Taking Liberties with the Facts

Films often open with the disclaimer that they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by a true story.” It turns out that, in many cases, the story presented on film is significantly different from the true story as presented in other narrative forms, particularly a book on which a film is based. On my exam, I asked why this might be the case, and whether there should be any criteria to limit the extent that movies take liberties with the facts.

The answers to the question identified three reasons for taking liberties. First, the constraints of the film medium (total running time and number of scenes) often require simplifying a complex story and shortening the period of time over which it occurs. Second, once a story line is established, for example by choosing a character from whose point of view the narrative is presented, there may be gaps in the historical record, and it is necessary to interpolate. Third, the story may be changed to make it more dramatic, which in practice often involves exaggerating the efforts, motives, and achievements of the chosen hero and denigrating the efforts, motives, and achievements of the chosen villain. The film is often trying to strengthen the emotional connection between hero and audience, thus heightening its cathartic effect.

Recognizing this, should there be any criteria limiting liberties taken? The majority opinion among the students was no, that is simply the nature of the medium, and audiences should recognize that. When you see “based on a true story,” you should understand the emphasis is on “based on” rather than on “a true story.”

Let me suggest one limitation on dramatic license within film and one mechanism for dealing with the discrepancy between the film and the true story. The limit comes from the law of defamation. While it is unlikely that a living hero (or the heirs of a deceased hero) would object to exaggeration of his/her efforts, motives, or achievements, there is some possibility that a chosen villain (or the heirs of a deceased villain) might object to the portrayal of his/her efforts, motives, or achievements in a film.

We have a recent Canadian example. Prairie Giant a 2006 television mini-series about the life of former Saskatchewan Premier and federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas beatified Douglas while denigrating his Liberal opponent, former Saskatchewan Premier and federal minister James Gardiner. Were Gardiner alive today, he would have sued the creators of the mini-series for defamation. His grandchildren denounced the series and sought to prevent it being rebroadcast. Several Saskatchewan columnists sided with them. Former NDP Premier Allan Blakeney agreed with the columnists, opining that, in reality, Douglas was no saint nor was Gardiner the epitome of evil. Ultimately, the CBC admitted the series had made major historical errors, and agreed not to rebroadcast it.

The simplest way to deal with discrepancies between fact and film narrative would be to include in the bonus material on the DVD version (which is a film’s ultimate record) a statement by the producer, or perhaps by an authority on the events dealt with in the film, about the nature of the discrepancies and the narrative or dramatic purposes they serve. While this material would not be available to cinema audiences, it would at least be on the record and available to viewers interested in learning about these discrepancies as they form their own judgments.

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