My gateway to history was the movies. I used to be ashamed to admit it. It’s more elegant to cite J.R.R. Tolkien, a visit to Williamsburg, or a family steeped in lineage and national participation. But I’ve gotten over it. Instead, I admire my younger self for having such an enthusiasm for research and truth. Because that’s what drew me in: a deep curiosity (and perhaps disbelief) that what I had just watched was A True Story.
As you’ve probably experienced yourself, such research usually yields disappointment over what was true and what was fiction. Occasionally, it’s relief that it wasn’t as bad as the movie made it out to be … but generally, stories are gently (or not so gently) scrubbed of their unpleasantness and served up as more elegant, exciting, or uplifting.
Over the years, one of my favorite things to write about has been the truth behind the movies. This arose partly out of my zeal for research, but also because of a maddening academic penchant to take the middle ground. The history department was one that disdained all things Hollywood, and while I understood their reasoning -- they had to read a lot of inaccurate papers based on whatever the blockbuster of the year was -- I was always a little disappointed by it. To me, anything that got people to research Sparta, medieval Scotland, the Civil War, or the Russian Revolution was all right. And did it matter if a sword was inaccurate or a style of dress was 30 years too early? Wasn’t the intent more important than the details? To me, inaccuracies became just as interesting as the facts. What a writer or director chooses to fudge reveals an awful lot about a film, the intent of the film, and the time it was made.
But your average viewer doesn’t even think of that -- and as pretentious as I’ve made myself sound, I too am the average viewer. When you sit down to watch something based on a true story, for two hours you have absolutely no choice but to believe you are watching exactly that. You go into The Social Network with a very different set of expectations than you do Captain America: The First Avenger.
Yet these days -- after decades upon decades of squishy biopics and scrubbed historical epics -- your average viewer is pretty darn skeptical. Whenever you talk or write about inaccuracies in a film, someone is bound to snark the obvious: “Well, what do you expect? It’s Hollywood. Anyone expecting a history lesson is an idiot. I would worry about anyone who believed a movie was true.”
Well, so would I … within reason. It really isn’t too much to expect a film would be accurate, especially if it bills itself as Based on a True Story. Sure, there’s wiggle room in the word “based,” but not much, and it’s pretty low to rewrite a story you thought was exciting and remarkable enough to be adapted into a film into an even better and more palatable film. (The phoniness is undoubtedly why more and more taglines opt for the poetic “Inspired by the True Story,” which gives you the buzz factor of recognition, but practically underlines the fiction.) We don’t have to ask ourselves whether a documentary, a biography, or an autobiography is true (though we should -- you’d be surprised at the lurid fiction that finds its way in and so much is a matter of intent or bias) because it’s just inherent in the form. Why should we have to doubt the movies? Couldn’t Hollywood hold itself to the same standard with anything they bill as truth?
And I have to be boring and say yes, they do. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still fun to be had in the land of historical fiction. Think about it. Nothing in the advertising of 300 insisted it was a 100 percent accurate re-creation of the battle of Thermopylae. It was obvious from the marketing (as well as its source material) that it drew on a real event, but covered it in fantasy, and that’s fine. Literature has done it for years. Film can, too. I’m not sure why we (and I include academics and audiences equally) relish and respect one and disdain the other, because pulpy and sexy liberties are equally rampant. As long as no one gets hurt -- and those long dead won’t be by some extra sex and gore, believe me -- there’s not really any harm in it, and it’s been going on since we first started writing fiction. There are probably hieroglyphs with highly romantic versions of actual Egyptian battles, penned by the ancient version of James Cameron or Zack Snyder, and knowingly read as such.
But if a filmmaker is going to go to the effort of adapting a true story, and of emphasizing the real names, places, and situations (and there’s a key difference in using Thermopylae as a setting, and the liberties taken in A Beautiful Mind), then they do owe it to themselves, their subject, and audiences to make it as truthful as possible. There are always exceptions (having to meet a running time, for example) but they ought to be the rarity, not the rule. And if you are going to be brazen enough to use the word “True” in your marketing anywhere, and namedrop the real individuals in every interview you give, then you really ought to hold to it and make sure your film is as authentic and honest as it can be. Especially if your subject -- or your subject’s family -- is alive, well, and able to be hurt by whatever you’ve chucked on the screen. The truth is even more important in that case. If they’re uncomfortable with the unvarnished truth, a filmmaker shouldn’t buy the rights to their story. They should go with the old loosely inspired by gambit instead, a la The Departed reworking the tale of Whitey Bulger. I truly believe that when a “Based On A…” film is revealed to be more fiction than fact, there needs to be the kind of critical and popular backlash that would follow a faked article or news report, and sink those responsible for it. It’s rather shameful that we live in a world where we’ve been conditioned to expect a well-scripted lie even when it’s advertised as the very opposite of one.
We should always question every version of a story. You learn that as a historian -- that history is endlessly reworked and reinterpreted, and that even a single photograph is filled with context, perception, and hidden angles and agendas. That’s life. It’s messy. But while audiences can’t expect truth out of stories billed as A True Story, we ought to. Doing so respects the subject, the generations of viewers who will view it, and the accuracy of advertising. And who knows what writers, directors, and scholars might be inspired by realizing the story they just watched was true?