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The Real Story: For All Those “Based On” and “Inspired By” Movies

posted by Nell Minow

The New York Times is in the business of reporting the facts.  And sometimes those facts result in “based on” or “inspired by” movies that have only a homeopathic relationship to what really happened yet are marketed as though they are close to journalism.

Often, in these films, accuracy is sacrificed for drama. But do the makers of films claiming to be based on or inspired by real stories have an allegiance to the truth, or just to the art of storytelling?

The Times invited a screenwriter, an historian, and some critics to talk about the issues raised by some of the most recent “fact-based” movies and it is a fascinating discussion.  Screenwriter Pamela Katz wrote:

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The facts of any life, of any story, must be honored. But they are like keys on a piano that can be played in a variety of ways until the melody captures the subject truthfully. One must be factually accurate about the important events of someone’s life, but if the film doesn’t illuminate something essential about their life, work and personality, then you have failed to tell the truth.  But that, in a way, is also faithful to the truth.

For example, in the movie Katz wrote about Hannah Arendt,

the speech she gives at the end of the movie was based largely upon Arendt’s own writings, but it is not a speech she actually gave. She spoke to students and others in response to the controversy, but these talks were not recorded. We listened to other speeches that were recorded to capture her public speaking style, but ultimately the actress, Barbara Sukowa, made it her own. It seems to have worked, since people sometimes tell Sukowa they were present when Arendt gave “that” speech.

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Chasing the Frog is a terrific resource for all questions about what really happened in all those “based on a true story” and “inspired by a true story” movies, from “The Butler” to “The Conjuring,” and even some unexpected story-behind-the-stories like “The Big Lebowski” and “Bloodsport.” It’s especially fun to see the pictures of the real people who inspired these stories. h/t Mark Jenkins — Thanks!

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