What is your reaction when you find out the film you’re about to watch is “based on a true story”? Although I might roll my eyes, I know I will want to research the film’s inspiration as soon as I get home. True stories are getting adapted almost as frequently as books nowadays, and often with a lot of creative freedom. Many of the 2016 Oscar nominations are films supposedly based on a true story, including The Revenant, Spotlight, Trumbo, The Danish Girl, Joy and Steve Jobs which are all based on real stories or real people. But how faithful are these adaptations to the realities that inspired them?
After watching the highly anticipated The Revenant I decided to research the true story that inspired it. Without spoiling the film for those of you who haven’t seen it, the reality is that nobody even knows if Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, actually was attacked by a bear because nobody witnessed it. How far he really travelled after being left for dead in a shallow grave by his companions is complete speculation, and was likely exaggerated because the legend was re-told many times over. All of this also took place in August, not the harsh winter backdrop of The Revenant.
The film is a revenge epic, with Glass seeking to find the man who killed his son, but the son seems to be pure fabrication and he actually eventually forgave the two men who abandoned him. Obviously the film wouldn’t be half as dramatic if Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy had a heart to heart that ended with a reconciliation hug instead of a brutal knife fight. Some creative liberty had to be taken in order to create an appropriately climactic ending for such a dramatic story, as I’m sure cinemagoers would have been disappointed in a happy ending. So although some liberty has been taken, it feels like necessary alterations.
But how much of a true story can you change and still put “based on true events” as a tagline? There’s nothing more irritating than excitedly researching the ‘truth’ behind a movie and discovering that it is barely inspired by the true events. A film that took a very mild reality yet transformed it into a full on horror story is The Possession, released in 2012. In the film, a young girl buys an antique box at a yard sale that contains a Dibbuk, an evil spirit in Jewish mythology, and becomes possessed. The creepy things that happen in the film range from moths manifesting from thin air to a small child causing her stepfather’s teeth to fall out through sheer will power. I knew when I saw this film that the reality of the situation couldn’t have been as traumatising as the movie, but I didn’t realise the extent of the exaggeration. There really was a Dibbuk box, which appeared on eBay in the mid-2000s listed as a haunted object. But the nature of the haunting was simply a weird smell that followed the box, objects spontaneously breaking around it and horrible recurring nightmares experienced by whoever owned it. Nothing compared to the movie’s events. This surely is too much creative license to still say that The Posession was based on what really happened. Unlike The Revenant, this is beyond slight exaggeration, moving into the realm of total fabrication. Yet, the “based on true events” line still enticed people.
The “based on a true story” line that opens Fargo, which is not actually based on a real story, apparently inspired one Japanese girl, Takako Konishi, to travel to Fargo to find the money Steve Buscemi’s character buries. Obviously there was no treasure, and unfortunately Konishi froze to death. At least that’s the urban legend, the reality being that she committed suicide. This inspired a film entitled Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter which turns Konishi’s trip into a magical realist drama and insists that she died searching for the fabled Fargo ransom money. It’s almost ironic that a film about something that was supposedly inspired by Fargo’s claim that it is based on true events could be so liberal with the truth.
So, how far can filmmakers alter a true story and still claim that their film is based on true events? Would it be better if they claimed it was “inspired by” a true events instead of based on them? Or are you sick of the “based on a true story” tagline altogether?