Most young adult fantasies are safely detached from the real world. They exist in fictitious lands that bare only certain semblances to our lives. While many tackle familiar issues, the screen of the alien is always there to obscure everything. Not too much for the message to be lost, just enough for it to be fun. A Monster Calls smashes through that screen, picking the reader up into a world feels every bit as beautiful and terrible as the one we wake into each day of our lives.
As audiences, we see these words a lot. Recently, I was at the cinema seeing The Imitation Game and these were the first words to greet me on the screen. It gave everything in the film a sense of gravity and added weight. I was not watching fanciful creations but someone’s actual life, dramatized because of its significance… or so I thought. Afterwards, I immediately inquired further into the validity of The Imitation Game‘s information. There were inconsistencies to say the least. This is not to say anything negative against the movie as a film, or to single it out as the only culprit when it comes to twisting reality. This happens a lot. Books, movies, even video games all love to use the tagline: based on a true story. Well cool – what’s it mean?
After some digging, I was able to find a legal definition in regards to the phrases “based on a true story” and “inspired by a true story.” Keep in mind, this is in regards to literature (although safe bet that similar stature exists for the other media types):
“No difference of any legal consequence between ‘based on’ and ‘inspired by.’ Each of them suggests that there is a core of truth to the story but that you are embellishing or going beyond the factual record. This is something we call ‘faction,’ a conflation of fact and fiction and it can under some circumstances give rise to libel claims, but not if the story is about animals.”
“A core of truth” does not go far to keep a story grounded in reality. Essentially, what that means is that one significant aspect of the story must be true. If one is making a film about a real life killer for instance – a killer will be in the movie. Does the movie killer have to be related to the actual killer? Look no further than Ed Gein vs. Leatherface for the answer to that one.
As the definition suggests, legal trouble can also arise from uses of the term. Families and living relatives often take issue with film portrayals of their ancestors (let’s use The Imitation Game again as an example). In the case of the atrocious film, The Fourth Kind, many newspapers and an entire city were angered over the film’s liberal use of “based on a true story.” Argo might hold some kind of record since it angered the majority of Canada by downplaying the country’s role in the “true” events depicted on-screen.
So, with all the trouble that can come of “based on a true story,” why do they use it?
Because we love it.
In many cases, this phrase appears associated with either drama or horror, leveraging that all important aspect of audience relatability. What could be scarier or more moving than something that actually happened? The chills of a “real-life” psychopath will get the adrenaline flowing better than any fictional boogeyman. Anyone experiencing either the rush or low of a relationship will take solace in knowing there are other people out there who went through similar situations.
Is it real… well does it need to be? “Based on a true story” is used to heighten emotional reaction. The upside is, this technique clearly works as more and more films adapt it into their hits. The (potential) downside: some people actually believe it while it further increases the cynicism of others.
So who is responsible? While some blame Hollywood and publishers for their overzealous use of phrase, I believe that it is the audience’s responsibility to be informed. It is a lazy mind that takes everything it sees or reads at face value. That is not to say that they have the right to lie or slander individuals at will. Let’s keep those laws we have working for us.
If anything, “based on a true story” should be taken as an invitation to do some research. Heck, if you already thought the subject was interesting, why not look into it a little more?
Once upon a time, the land of television was a harsh, unforgiving place. Shows came and went, regardless of quality. Having a well-written, well-cast, well-directed program did not guarantee success. Take Freaks and Geeks: I’m going to guess that many out there have not heard of this show. It only lasted a season (1999-2000) and ran on NBC (hardly HBO). Well, this was a show produced by Judd Apatow (the 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), and that starred actors like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. Guest stars included Shia LaBeouf, Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, and Jason Schwartzman. So… there were a couple names (not yet big) involved.
I think what killed Freaks and Geeks was the premise: high school. Talk about a unique setting for dramatic teen comedy, especially in the late nineties. The show focuses around the Weir family, particularly their children Lindsey(Linda Cardellini) and Sam(John Francis Daley). Sam is a geek, one of a few just starting out his high school career. Lindsey was also a geek but a different kind (math nerd), she is an upperclassman looking to break out of her image by hanging with the “freaks”: Segel, Rogen, and Franco. I’m going to be honest: this is not the most driving premise I’ve ever heard. What makes it work, however, is not just the casting. Freaks and Geeks has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on television, and one needs look no further than the character of Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) for an example.
Kim Kelly is the bitchy girlfriend of Franco’s Daniel Desario. She appears dumb, vulgar, and mean-spirited. On the surface, she is the exact opposite of protagonist, Lindsey Weir. For many shows, particularly comedies: this would be enough characterization (for one season anyway). Comedies are no strangers to using stereotypes for laughs, especially among non-starring characters (which Kim Kelly is). A lesser show would have stopped there with her and probably little of the humor would have been lost.
I’m going to try to avoid going into spoilers, as I think the storytelling of Freaks and Geeks is best left to its writers. That said, I am going to discuss one episode in detail: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” The basic premise: Kim invites Lindsey over for dinner in an attempt to try and build a friendship between the two of them. Two people who don’t really like each other trying to get along: hilarious… but that’s not what the episode is really about. This is Kim’s family:
They are not like Lindsey’s family. Lindsey’s family is about as normal as it gets: father (working), mother (homemaker), and younger brother (insert sibling description here). Kim comes from an abusive household, and the writers make no secret of this. What’s great, however, is that they don’t overdo it either. Kim’s “father” isn’t physically abusive (at least not in the episode) and her mother isn’t immediately crazy. It is a realistic presentation of a dysfunctional family.
Afterwards, Kim is explained a little bit: but the show doesn’t use her background as a crutch for her character (oh this is just how she was raised nonsense). Kim is still given responsibility for her actions and still expected to grow (just not at the same pace as Lindsey). How refreshing it is to have no shortcuts taken. There were a million ways to explain Kim Kelly and the writers chose the simplest. They didn’t make it flashy or outwardly attention-grabbing, they just made it good.
Every character gets this treatment on Freaks and Geeks: it’s what makes the show worth watching. I could go on praising but that is just what it would be. So I’ll simply say: watch it. No stupid hooks, no excessive nudity or character deaths in place of character development: just good, realistic, character drama. Too bad there aren’t more shows on this level.