When used to describe a movie, I can hardly think of five words less appealing than, “Based on a true story.” They usually indicate formulaic filmmaking, as the “true story” is given meaning by turning it into a cliché and then shoehorning it into a tired melodrama that is still supposed to be interesting because it’s “true.” One need only turn to the genre of the biopic to see what I’m talking about. It is hard to imagine a more compelling and historically significant figure from the twentieth century than Mahatma Gandhi. Yet Richard Attenborough managed to turn his life into the cinematic equivalent of a bowl of gruel. My understanding is that in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela’s life was reduced to tepid water served in an unwashed cup.
Declaring a movie “based on a true story” is also used as an attempt to excuse stories that are nothing more than ridiculous. One could hardly imagine Men Who Stare at Goats being made if it were a work of fiction—unless it had a much better script. But because it was based on a true story, not much was done with it despite a premise rich with absurdity. It’s as if the Coen brothers never laid bare the lie of what it means to claim that a movie is “based on a real story” when they declared Fargo was, even though it wasn’t. At first, the ruse was puzzling. Why would the Coen brothers make such a claim? A commenter on IMDb suggests “they added that disclaimer so the viewer would be more willing to suspend disbelief in the story.” That may be true, but even if it isn’t, it shows their understanding that such a claim is meant to excuse, even explain, a story that almost falls apart it is so illogical and nonsensical. It is less a statement of truth than a frame through which a story is to be seen and understood.
Essentially, movies based on true stories bank on the premise that what is “true” is inherently more interesting than fiction, or at the very least that they offer more “truth.” It is a premise borne out in the overwhelming popularity of non-fiction over fiction in the publishing industry. Recently, I heard it articulated in a question at a talk I was attending that began from the assumption that reading fiction was a waste of time. Such an assumption comes from a limited view of truth that I think will only become more prevalent in our Information Age, where information can be easily circulated while truth seems to gum everything up because it takes time, or even is the time it takes to get at it.
I wonder just what truth people think they glimpse in “true stories.” After all, if it’s “true,” it couldn’t possibly make sense. The world doesn’t come in neat packages.