Based on a True Story

TSTI seem to remember reading somewhere that a writer is a person who lies for a living.  When I went searching for such a quote, I found a very entertaining post titled The Art of Telling Lies by Alex Keegan on Writers Write which argues that fiction writers are indeed liars, albeit sometimes in the interest of exposing a higher or more fundamental truth.   It begins with the following quote from science fiction writers, George Scithers & Darrel Schweitzer:

Fiction is lies. There is the Great Lie, the simple fact that the story is a story and not reportage. Fiction writers, therefore are liars — and they have to be good ones.

The thing about fiction, though, is that there is an implied contract with the reader … this is fiction, believe what you want.   If, on the other hand, the book in hand (or these days, in Kindle) is non-fiction, the reader is entitled to expect to read the truth … or at least the author’s perception of it.    Then again, 19th century English historian Thomas Macaulay has said:

The object is not truth but persuasion

In these days of journalistic reporting, that is probably more true than ever.  There is, however, a middle ground where the truth is even fuzzier.  In the world of the film and television, the world of Based on a True Story, there is no contract.

I bring this up because yesterday, Muri and I saw the new release, Dallas Buyers Club starring Matthew McConaughey.  The film is Based on the TrueDBC Story of Ron Woodruff, a hard-living, homophobic Texas electrician who discovers he has AIDS.  Rejected by his friends and denied medical trials for AZT, he begins to learn about alternative treatments for his illness and means of illegally obtaining the medication he needs to stay alive.  Ever the opportunist, he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, providing the medications to the very gay community he detests for a monthly fee.   Gradually, however … and quite reluctantly, I’d add … he becomes an advocate of alternative medicine in the Dallas area in a sad era when public attitude, medical treatment and government policy seemed largely based on homophobia.   Or so the film implied.

Ever the skeptic about Hollywood productions, it has become my habit to search the internet for the real story behind Based on a True Story scripts, a habit that’s done nothing to reduce my skepticism.   In some films, details are only enhanced or invented to make a better story.  For example, the childhood of Cecil Gaines, the main character of The Butler, was nowhere near as tragic as the film depicted.   And Remember the Titans adjusts many of the facts of the real story, including an exaggeration of the degree of animosity between the players.  Still, I enjoyed both films and see the portrayal of the history of civil rights in this country … particularly to a younger audience that has not lived it … as justifying a bit of creative storytelling.  Then there’s The Hurricane, a Based on a True Story of the injustices visited on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a promising African-American Boxer, including conviction by a prejudiced court system of a triple homicide … and his eventual vindication based on a key piece of evidence found by his heroic white (Canadian) lawyers.   The truth is that the evidence that Carter was involved in the homicides remains quite strong … and that he was released on a technicality 22 years later.   It is one thing to adjust details to enhance an basically true story and another to change facts that alter the essential truth.  There are times the film maker should just drop the Based on a True Story label.   But then the lies wouldn’t be as persuasive, would they?

So, how about Dallas Buyers Club?  It was a very difficult film to watch, particularly for an old guy who grew up when homophobia was the norm.   My head fully supports Gay Rights but I still find it difficult to watch overtly gay scenes.  The sleazy heterosexual sex in DBC and the suffering of the AIDS victims was just as difficult.   Woodruff, for much of the film, was a despicable character.   It’s hard to say I liked the film, even to say I’m glad I saw it.   But it’s important not to forget a time when we turned our back on a significant percentage of our people because of their sexual preference.   And in a time when government is taking an increasing role in health care, it’s important to remember that bureaucracies are as capable as corporations of placing their own self-interests over those of people in need.   And, as far as I could tell (here and here), the facts of the story are essentially true. The only complaint I could find was the suggestion that it puts too much of the credit for the availability of the availability of alternative medicine in the era on a homophobic misfit and not enough on the activism of a gay community.  It is probably a valid observation, but the gray-hair audience that was in the theater with Muri and I is more likely to watch a drama about the reluctant conversion of a straight man than a documentary on AIDS activism.  And that’s a good thing.   McConaughey is remarkable in Dallas Buyers Club (this from a former hater) although he is so thin for the role, it’s painful to watch.   But go see it.  Better yet, tell your 20-something and 30-something friends to see it.  Tell them it’s a comedy.  More than gray hairs need to see this film.

