Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Accuracy Shmaccuracy"

A family member near and dear to me believes it’s a non-issue.  I respectfully disagree.

You have a movie that promotes itself as being “Based On” or “Inspired By” an actual event.  What is the expectation?  For me, it’s “We’re telling you a true story.” 

How true?  Therein lies the difficulty.  Because it’s not exactly clear.  This is not like some fast food beef patty that, in order to call itself a “beef patty”, is required to contain a legal prescribed minimum percentage of beef.  That may not even be true, but if it isn’t, it should be.  My point is there’s a line.

With “Based On” and “Inspired By” movies, there is no line that apparently exists.  And, according to my near and dear family member, there does not need to be.  Why?  Because,

“It’s a movie.”

That much, I will acknowledge.  It is a movie. 


It’s a movie that’s selling itself in a particular manner.  We are told,

It depicts an actual event

It’s not like any movie.  It’s not The Hangover or Avatar, which are

“Based on ideas we believed would sell a lot of tickets.”

When you, or at least I, attend a movie telling the story of an actual historical occurrence, you, or at least I, go in with a specific expectation:

That what I’m about to see up there on the screen more or less, and not much less,

Actually happened.

This, apparently, is an unjustified expectation.  Why?  Because,

“It’s a movie.”

That’s their “Get out of jail free” card.  And I’m telling you, it’s a slippery slope if ever I slid down one.  Using that non-standard standard, essential elements may be entirely absent.  Imagine going to a restaurant, which touts as being “Inspired By ‘Ocean Front Seafood’”, except they don’t sell any fish in it.

“How exactly is this like a fish restaurant?”

“Well, we have tables, chairs, a waiter, food and the check.  The only thing missing is the fish.”

Would you put up with that?  I wouldn’t.  They’re selling something they’re unquestionably not delivering.  Which, in my mind, constitutes fraud. 

“Not in this case.”

Why not?

“Because it’s a movie.”

“Look.  When you go to a movie that advertises itself as being ‘Based on an Actual Event’, there’s an expectation…”

“There is not.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and I’ve mentioned this before, I believe three time, the third time not ten second ago –

“It’s a movie.”

“But they’re lying to the public!”

“In what way?  The movie was based on an actual event.  They just didn’t say how much it was based on an actual event.”

“To me, that’s blatant misrepresentation.”

“This has been going on for centuries.  Is Hamlet ‘blatant misrepresentation’?”

“Probably, I don’t know.  But I know this.  The first line in Hamlet is not:

‘Based on actual events in Danish history.’”

“It’s exactly the same thing.”

“Not living in the Middle Ages anymore, we expect stories based on actual events to have a substantial level of credibility.  In The King’s Speech, King George sees the speech therapist years later that he actually went, he fiercely resists him, and he is later shocked to discover that his teacher had no medical training.  The research indicates that   King George knew his teacher wasn’t a doctor, and after their very first session with him, he went away brimming with confidence.  This isn’t minor tinkering.  Basic elements of reality have been blatantly misrepresented.”


“Why did they do that?”

“ Are you familiar with ‘Artistic license’?  ‘The king goes for help with his stammer, and he gets it.’  What kind of a story is that?”

“Fine.  Tell a good story.  But don’t mislead the moviegoer.  Instead of ‘Based on An Actual Event’, have the Opening Title say,

‘The following story happened.  Just not this way.’


‘Based on events that were less compelling than the ones we changed them to.’


‘A True Story.  Except for the facts.’”

“Are you finished now?”

“Yes. (A BEAT)  No!  They’re having it both ways – they’re pulling the audience in with the expectation of seeing something factual, then they hide behind ‘artistic license’ to deliver something that’s been inspired by, what The King’s Speech screenwriter calls, ‘informed imagination.’  There is something wrong with that, and it really pisses me off.”

Okay, now I’m finished.


Dimension Skipper said...

Well, I sort of agree with you to a point, but on the other hand I've just come to accept that the phrases "Based on a true story" and "Inspired by actual events" pretty much as the equivalent to the fine print and super-rapidly spoken legalese underneath and at the end of ads.

Everyone KNOWS the legalese says that everything we just blared in your face not only isn't necessarily so, it may be outright lies! Also, the FDA has not evaluated these statements and this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition and always consult your doctor before using this overpriced and dangerous product. Actual results may vary. Side effects may include dizziness upon standing, drowsiness, weight gain, dry mouth, dry skin, rash, excessive bleeding, diarrhea, constipation, etc... Do not drive or operate heavy machinery.

Ooh, and then there's my new personal favorite qualification: "Emerging research suggests that our product may..." Ok, anything which follows that is obviously complete and utter fabrication!

We are told that certain things have been "proven" in clinical studies, but are not told that "clinical studies" are a far cry from unbiased, well-researched scientific, double-blind, peer-reviewed studies published in well-established and respected journals (and then confirmed by yet MORE equally rigorous scientific studies).

At any rate, when it comes to movies I believe what you may be looking for is a documentary—I mean, if you're gonna be a stickler about the "Based on..." phrase. (And yet it's probably not even all that unusual for some documentaries to be heavily slanted, if not actually misrepresentative, simply by virtue of what the filmmaker chooses to show or omit.)

But let's turn the discussion back to your usual subject of comedy... Are you saying you've never—be honest!—related a true incident, yet not "slightly" (probably significantly) exaggerated details to accentuate the comedic elements? And telling the same story multiple times, does the comedic exaggeration not grow with each telling in an effort to elicit more laughs? Eventually the story will bear less and less resemblance to the initial incident.

That's all the drama folks are doing too with "Based on..." They're accentuating the elements they want to accentuate for the sake of heightening the drama or the romance or inspiration.

Now that being said, I do absolutely agree there is a theoretical line one may cross where beyond it the phrase "Based on..." should no longer be used and yet that doesn't seem to be the case. And even so, how would that line determined and by whom?

On those rare occasions where it comes out that someone's alleged "memoir" was essentially a fictional novel, well, that's just wrong.

Mac said...

I take your point, although with "The King's Speech" I was happy to go along with the whole thing as harmless entertaining nonsense. Colin Firth did a great job in making you root for him anyway.
I once did a rewrite on a "based on a true story" script in which the actual true story was totally discarded, and replaced with bits copied from successful films. It was shockingly derivative and brutally unfunny. My argument was that the true story was way better than anything in the script. Their argument was "People want to see stuff they've seen before, just with different characters."So, as they were spending the money, we parted ways.
I felt slightly vindicated when the actual subject of the film read the script and said 'None of this ever happened. I wouldn't mind if it was good, but it's shit and it never happened."

Alan said...

Night and Day...the Cole Porter story based on a true song