They say that truth is stranger than fiction. They’re wrong, of course, because fiction is bound only by one’s imagination, which is vast and endless, whereas truth is bound only by reality which is, on a good day, a barrage of a near constant, blunt force trauma, reminding us of what is and what isn’t possible.
Which leads to today’s lesson, class: How To Adapt Fact into film. This is a field that is fraught with creative challenges, while being simultaneously and potentially lucrative (the Academy loves a biopic, after all). The main problem is simply that life has this annoying way of not following a basic three act structure. You will find a lot of character arcs, usually redemptive ones, but a problem that I tend to find with a movie based solely on fact is usually in its ending.
Look at two recent true story movies: The Imitation Game and American Sniper, a pair of Oscar-nominated war movies, with some similarities. Both focus on real life figures, and their roles in a war, and the aftermath of each. And both focus on characters who died tragically. However, in both cases the character’s death do not appear as a scene in the movie, but through title cards played before the credits. And in all honesty, I didn’t want to see Alan Turing die. His death is a blight upon England, and a source of national shame. When I watched the movie though, and his death was reduced to a block of text, I almost wanted the filmmakers to not say anything about it at all. Let people go away, and if they found Turing’s story interesting, they should have left the end up to the audience to investigate. I can imagine the filmmaker’s point-of-view on this, with the movie being labeled as “sad enough without having to watch Benedict Cumberbatch succumb to depression, and poison himself in the last scenes,” much like American director Clint Eastwood must have thought regarding the ending to American Sniper, where scenes of Chris Kyle’s murder would have left his audience with a bitter taste in their mouths.
And that’s the failing. The best based-on-fact movies are the ones that don’t give a shit about the taste in your mouth. Raging Bull, 12 Years a Slave, Boys Don’t Cry, and the like present you with real people and real events and don’t try to pretend that real people and real events aren’t sometimes absolutely awful.
The trick to adapting fact (and it’s a hell of a trick) is to present something that is real and also artful. Look at 12 Years a Slave. That movie is unflinching in so many ways, and yet (as with Steve McQueen’s other work) it is beautiful in so many ways, too. It’s like looking at Picasso’s “Guernica.” Everything in the picture is awful to behold; screaming horses, running people, the dead, and yet when you stand before it, it is impossible to look away. A movie like The Imitation Game, on the other hand, is entertaining, but workmanlike in its execution. I was sad when it ended, but the feelings didn’t linger with me like they did after Boys Don’t Cry, Hunger, 12 Years a Slave, The Killing Fields, or United 93, and this was mainly because it felt like a cheat to be presented with the most heart-breaking part of Turing’s story as a where-are-they-now series of title-cards, as though the filmmakers were afraid of offending their audience with the unfortunate truth, even though that truth was what the audience came to see in the first place.
Featured Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures