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Based on a True Story…


by Cassie Ochoa

Every #CinemaFan worth their salt knows what happens when the phrase “based on a true story” comes across the screen. There’s even variations on the phrase, such as “inspired by true events” and “based on actual events,” which suggests an illusion of accuracy, just shy of a documentary. Translation: “writers took an actual event and gave it a cinematic treatment.” Even the suggestion of the truth can get audiences into a film. This stands in stark contrast to a typical biopic; instead of covering the life of a person (such as Walk the Line) or an event in one life (such as Neerja), which focuses around a central character, it will cover a story almost beyond belief. “Based on a true story” are five words that definitely affect not only the audiences who see it, but the event’s legacy, as well. 


Horror tends to take real monsters from the scandalous headlines of the past. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Annabelle, true horror hides in glimpses of the real world. Real life murderers and allegedly possessed families inspire terror in an eager audience. It’s easy to ignore the real victims, in light of a fictionalized adaptation. Anneliese Michel from The Exorcism of Emily Rose (pictured above) was a real girl who died of malnutrition and starvation during her ordeal. The inspiration for Wolf Creek was a series of real murders in the Australian Outback. There are real bodies behind the corpses on screen, and real survivors behind them. There seems to be a grace period between real life victims and their survivors. Films that take a case and exaggerate it to a farcical level within the relevant timeline, such as the remake of The Amityville Horror in 2005, are frequently called out by the subjects.


The genre that most pulls from real events is drama. There are plenty of underdog stories that exist in the pages of books and in the legacies of war heroes. Anthropoid (pictured above), Foxcatcher, Bridge of Spies, and Snowden are just four examples of taking a real life situation and casting charismatic and attractive people to stand in. Any deviances in the original story are lost to cinematic convention; however easily searchable to those who care. This creates an interesting problem when it comes to some of the “characters” and their original source motivations. In Foxcatcher, John du Pont is portrayed as having something of a homosexual fascination with some of his athletes. In Anthropoid, Jan Kubis is shown with a shaky hand when it comes to assassination. Character traits are given based on what fits the story rather than an accurate portrayal of the story. Rarely does a cinematic adaptation of a story sacrifice a good audience moment for an accurate portrayal.


So what of the real people? The characters that cinema preserves with different intentions, rendering the complexities of situations with broad strokes? It depends on the film and what the interpretation does. In films such as Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, a victim of urban legend is fleshed out into a real human as opposed to a fool. In Into the Wild, a man is given a completely sympathetic treatment despite being romanticized as a tragic figure in a Walden-esque attempt at truly living. In Anthropoid, the fallout of the assassination is painted with devastation and destruction, as opposed to ending heroically. Foxcatcher had Mark Schultz releasing a variety of remarks about the film’s quality, but generally taking issue with his depiction in the film. Pain & Gain had the victim’s families and survivor Marc Schiller outraged at not only the tone of the film, but specifically at the sympathetic portrayal of killers. Films that remain accurate to the timeline events such as Alpha Dog, Imperium and Spotlight, tend to get praised not only for storytelling but truly capturing the complexity of the situation at hand. Ultimately the writers of the film are the ones charged with both, capturing a level of sensitivity for the real people and creating a good story for the audience. A film may not live or die on faithfulness to reality, but the legacy left behind by the fictional counterpart does not truly ever fade.

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