Looking at the meaning of ‘true stories’ in films

How much creative license can you gain by adding the magic words 'true story' to a film? Quite a lot, it seems.

We’ve all seen movie posters and trailers that have some form of the words ‘based on a true story’. Some of us will have rolled our eyes or wondered if a film gets any better just because it has some basis in reality.

On the whole it does seem to be a badge of authenticity for movie goers, and marketing folks are getting ever more creative in their use of language to imply, as American Hustle said with tongue firmly in cheek, that “some of this really happened.” From the purest form of saying ‘based on a true story’, the label has gradually drifted from ‘based on’ to ‘inspired by’, or from ‘a true story’ to ‘actual events’.

We’re not talking about ‘found footage’ films in the vein of the Paranormal Activity series, whose form suggests authenticity by using unknown actors and amateurish cinematography, without baldly suggesting that anything really happened. It’s the conventional films that stick by that tagline.

In the past, certain films gave themselves a little more wiggle room for creative licence with their subject matter by either lampooning the tagline or being a little more honest about their adaptations. Aside from American Hustle, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid opened with the modest caption “Most of what follows is true”, and Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy spoofed biopics and true stories by opening with “The following is based on actual events. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed.”

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Many movies are much more straight-faced in their wording. For my money, the worst culprit for this was the Randall Wallace film Secretariat, which the marketing people at Disney billed as “The Impossible True Story”, a tagline which seems entirely at odds with itself before people even get to see the movie.

But in recent years, the taglines have become a mainstay of true crime adaptations and horror films. For instance, Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil, which takes place at the intersection of both genres, works from the basis of NYPD cop and demonologist Ralph Sarchie’s memoir, Beware The Night.

In the film version, Eric Bana plays Sarchie, a cop who discovers that demonic influences link a number of his more grisly cases when he teams up with Edgar Ramirez’s clued-in, tooled-up priest to tackle the evil. It’s almost like an origin story for the character represented in Sarchie’s own book, which comprises of a number of different stories about cases he experienced. Having already tackled this kind of thing in 2005’s The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, writer-director Scott Derrickson was quite open about his working in adapting it.

In an interview before the film’s US release, Derrickson told Complex “It’s the real Ralph Sarchie, how he thinks, how he talks, what he does, how he’s changed as a person as a result of the stuff he does. But the main storyline is fictional, and I had to do that in order to make it work as a movie.”

Furthermore, the marketing for Deliver Us From Evil carried a slightly more measured claim than usual, in a font that was bigger on the poster than the actual title of the film: “Inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant.”

Aside from Derrickson’s own openness about artistic licence, sceptics would leap to point out that adaptations of memoirs are empirical rather than factual. Similar accusations have been lobbed at Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which had to tone down some of the more incredible, shark-punching escapades of Olympic sprinter and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini for the big screen.

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Zamperini never had a brush with demons, but irrespective of how you credit the book, the film version will always be a twice-removed account of what actually happened, and it’s just as stubborn to deny that suspension of disbelief when watching a true story movie as it is to insist upon obscuring creative licence.

Let’s take a particularly insistent recent example – Michael Bay’s gleefully misanthropic passion project Pain & Gain took liberties with the story of the Sun Gym gang, who kidnapped, extorted and murdered in pursuit of their own big dumb entitlement, making for a darkly enjoyable comedy.

It really feels like Bay had a point to make about how shitty some people are, which is why he literally throws up a “This is still a true story” caption in the middle of the movie, over a fictional scene of Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle (a composite of no less than three different people in one insane 300lb bastard of a character) barbecuing body parts.

Some found the film’s comedic leanings to be distasteful, given that the film was based on such a recent case, but you can’t tell me that his Titanic-lite take on Pearl Harbor wasn’t more offensive. On a side note, the rest of Bay’s movies make a whole lot of sense if you can extrapolate from Pain & Gain that he straight-up doesn’t like people.

When a case like Sarchie’s or the Sun Gymmers’ is a matter of public record, some marketing folks will lean on that ‘Based On The Case Files’ angle as though you’ll learn any more about the case than you would if you read around what really happened. You’ll get more from the film, of course, if only because the films are principally designed to entertain rather than inform, so remoulding the events isn’t the worst thing in the world.

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Leaning on the ‘true story’ aspect in the marketing is one thing, but lots of films also top and tail the film with some variation of the ubiquitous caption and/or more information about what happened to the figures concerned after the events depicted in the film. It’s particularly egregious when they show real photos – it tends to distance you from the film you’ve just seen when you realise that the real figure looks nothing like Eric Bana, or Mark Wahlberg, or whoever.

But more than merely adding a sweetener for viewers who might be more interested in films based on true stories, it could be that purely fictional stories are becoming devalued for certain audiences. Last year, New York University marketing professor Jane Ebert published a study suggesting that consumers of books and movies are more interested in the stuff that really happened.

Ebert explained to BrandeisNOW:

“Publishers and marketers are right to emphasize any basis in reality of the books or films they are trying to sell. Emphasizing realism can certainly make consumers more likely to choose those options when consumers want a more emotional experience, as consumers tend to believe that “true” stories will have a greater emotional impact than fictional stories.However, our results also suggest that, while emphasizing realism may increase sales, the realism of a movie does not necessarily increase satisfaction for the consumers.”

The Coen brothers’ Fargo is inarguably the most infamous example of such chicanery. The 1996 film opens with text that reads: “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Of course, Fargo was actually an original screenplay that conflated several true crime stories, “pretending to be true” as Ethan Coen put it in the introduction to the published script. The excellent semi-sequel series on Showtime took the same tack in its first season, again taking advantage of the audience’s interest in morbid true crime and throwing in Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton to boot.

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The legend of Fargo was intensified by a misunderstanding about Takako Konishi, an office worker from Tokyo who was found dead in a snowy field near the location where the film was set. Although her death was eventually declared a suicide, her tragic story was co-opted by the media into a cautionary tale about her hunting for the money buried by the road at the end of the film (and discovered by Oliver Platt’s supermarket mogul in the 2014 series.)

In a macabre spin on the ‘true story’ tag, filmmaker Paul Berczeller made a 2003 short documentary debunking the urban legend, which he titled This Is A True Story. And yet, 11 years later, that urban legend was adapted into David Zellner’s drama Kumiko The Treasure Hunter. If there’s a weirder example of a film based on a story about a real life story based on a film based on various true stories, I can’t think of it.

It’s easier to forgive Fargo, as a modern classic, than to let the ‘true story’ claims slide with certain mainstream horror movies, but then negative reviews seldom call bullshit on such claims – in all cases, it should be about how good a film is, rather than how close it is to the purported truth.

Weirdly, we’re even seeing the same kind of language seep into marketing for films based in fiction – how many reboots have recently purported to be ‘the untold story’? In movie marketing, you can now hold Dracula Untold‘s Vlad in the same regard as figures like Alan Turing, whose criminally under-appreciated efforts at Bletchley Park have been brought into the public consciousness once again by the success of The Imitation Game.

It shouldn’t really shock anyone to hear that films play around with the truth. In many cases, a caption at the beginning of a movie saying ‘The following is inspired by actual events’ can mean about as much for its real life veracity as the time stamp at the beginning of an episode of 24, but that’s just how film works, even in documentaries. The very nature of the word ‘representation’ suggests a repeat of something that already happened.

The truth, though stranger than fiction, isn’t necessarily more interesting. Irrespective of whether they’re as disingenuous as found footage movies about possession, or as openly interested in the intersect between true crime and horror as Scott Derrickson’s films, the credulity of that ‘true story’ label still holds considerable currency with audiences.

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