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When Films Fudge Facts

Every year, there are at least a dozen or more movies “based on a true story.” Also every year, we have to listen to various media outlets, bloggers, and fellow cinephiles complain about their lack of accuracy. In the past six months alone, we’ve heard the rallying cries about different movies. Captain Phillips: “The real Richard Phillips wasn’t a hero, he caused the problem!” Dallas Buyers Club: “Ron Woodroof didn’t have a transgender business partner, and he never rode bulls in rodeos!” Lee Daniels’ The Butler: “The real butler’s son was not a political radical! Also, he loved Ronald Reagan!” People who lodge such complaints are barking up the wrong tree. (“People don’t bark! Dogs do!” the sticklers for accuracy responded in unison.) I’m going to let you in on a little secret: It’s OK for movies to divert from the truth. In fact, it’s probably a good thing.

Let’s look at another recent film as an example of why it’s okay. Saving Mr. Banks has been widely criticized for altering the facts about author P.L. Travers and her relationship to animation maven/rumored popsicle Walt Disney. In the film, Travers is portrayed as a lonely single woman whose substantial personal issues are resolved by Disney after he adapts, and wildly changes, her story Mary Poppins. In the end, Travers considerably softens, even going so far as to accept the alterations Disney made to her work. Detractors of Saving Mr. Banks are quick to point out that, in real life, Travers was bisexual (which is never mentioned), had a child (also never mentioned), and was so appalled by what Walt Disney did to her story that she refused to allow any sequels. Let’s pretend for a minute that Saving Mr. Banks stuck 100% faithfully to the facts and showed Travers hating Disney until the day she died. What kind of movie would that be? Okay, I suppose it could make for a cynical film about the perils of turning your personal works over to moneymakers who will only bastardize it. But who wants to see that? Isn’t it more rewarding to suggest, as Mr. Banks does, that transferring one’s work to another medium, even with some changes, helps its intended message reach more people? As for her child and sexual preference, those things have nothing to do with Mary Poppins. Introducing them would be a (wild) diversion from the main narrative.

Movies need to have a point and take us on a journey. That’s part of why we go to see them. They are stories, told for entertainment. The idea of a beginning, a middle, and an end satisfies us on some deep emotional level. Tweaking the facts or adding/deleting things, as Saving Mr. Banks and other films do, can make the journey more powerful, and therefore more emotionally satisfying. Turning Cecil Gaines’ son in The Butler into a Black Panther allows the film to explore an important facet of the civil rights movement; the movie’s exploration of that subject would be incomplete without it. Giving homophobe Ron Woodroof a transgender business partner in Dallas Buyers Club allows it to clearly depict an important transition as he learns to become more accepting of gay people. His change mirrors America’s own growing acceptance of LGBT people from the 1980s to now, as well as our understanding that AIDS was much more than a “gay man’s disease.” In these and many other cases, hewing tightly to the facts would have made for films that couldn’t convey their ideas as fully or meaningfully as they do. The point of a movie is not to convey facts; it is to convey the truth behind the facts. That means occasionally fudging a few things in order to pull back and see the larger picture.

It’s also important to remember that real life seldom plays out in a three-act structure, which is the very thing motion pictures thrive on. Events occur far apart, or they happen because of a complicated series of factors that would take forever to portray on screen. Things need to be simplified or condensed, because to include everything would lead to a lumbering, disjointed pace. (Kind of like what has happened when Peter Jackson decided to cram every thought J.R.R. Tolkien ever had into his Hobbit trilogy.) Real life events happen over months, years, or even lifetimes. Movies happen over two hours. Fudging facts is simply a necessity to get these movies up on the screen in coherent fashion, and at a length that doesn’t make The Wolf of Wall Street feel like a short film.
If you want the truth about a true story, read a book or a news article. Movies are not required to be beholden to the facts (unless, of course, they’re documentaries). It’s fundamentally not their job. Their job is to entertain and amuse, whether through offering mindless fun or possessing intellectual/artistic worth. Someone who thinks they will learn the whole truth from seeing a movie is like a high school student who thinks he’ll completely understand Madame Bovary from reading the CliffsNotes. (In related news, I got a C- on my high school English paper about Madame Bovary.) In the best case scenario, a “true story” will provide the impetus for audiences to go out and learn more about it. This way, you get the best of both worlds: greater knowledge about something of interest, and the opportunity to enjoy a film that has the freedom to tell its story in the most satisfying manner possible.

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