As storytellers, what responsibility do we have to represent factual truth accurately in our work? These are heavy questions, far removed from the usual superficial obsessions of screenwriters; the world of formatting questions, story beats, and character voice. But they’re questions that have, over the past few years, become more and more of a hotly debated topic as several high profile, award nominated (and winning) films have come under fire for playing a little too loose with the facts.
Conventional wisdom out of Hollywood has always been that story trumps the truth when writing a script that is based on real world events. If altering the facts makes for a stronger narrative, a more compelling story, then you should change it. But is that really the case? Like most things, the answer isn’t nearly as black and white as the more vocal proponents on both sides of the argument would have you believe. My personal philosophy is that, while story does indeed trump fact in theory, presentation and intent on the part of the screenwriter and filmmakers does indeed matter.
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Let’s take a look at three different films: The Social Network, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty. Each of these films had to deal with the problem of where to divert from reality and how to present that altered story to the movie going public, and each did so in a strikingly different fashion.
The Social Network
Written by Aaron Sorkin, and directed by David Fincher, The Social Network asserts itself as the story about Mark Zuckerberg, the creation of Facebook, and the ensuing lawsuits ,while never actually announcing itself as such (there’s no title card at the beginning of the film proclaiming it to be “based on a true story”). In developing the script from Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires, Sorkin made multiple deviations from actual events. There’s one though that stands out from the rest; the creation of Erica Albright. In the film, Erica’s rejection of Mark is the inciting incident of the film; it begins a chain of events that directly lead to the development of Facebook. The thing is, she’s also completely fictional. Erica Albright never existed, and Mark Zuckerberg didn’t run home and dive into programming code because she broke up with him.
It turns out that Sorkin created a fictional motivation for his Protagonist that didn’t exist in real life, but the film never portends to be a “true story”. Facebook is the backdrop, it’s not the star of the film, and to me that makes all the difference, because The Social Network is more about the themes being explored – family, friendship, betrayal, the cost of success – than it actually is about the social networking site. The name “Facebook” is basically the equivalent of characters drinking Pepsi in a movie instead of cans labeled as “Soda”; it allows the audience to be pulled into the world without being distracted by some generic brand that everyone knows doesn’t exist.
2012’s Academy Awards winner for Best Picture, Argo deals with a CIA operation to extract trapped American embassy workers from revolutionary Iran. It’s a tense tale that culminates in a dramatic, action-packed third act as the American’s are chased down the airport runway by Iranian military personnel while trying to escape. There are only two problems here: the CIA had an extremely limited role in the extraction (a significant amount of work was done by Canada, England, and New Zealand), and none of the action in the third act actually happened. In fact, the reality is that the plan went off very smoothly, and the American’s left Iran with little to no resistance at all.
Argo’s director, Ben Affleck, has been quoted as saying, "Because we say it's based on a true story, rather than this is a true story, we're allowed to take some dramatic license. There's a spirit of truth", and technically that’s accurate. The word “based” does give you some leverage to take artistic license, and I don’t hold the third act shenanigans against the film. You’re making a movie, and your goal is to entertain your audience. This is the very definition of a time when story trumps reality. I don’t want to watch the people I’ve just invested two hours of my time in walking away from the situation with no drama. On the other hand, the exclusion of the large Canadian role starts to tread that line of being inappropriate. Making the CIA the main organizers behind this mission doesn’t enhance the plot. It doesn’t make it more dramatic. And following closer to what really happened doesn’t weaken the story.
So why change it? Especially when you’re putting it right out on the title card at the beginning of the film that what the audience is about to see is “based on real events”. At that point, you’re committing to the audience that the bones of the story they’re about to see is accurate. In this regard, Argo didn’t deliver and I’ve yet to see a convincing answer from anyone involved as to why it was the right decision to make.
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s tale of the hunt for Bin Laden was, upon its initial release, the film to beat for Best Picture. Over time, however, it drew more and more criticism for the way it introduced the idea that torture of political prisoners had been a key ingredient in catching UBL. This idea has been debunked my numerous military and political officials involved in the hunt, and Bigelow has admitted that the connection was made by them, not by any official source. To me, this one all boils down to the phrase they chose to put on the title card: “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” With those words, Zero Dark Thirty crossed a line and was now presenting itself as more than a film; it was essentially assuming the mantle of a historical document. It seems to me that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, wanted to have their cake and eat it too; they wanted the gravitas which would come from being viewed as almost a pseudo-documentary, without any of the responsibilities that come with the format. And that’s what got them into trouble.
What it all boils down to is to be careful of how you present your story (and be aware of what message you’re putting on your title card). The decision to go down that road that Zero Dark Thirty did is just as valid as any other, but you need to know that once you present your story in that light, you’ve accepted the yoke of sticking to reality. There should no longer be any tweaking for character or pacing purposes, as The Social Network and Argo did respectively.
As writers, we should all know that words matter and that there is indeed a difference between claiming that your script is “A true story”, “Based on a true story”, “Inspired by a true story”, or some other variation. Understand what you’re saying and how audiences will interpret them.
With more than a decade of writing experience under his belt, Brad Johnson is a screenwriter and script consultant whose work has been recognized in Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Competition, and The Walt Disney Writing Fellowship. He runs ReadWatchWrite.com (a Script Magazine pick for website of the week) where he works with writers of all levels to develop and grow their screenwriting toolbox, and also writes “Specs & The City”, a weekly column for Script Magazine. You can join ReadWatchWrite on Facebook, and follow Brad on Twitter @RWWFilm.