crew in WWII of the same name, without proclaiming so in big letters on its poster, is a “Based on a true story film” that has completely effected how I thought of it’s history since I was a child. It really wasn’t too long ago that I discovered not only what happens in the movie is completely inaccurate, but the entire cast of characters in the film are fictional. All the names and personalities of the real crew were completely changed to make a more dramatic film. While disappointing to the history lover in me, I honestly still find myself loving the movie, even if it’s a complete work of fiction except for the fact that they’re the first crew to finish their number of missions to complete their tour of duty in WWII. It’s more than likely this is due to me growing up with the film than anything though. Whenever I see a film now that claims to be based on actual events I’m very aware that it is more likely to be based on fiction than fact in order to deliver more entertainment value to its audience. And I’m afraid studios are afraid to make a film based completely on fact if it won’t sell. Sad really.

    • Todd says:

      In the defense of Hollywood, I don’t really think it’s possible to base a movie “completely on fact.” Real life is too complicated, messy and contradictory, there is always compression, streamlining and omission applied to a subject, to say nothing of the sensibilities of the artist presenting the work.

      Casino has always impressed me as a movie that dares to tell a ridiculously complicated story and keep it as complicated as real life. The screenplay of Casino impressed me so greatly that I went and got a copy of its source book, only to find that, nope, the story in the book is about five times more complicated than it is in the movie, that the movie is really “the Hollywood version” even though it feels ten times more like real life than any other Hollywood movie.

      Another example I think about all the time is The Assassination of Jesse James. Here’s a movie, based on a novel, a novel that seems to have been meticulously, scrupulously researched down to the last detail, being extremely careful not to invent or distort a single solitary thing — and yet, it is entirely infused with its author’s sensibility, his point of view, his sense of poetry and sadness, and that sensibility is transferred to the story of Jesse James whether or not it accurately portrays the way his life was or not.

      • craigjclark says:

        What about Zodiac?

        • Todd says:

          Again — Fincher gets the feel of the story exactly right, and sticks closer to the facts than any other movie in the genre ever has, that I can think of — but no, of course there are liberties taken to make the story more dramatic, more riveting, more interesting, or just more suited to the artist’s sensibilities. It’s unavoidable.

      • That makes alot more sense and I don’t know what I was thinking by saying “completely on fact”.

        The Assassination of Jesse James pulled me in so well, made me believe so strongly what I was watching was the TRUE story, it didn’t even occur to me and the time that it couldn’t be accurate. Did you do a breakdown of it by the way, Todd?

        • Todd says:

          I very much enjoyed The Assassination of Jesse James, and I recently got the blu-ray release, which I’ve been hinting to Urbaniak that we should watch for a Movie Night, but I haven’t done an analysis of the screenplay yet.

          From what I understand, the author of the novel did an enormous amount of research into who was where on what day, doing what and why, and stuck to the facts as much as he could, while imbuing them with his own sense of what they might have been thinking or saying on those occasions. Which is still an interpretation, it’s not a straight record.

          Frost/Nixon is interesting because here’s narrative based on a set of tapes that are well known, and there’s a couple of actors who are trying to present this very well-documented scenario, and all you have to do is watch one of the tapes and realize that they color their interpretation all over the place, sometimes in ways that are way off the mark.

          • Would love it if you convince him as it’d be interesting to know his response to it at well as yours.

            Every day I’m impressed with your knowledge of film more than the day before.

            By the way, I just read your post and its subsequent comments on Grindhouse. Glad you enjoyed it!

            • Todd says:

              I should tell Urbaniak that it’s in black-and-white, and was actually made in 1895. That would get his attention.

              • Someone ought to make a movie that at least looks like it was made in 1895.

                • Todd says:

                  Coppola actually did — a little bit. There is one scene in Dracula where Dracula and Mina stop by a movie exhibition parlor, and Coppola shot the street portion of the scene with one of the original Lumiere cameras.

                  There is also a DVD called Lumiere & Co, where the makers lent the original Lumiere cameras to directors working today and directed them to make movies in the style of the Lumieres — no synchronized sound, only one static take, no more than one minute long, etc. Some of the pieces are wonderful — David Lynch came up with a real eye-popper of a surreal nightmare — some are quite charming and funny — one director re-created the Lumiere’s Train Arriving at a Station, at the same station where the original was shot — and some cheat (Spike Lee shoots a glamor shot of his baby daughter, with synch sound).

  12. Assuming Caesar actually did say “και συ, τεκνον?”, Shakespeare’s Latin line works very well. As Latin is rendered in the play as English, so the language of Caesar’s classroom when he was a boy becomes that of Shakespeare’s.

    Of course, if he didn’t say anything, the point is moot.

    • Todd says:

      He probably said “Arrrrggggghhh! Fuck, man, you stabbed me!”

      • stormwyvern says:

        Aside from the historical record, another good reason why Caesar probably didn’t say “Et tu, Brute?” is that he was being stabbed by the entire senate, so by the time Brutus got around to getting his stab on, Caesar was probably either beyond talking or not capable of saying much beyond “Ow!”

        • Todd says:

          It occurs to me now that I mis-remembered it as “Et tu, Brut?” because I was thinking of how Caesar was callously betrayed by his after-shave lotion.

          • stormwyvern says:

            My understanding was that the after-shave lotion sincerely believed that Caesar had grown too powerful and wanted to prevent Rome from returning to the era of kings, but as you said, the history tends to get overshadowed by the legend.

          • laminator_x says:

            It may also have been a double entendre, referring not only to the aftershave itself, but also to the “Essence of Man” it embodies.

            • Todd says:

              A betrayal made more stinging by the ironic fact that an after-shave lotion is meant to soothe the skin, not impale it with a dagger. That Shakespeare really knew how to work a phrase.