Is 'based on a true story' a film fib?

Alec Wilson questions the validity of the 'based on a true story' claim.

Alec Wilson
29th March 2020
Historical films and films based on true stories are a staple of the film industry. In these strange times of fake news, the importance of accuracy in such films is a pertinent discussion. Film is in the business of escapism, transporting us away and connecting us with that world and its characters. Deviations from accuracy is a device sometimes used to create such a connection. 

Often, the importance of accuracy to a film depends on the type of film. In a biopic, there is a greater responsibility for the filmmaker to depict events accurately so the subject is not misrepresented. If filmmakers are deviating from the truth they should only do so with the permission of those it is depicting. In Rocketman (2019) Elton John and his husband served as Executive Producers on the film, so they could have a say in how Elton was portrayed, giving a fair depiction of his life.

In films showing a singular event or ‘true story’, an accurate portrayal is important as filmmakers have a responsibility as guardians of those stories and the people in them. Further, when an audience is told that events are based on a true story it makes them more engaged with the characters, more accepting of events that take place. This was exploited by the Coen Brothers in Fargo (1996), with their infamously misleading opening text, claiming to be a true story. Films telling a true story can sometimes take liberties with the truth to make it more entertaining: take Tarantino’s rewriting of history in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). Again, as long as permission is given and there are historians in the world to point out what is and is not historically accurate, artistic license is in some cases acceptable.  

Dramatisation is also necessary for films telling a fictional story but set in a historical period.

Dramatisation is also necessary for films telling a fictional story but set in a historical period. Subsequently, it is important that the setting is authentically rendered onscreen, meaning an accurate use of props and set design. 1917 (2019) is loosely based on an amalgamation of stories Director Sam Mendes was told by his grandfather, and yet that film gives a very authentic portrayal of what trench warfare and life for soldiers in WWI was like.

The intentions of the filmmaker also influences the importance of accuracy. If they wanted to inform, they have a greater responsibility to be accurate and not misrepresent what happened, as people may be watching for educational purposes. Mary Queen of Scots (2018) was criticised because, as pointed out by historian Simon Schama, the whole drama surrounding the two monarchs was that they did not meet, something the film did not seem to grasp. Key historical moments should not be altered in this way for the sake of dramatisation.

Conversely if they intended to primarily entertain, they can be permitted a greater degree of artistic license. I’m pretty sure that Adolf Hitler wasn’t an imaginary friend of JoJo Betzlet, but then I didn’t go to JoJo Rabbit (2019) to learn about Germany under the Third Reich. 

It is not the job of the filmmaker to be a historian. They have a responsibility to those that the ‘true’ story involves to create a faithful version of events, but it is not always an absolute necessity that they produce a historically accurate version of events in their film. Films have a double-edged purpose: to entertain and inform. As long as the main events of a story remain accurate, filmmakers should be permitted some leeway for artistic license and dramatisation, in order for the audience to be swept along in the story being told. 

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