I saw THE BLIND SIDE this weekend, a movie based on the true story of a homeless teenager who gets taken in by a wealthy southern family and eventually becomes and All-American football player and first round draft pick after developing both his athletic and academic ability. It was a decent film, and certainly worthy of all the good reviews it has been getting. However, I get the sense that it's one of those movies that in three years I'll have completely forgotten.
Anyway, during the film there were a few moments here and there where I would occasionally - and involuntarily - think "I bet that scene is either made up or at least an embellishment." In fact, after the movie, I briefly considered looking up more about the real story and seeing if any of my guesses were right. Then I asked myself, "Does it really matter? Shouldn't the only question be 'Was it an entertaining movie?'"
There are no Oscars given out for "Best Movie Based on a True Story" or "Best Movie Most Like the Actual Events" that inspired it. If the only objective is to produce a well-made movie that's an engaging piece of drama, why should it make any difference if the story is faithfully adapted or made up out of whole cloth?
I see a lot of scripts - some interesting, many boring - that put "Based on a True Story" on the cover page. While I can see the merit in it, there are times when the concept is so dull, or so overused, that it seems like the "true story" hook is meant as a preemptive defense against criticisms of derivative plots or weak drama. Suppose the script in question is yet another story about a teacher who inspires inner city students to find their inner Whitmans. Let's say it hits every expected beat - with the added bonus of only tepid conflict between the main characters.
But when one tries to give the writer notes that would make the script more interesting and dramatic, or suggests changes to make the lead character more flawed and compelling - the writer resists, saying "That's not what happened in real life!"
Should we care? Is there anything that says one can't just change the names to divorce the story from the real people and then rewrite the story with abandon? It is that important for a story to be "based on a true story?"
I've felt that if the only hook your story has is that it's "true," then you're in trouble. Real life is often boring. Would sticking "Based on a true story" on top of, say, BRIDE WARS automatically make it a better script? And at the same time, is the only appeal of PIRATE RADIO that it's "based on a real story?"
That's why the yearly scandals about how the "true life" Best Picture nominee takes liberties with real life are so ridiculous. By the same token, if you enjoy a particular reality show, do you watch because you find the drama compelling, or because the show is "real?" If the former, would it really matter if something like THE HILLS is staged and scripted more tightly than your average sitcom?
So let me ask you this - does it matter to you if a movie is "true?" Would that fact alone get you into the theatre? If not, at what point does that fact become a selling point? If you wouldn't see the movie when it's total fiction, why would claiming fidelity to actual events make the story any more compelling?
And if any of that makes a difference, why is it that audiences care about such details?