Truth in movies

I’m not looking for documentaries in my biopics.

American-Sniper-2014If you’re a big movie fan, you’ve noticed the wealth of movies that based on real-life events, including Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken, and Wild.

Someone named Penelope Puddlisms wrote: “I read your interesting review about the Selma movie and the issue about its accuracy. It makes me wonder why anyone would risk fudging even a small bit of the facts when every other aspect tries so painfully hard to be carefully spot on and provide a documentary feel. This happens in lots of similar movies.”

That is a reasonable question. One could ask “why” of the novelist who fictionalizes real events. A lot of the real things that happen are not very dramatic. Movies often combine characters, and tighten time frames, because the absolute, unedited factual events are often BORING.

Of course, the further from the present one is, or events that took place in remote locations, not documented by camera. Inevitably, one has to extrapolate dialogue, at least.

Beyond that, and I’m neither a novelist nor a filmmaker, I suppose, it is to make a greater point about the situation.

For example, in American Sniper, a movie I have not seen, Chris Hedges writes:

Enter The Butcher—a fictional Iraqi character created for the film. Here we get the most evil of the evildoers. He is dressed in a long black leather jacket and dispatches his victims with an electric drill. He mutilates children—we see a child’s arm he amputated. A local sheik offers to betray The Butcher for $100,000. The Butcher kills the sheik. He murders the sheik’s small son in front of his mother with his electric drill. The Butcher shouts: “You talk to them, you die with them.”

I surmise, and I’m just spitballing here, that by making the bad guy more villainous, it makes the killing of “savage, despicable evil” more justifiable, even palatable.

The Imitation Game, which I liked quite a bit, nevertheless took great liberties with many characters, as you can read in Slate. For instance:

[Christopher] Hodges [author of the book Alan Turing: The Enigma] paints Turing as shy, eccentric, and impatient with irrationality, but Cumberbatch’s narcissistic, detached Alan has more in common with the actor’s title character in Sherlock than with the Turing of Hodges’ biography. One of Turing’s colleagues at Bletchley Park later recalled him as “a very easily approachable man” and said “we were very very fond of him”; none of this is reflected in the film.

Why the character alteration? Perhaps because it made a more interesting story, more of a contrast with some of the other participants.

Time magazine analyzed Big Eyes, another film I appreciated. While some parts were deemed as true:

In the film, next to nobody is allowed in the Keane house for fear that they will discover Margaret’s studio and therefore the Keane secret. Though it is true that nobody—including Margaret’s daughter and their staff—was allowed in Margaret’s studio, Walter Keane would invite socialites and celebrities to their home.

I surmise that the fiction made her seem even more isolated, since “Margaret rarely met these celebs since she was painting 16 hours per day. Even when Walter left the house, he would call Margaret every hour to ensure that she hadn’t left.”

Entertainment Weekly fact-checked Theory of Everything. Stephen Hawking deemed the movie about his life with his ex-wife, “broadly true.” I liked it, but maybe if it were less true to its source, it might have been a more exciting film.

I’m not looking for documentaries in my biopics. It may be useful to check to see how much the story varies from the facts, but I certainly never felt the need to do so before seeing any film, only after the fact.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “Truth in movies”

  1. I can certainly relate to your perspective; I just finished the six-hour mini-series “Sons of Liberty” produced by the History Channel covering the events in Boston leading up to the Declaration of Independence, and although elements of it were enjoyable, they played up the mythology in a manner that I thought was too often over the top including presenting all the central characters incl. Samuel and John Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin as brash, irreverent, handsome 20-somethings who peppered their language with scatological terms. I suspect that blasphemy laws were still in effect in the 1770s. And I just couldn’t believe Sam Adams brachiating up staircases and running across rooftops like Spiderman while fleeing the Redcoats. Such things unnecessarily detracted from an otherwise gripping story.

  2. I have more trouble suspending my disbelief for a “based on a true story” film than for an entirely fictional one, but only if I know the true story (and both Selma and Sons of Liberty are good examples of that). However, if I DON’T know the facts, I can switch off my inner fact-checker.

    I wonder, though, if maybe there isn’t a similar problem with movies based on well-known novels, too. People will complain about altered characters, added dialogue, etc. Maybe we just don’t like the stories we know being played with, whether “based on a true story” or not?

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