So, how do you feel about Based on a True Story films … tell me in my comments section.  But first, it’s Top Sites Tuesday #231 and I’m way over my Two Thoughts on Tuesday limit.   Push my button … gently … anyway to make me Number One.


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8 Comments on “Based on a True Story”

  1. nobusysignal Says:

    Great post bud, now i gotta go research Ruben Hurricane Carter and Remember the Titans, for the rest of the story #PaulHarvey

  2. Cheryl P. Says:

    I haven’t gone to the film DBC but I may in time. I watched some to the trailers and I, also found McConaughey’s emaciated look hard to watch.

    As for “based on truth” I take the phrase for what it is…a disclosure that they fabricated parts of it for the sake of entertainment. If I told you a story but prefaced it by saying “Bud, this story is essentially true…you would suspect that I am not being 100 percent honest in my telling it. Essentially doesn’t mean entirely just as “based” doesn’t imply totality.

    As for fiction being considered lies…interesting way to look at it. I, personally, would never call a fictional piece “lying”. I think the fact that it is labled fiction tells me they are spinning a tale out of imagination to entertain me.. The word “lying seems to evoke a deliberate deseptiveness that slanders the story by labeling it as purposely shading the truth. I don’t think fictional writers are trying to be duplicitous.

    On the other hand, I think there are a lot of non-fiction books that are blatently deceptive because the author skews the facts to support his views, research, or beliefs. They may believe what they are writing to be fact whether it is or isn’t….then by having the book labeled non-fiction it gives it an endorsement of being true. I think nearly any autobiography should be labeled “based on truth”.

    Click

    • oldereyes Says:

      It really is a remarkable film. I think the contract with the fiction reader, even if it’s implied, spares fiction writers from being “official” liars but it’s an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, I think that many people … particularly modern younger ones … accept media information at face value. After all, they’ve been raised on the internet. I suppose there are totally honest autobiographies but they are probably be few and far between.


  3. You won’t be surprised if I take exception to the notion that journalistic reporting is more about persuasion than fact. If it’s about persuasion, it’s not journalism. (Believe what you want… but that’s a fact.)

    As to “based on a true story” stuff… I think it’s all in the first word. “Based” can be a very loose definition. For example, “Open Water” was based on a true story, in which a young couple goes on vacation, goes out on a scuba diving expedition and never returns. The captain of the boat on which they went out did indeed realize he’d never counted them when he made his headcount. But that’s all we know. The rest of the movie – everything that doesn’t come in the first 10 or last 10 minutes – is all hypothetical. Their names were changed and I believe the location of their vacation was also changed. In this case, it’s easy to know how much of the movie is made up because even a vaguely critical consumer can tell what’s verifiable (they went on a trip, signed up for a scuba dive and never returned). In cases like “Titans” (that high school, by the way, is far from being in a rural backwood southern spot – it’s right in the thick of Alexandria, VA) and “The Hurricane,” it’s down to just what you said: we believe what we want to believe.

    What I’ve found interesting about the trailers for “Dallas Buyers Club” is that they never, ever mention AIDS. You’re led to believe he’s a strung-out druggie by virtue of his skinny build, the era of the setting and his fast-and-loose lifestyle – but they never mention AIDS. Or homosexuals. How’s THAT for lack of truth?

    • oldereyes Says:

      I agree with you that persuasion should not be part of journalism but I think we live in a time of erosion The erosion of the word friend is just one example. Some percentage of us knows what journalism really means but another doesn’t (or doesn’t care). And I do believe that some of the latter are so-called journalists. As opinion and persuasion gets passed off as journalism, the definition erodes.

      I didn’t notice that about the trailer for DBC but I’m not totally surprised … or dismayed. As I said, I think it’s a film that should be seen and people are more likely to see a film about a strung out, fast living junkie than one about AIDS. If it gets a few people in the door, I’m OK with it. I think most thinking viewers read reviews before they dive into a film anyway.


      • I agree with you about the word “friend.” Hopefully that doesn’t count toward blog friends! And I agree about needing people to see the movie, but I don’t agree about movie viewers (most aren’t “thinking” as you define them – they just want to see a good movie). That being said, theoretically, the persuasive, “less offensive” nature of the trailers gets more people to see the movie and be informed. Sometimes it does work to society’s advantage!


  4. […] All these Hollywood films are difficult watching,when based on stories that older people wouldn’t ever imagine that will become mainstream one day Based on a True Story. […]


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