The last 18 months have seen a sharp rise in the number of films reaching multiplexes that proclaim to be ‘based on true events’, or even ‘inspired by the epic true story’, or perhaps simply ‘definitely true’. This trend has run through Hollywood since time immemorial. But with near 100 years worth of cinema, are too many of these true-life stories simply too far influenced by the artistic licence of their screenwriters and directors to be able to claim to be truly authentic?
The problem is that the movie definition of a ‘true story’ is far too broad to be able to police inaccuracy and avoid offending those who have a particular regard for the subject matter. Obviously the makers of such films strive to create an interesting, exciting and artistic representation of real life, whilst still attempting to remain as faithful as they can to their source (however inaccurate that source may be). So in 2011 alone we’ve had some great true life stories brought to life with varying degrees of accuracy, such as the heart pounding exhilaration and precision accuracy of 127 Hours, as well as the epic yet highly contentious events depicted in The Way Back.
Of course the discerning filmgoer isn’t always bothered about 100% accuracy, and it is often more fun to see a shamelessly inaccurate adaptation than a meticulous recreation. The worst offenders in the realm of accuracy seem to nearly always be historical films of the epic medieval variety. One British medieval legend in particular seems to suffer repeatedly at the hands of Hollywood’s blind enthusiasm. I speak, of course, of Robin Hood, and I would love to believe that 600 years ago Nottingham was as sunny and camp as it was in the fabulous 1938 romp The Adventures of Robin Hood. Likewise, wouldn’t it be great to learn that the Sheriff of Nottingham was the only man in England with even the remotest trace of an English accent (as per Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)? Although that said, Kevin Costner’s American ‘English’ accent somehow seems more acceptable than Russell Crowe’s Irish-Australian-Yorkshire-Scottish-Kiwi ‘English’ accent in 2010’s Robin Hood.
It is probably fair to say that if a seemingly inaccurate film is in fact very well made and, at the least, a fun watch, then that will usually be enough to save it from nothing more than a bit of barracking from history lecturers. However, make a bad film, and even Joe Average who dropped History back in Year 10 will be crying over historical neglect. Enter U-571; a film that Tony Blair once agreed was “an affront” to British sailors. Criticised for Americanising the British achievement of capturing a German enigma machine during World War II, it was so unashamedly incorrect that Bill Clinton was forced to write to the people of Horsforth (a small town near Leeds) to recognise their efforts for raising money to build one of the ships that actually completed the mission in real life. The film’s only saving grace is an on screen acknowledgement that the Royal Navy captured the Enigma machine first. Besides, any film that features Jon Bon Jovi shouldn’t be taken too seriously anyway.
The ‘true story’ movie is big business at the box office, a super genre in itself along with the likes of animation, 3D and Jennifer Aniston rom-coms. But it’s not just the producers of such flicks that make a living off bringing ‘the impossible and amazingly epic true life story’ to the screen. Many actors have cultivated whole careers out of playing real people. Michael Sheen being the obvious example, who has played (deep intake of breath): Kenneth Williams, H.G. Wells, Robbie Ross, Emperor Nero, David Frost (on stage and screen), Brian Clough and Tony Blair (3 times).
At this year’s Oscars, four out of the ten Best Picture nominees were ‘based on true events’. So at any rate it seems unlikely the popularity of true-life stories will waver with either filmmakers or filmgoers. And that’s fine, just as long as Hollywood doesn’t give us William and Kate: The Movie in Digital 3D, starring Jon Bon Jovi and Jennifer Aniston. The scary thing is, that film is probably already in development.