The now-famous story of the haunting of Long Island's Lutz family gets the big-screen treatment again in the upcoming remake of the 1979 horror hit "The Amityville Horror." Both movies exploit an approach to moviemaking that for decades has helped keep screenwriters' imaginations from going dry: namely, subtitling pretty much anything with the phrase "Based on a True Story" (or BOATS, as it'll hereafter be known).
Whether in biopics like "Ray," historical dramas like "Gangs of New York," or supposedly true tales of the supernatural such as "Amityville," movies have always adapted real-life narratives and events to their own cinematic needs. But let's take a second to remind ourselves of the definition of the word "adapt." Webster's tells us that to "adapt" means "to adjust or become adjusted to a specific situation." Now we need to look at the definition of "adjust": "to alter to match or fit."
In other words, the adapted story is changed in order for it to be turned into a movie.
Very few translations from one medium (say, a book) into another (say, a film) aspire to literalness — "Sin City" is a notable exception that proves the rule — and this includes "adaptations" from reality. Real lives, no matter how impressive, rarely contain the three-act, arclike structure that lies behind almost all motion pictures; and so liberties are taken, apocryphal tales are used and utter fiction is interwoven with fact to create an entirely new story.
And there's nothing wrong with that. A BOATS movie is not a documentary, and while watching one we should be smart enough to take everything we see in it with a big ol' grain of popcorn salt. The problem seems to be that audiences often overlook the words "based on." It's not Hollywood's fault that, amazingly, many people just don't question what's presented in a BOATS movie — that moviegoers don't stop to consider that it's impossible to know exactly what happened on the doomed fishing boat the Andrea Gale in "The Perfect Storm." But filmgoing is a passive activity; we tend to believe what we're told, especially if it's told to us with conviction by a superstar like Julia "Erin Brockovich" Roberts or a model-turned-actress Charlize "Monster" Theron and accompanied by tremendous production values.
It's one of the reasons why historical revisionists such as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee get raked over the coals for films like "JFK" and "Malcolm X." They're accused of furthering a political agenda by taking a framework of undisputed facts and filling in the structure with innuendo and supposition to create a work that feels like fact but is, in the end, fiction. And that manipulation of facts is, of course, entirely within their rights as creative artists. Debates as to whether the manipulation itself is "right" or not, however, will rage forever — but it's not the filmmaker's responsibility to hold the viewer's hand. It's his or her job to tell a good story.
The extent to which BOATS is treated as gospel was made evident by the wee controversy that "Fargo" caused when it was released in 1996. Joel and Ethan Coen's black comedy/thriller about extortion, murder and absolute ineptitude opens with the following words: "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."
The Coens lied. "Fargo" is complete fiction. When the deception was revealed, some accused the filmmakers of cheating their audience. Even star William H. Macy, upon discovering that the film he was making wasn't fact-based, told the Coens, "You can't do that!" To which the visionary writer-director team responded, "Why not?"
Joel Cohen told "Time Out" that "if an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept." The fake BOATS tag first gives "Fargo" an added air of bleakness (it's even printed on the back of the DVD), but the discovery of its falseness takes nothing away from the film.
Perhaps the story loses a bit of its weight, but the movie takes on an added artistic heft. It's messing with the audience in a brilliant, subtle way.
So what happens when someone takes a movie like "Ed Wood" as the unvarnished truth? Maybe they just become the unwitting source of entertainment for other, less-gullible film buffs as they discuss the ironic impact of the worst director of all time meeting with Orson Welles (a scene in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic that didn't actually happen). Or they get a "D" on a term paper that's transparently based on a Netflix rental rather than on actual, multifaceted research.
The best possible BOATS outcome might be that the viewer is intrigued by the story dramatized onscreen, and decides to do some delving into the historical matter. In other words, there's always a chance that a movie's dramatic license might spark a healthy skepticism of authority and maybe even a thirst for knowledge.
After all, the best art motivates us, moves us to expand our horizons a bit. Even if it's full of big honkin' lies.
Check out everything we've got on "The Amityville Horror."
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