Sunday, February 23, 2014

Film Pet Peeves: "Based On A True Story"

Welcome to a new segment of Seeing Is Believing that I like to call “Film Pet Peeves.” These will be “short” editorials on subjects in films that I don’t care for or just outright hate. These opinions and feelings may not always be favored in the majority but I still feel these are statements worth looking at. 

This may be a shorter series since there isn’t many things that piss me off about movies, but we’ll see about that when we get there.

With that said, let’s look at one of my biggest pet peeves about movies: “Based On A True Story.”

Everyone has seen movies like these, where that particular phrase is totted around like its some kind of accomplishment worthy of praise. It is usually done in the trailer of a movie, but sometimes extends to opening narrations and even beyond that. 

Cinema has been doing this for quite some time, dating as far back as 1925’s “The Battleship Potemkin” being based on a 1905 mutiny aboard the battleship of the same name which lead to a rebellion, to as recent as 2013’s “Jobs” being based on the life and lessons of Steve Jobs. Other examples include “12 Years A Slave,” “Pain & Gain,” “Argo,” “The Blind Side,” “Changeling” and “Pearl Harbor.”

My problem with this is the air of smugness that films will often have when they use that phrase. They use it as if that’s the only thing they care about, or the one thing that is worth mentioning above all else. The direction, acting and cinematography might be piss poor, but at least we stayed true to what happened. 

“Jobs” is a good example of this. They might have gotten many points of Steve Job’s life correct (although that wouldn’t be hard since most of his life is already well-documented), but that doesn’t change the fact that Ashton Kutcher is lifeless, the director doesn’t know what to do with the actors and that there is nothing all that special about the film.

If I want to know about Steve Job’s life, I’ll read his autobiography. That makes the entire point of the movie irrelevant. 

Here’s another problem with being based on true events: Movies will often take artistic liberties with source material. They will often overlook certain events and omit points that are sometimes necessary for an audience to know. Film doesn’t do this just with books, but true events as well. They will literally change aspects of what happened so that audiences will enjoy the film more. 

However, if you change anything about what happened in real life, then it is no longer based on “true events.” It is just a story that as somewhat inspired by something that happened once, but heavily changed so that more people will go see the movie.

A great example of this is “Patch Adams” a film based on the life story of a doctor of the same name (played by Robin Williams) who at the time was one of the most controversial medical doctors by choosing to make his patients laugh before treating them. 

In the movie, Adams has a love interest who supports him throughout most of his career and is always a constant source of happiness and hope in a world that seems completely against him. One day though, she dies unexpectedly and Adams is sent into an emotional rampage. Yet this eventually leads him to rally up his strength and courage and defend what he believes in.

In real life, the love interest didn’t exist. This person was a man and there was never any romantic feelings between the two. Yet this movie still claims to be “based on a true story.” 

I’m sorry, but no. It is not based on a true story. Far too much is changed from real life. The filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves for thinking that it was okay to say it was based on Patch Adams real life. 

If you want to make a film based on events that happened, fine. Just make sure that you get absolutely every detail right, do not change anything just so more people will watch your movie and, most importantly, make sure that it is still a well-made and respectful movie. 

Better yet, stay clear of the phrase “based on true events.” 

When that is put on any movie, you are automatically putting a stamp on your film, asking for audiences to compare the film with what happened. 

This stamp always makes me roll my eyes in frustration, because this isn’t something that makes your movie any better. I may enjoy movies like “12 Years A Slave” and “Argo” but it is certainly not because they are so close to the source material. It is because they are still well-made movies, with “12 Years A Slave” being so brutal yet beautiful and “Argo” being tense, atmospheric and funny.

If either of those films had been based on events that happened or not, it would not have changed how I feel about them. I would still enjoy them either way. Just like “Jobs” doesn’t work because it is poorly made. 

This wouldn’t be such a big problem if there weren’t so many movies coming out every year that use this phrase like no other. In 1985, only four movies used that expression. In 2013, 27 films are supposedly “based on real events.” Each year, this number increases and each time it is used, I can’t help but wonder why filmmakers think this is something worth bragging about. 


Anonymous said...

But that's why it is "based" on a true story. If it was the whole true story, it would be called "the true story". Using the word based gives directors, screenwriters, and studios those liberties to change bits of the story to make it better for film.

Paul Sell said...

I see where you're coming from, but I can't help but take an opposite side to that. If you were change bits of a true story, then it is no longer the true story and is no longer something that should be worth mentioning.

Anonymous said...

I don't think they are claiming its the whole true story though. 75% of the time the source is OK with it. Marcus Luttrell was OK with the changes in "Lone Survivor" and even was in the film and produced it. "Saving Mr. Banks" got approval from dozens of sources on changes they were making.

Paul Sell said...

See, I think "Saving Mr. Banks" is another example of changing the true story in a bad way. In reality, P.L Travers hated "Mary Poppins" and what Walt Disney did with it. In the movie, she teared up during the final scene and said she loved the movie. Not only does it not stay true to what actually happened, but it feels at odds with P.L Travers' character throughout the film. It feels like the mandatory happy Disney ending, which I felt the film was trying to get far away from.

Hated the ending, but just about any other scene where Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson are performing their duel is absolutely fantastic.