Question: When a movie is based on a nonfiction book or real-life events, is it acceptable for the studios to embellish/enhance scenes and other parts of the story?
Films depicting true stories should, like their origins, be as fictionless as possible. Throughout the history of cinema, movies have been used as a compelling and entertaining means of re-enacting real-life personal struggles, coming-of-age experiences, rises to fame, and descents into infamy. Sure, I have seen many of these films and thought that I had seen an unadulterated version of what the real-life characters had done or experienced. If the original story was interesting enough to capture a film studio’s attention, then it shouldn’t need embellishment or artificial plot elements to hook audiences as a film production, right? Someone in Hollywood clearly disagrees with me.
The movie Patch Adams is a classic example of an “enhanced” non-fiction story. It illustrates Patch’s very unique life trajectory as he overcame suicidal depression and decided to become a doctor, in the process challenging many of medicine’s traditional conventions. He proposed a revolutionary brand of clinical practice that emphasized holistic care while de-emphasizing the paternalism and strict formality that had always defined medicine. This is a man with an endearing, humorous personality, who is a true iconoclast, played by Robin Williams, usually an equally endearing and funny actor. The true story of Patch provided more than enough material for a popular film on its own.
Still, the script adaptation created a female love interest, who was a composite of his real-life wife and his real-life male best friend. She and Patch work together to build the foundations of his new clinic before she dies an untimely death toward the end of the film. In reality, his male friend was murdered while still in medical school. Whether his friend was a man or a woman, a platonic buddy or a lover, wouldn’t make this tragedy any less devastating to Patch. I believe it is a statement that his best friend’s passing was not moving enough to keep audiences emotionally engaged. Surely, people could understand the pain of losing a dear platonic friend and how that could drive even someone as focused as Patch to question the value of living. It also raises questions about the validity of other situations we see in the production.
Let’s look at another movie based on a fascinating story, Saving Mr. Banks. It was the first time millions of people learned how difficult it was for Walt Disney to work with P.L. Travers and create the legendary film that is Mary Poppins. It is a deep exploration of Travers’s early life and how that impacted her attitude toward life as an adult –including her resistance to Disney’s suggestions during every step of the movie production process. I enjoyed Saving Mr. Banks and was initially impressed by how much Travers opened up to the production team’s creative ideas and seemingly transformed as a person toward the end of the movie.
Several days later, I learned the truth: several key scenes in the film never actually occurred. Travers warming up to the Sherman brothers’ music as they played “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and dancing along with them? Nope, just a movie script concoction. How about Travers’s tears of joy and relief with Disney’s production of Mary Poppins during its premiere, toward the very end of the movie? In reality, that’s not why she was crying. She confronted Disney afterward and demanded that the animated penguin sequence be omitted from the final production. In response, Disney put his foot down: “Pamela [P.L.], the ship has sailed” 1. A person’s first thought about these inaccuracies could be that exaggeration and truth-bending are typical of Disney films like Saving Mr. Banks in order to create a happy-ever-after ending. If that were truly the case, then why does the Disney-produced movie also depict Walt’s smoking and drinking habits? I believe that sacrificing accuracy for the sake of a more desirable film climax or sentimental effect is a common strategy used by Hollywood studios when it comes to non-fiction films.
On the one hand, I may be naive to expect that film is a reliable medium for non-fictional storytelling. The two major motion pictures I discussed exemplify how untrue this expectation can be. Still, the process of converting a living, breathing story into a film narrative brings it visually to life and can sometimes improve its reach to more people than what would be possible through writing alone; there are numerous exceptions where film adaptations are not necessary to shine the limelight on literature. I want to avoid criticizing cinema’s lack of complete adherence to original stories. Adjustments to how truth is portrayed are at least usually made with a purpose: for example, to help fit a story into a particular formulaic film format, as with Saving Mr. Banks, or to enhance the emotional draw of a key relationship, as seen in Patch Adams. If someone’s life is going to be played out on the big screen, film studios ought to respect their story’s inherent impact and avoid tampering with actual details to “enhance” the viewer appeal. Sticking to real life and minimizing fictional scenes will result in more honest non-fiction films that best respect the story behind the story as it truly happened, as well as the lives of the real individuals whose experiences are being shared.
1 Chasingthefrog.com. Reel Faces: Patch Adams (1998). Neither author name nor date of authorship provided. Accessed May 26, 2014. http://www.chasingthefrog.com/reelfaces/patchadams.php
2 The Telegraph. Saving Mr. Banks: how Mary Poppins was nearly scuppered by her creator. By Julia Llewellyn Smith. November 29, 2013. Accessed May 26, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10409150/Saving-Mr-Banks-how-Mary-Poppins-was-nearly-scuppered-by-her-creator.html
I am a creative nonfiction purist. Don’t tell me 25,000 people attended a conference if it was only 10,000. Don’t fudge the dialogue just to sound more eloquent. And whatever you do, don’t conflate the events from six months into one week. As a reader I want the facts, but as a writer I understand the daunting task of presenting such facts in a compelling way.
In the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the protagonist, meant to be author John Berendt, was given a love interest named Mandy. In real life, “Mandy” did not exist, thus creating confusion and frustration for some viewers. Developing a love interest or, often, a third party in order to help with narration of the story is not an uncommon practice in cinema. While there are admittedly other plot devices or narrative techniques that can be used, is there truly a dilemma when movies embellish and create characters and events?
In Saving Mr. Banks, the audience sees P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, grow from being rigid and detached to experiencing emotions of warmth and sentimentality towards Walt Disney and the production team. While this may not be the most accurate portrayal of Travers’s demeanor (her grandchildren reported that she “died loving no one and with no one loving her”) the manipulation of characters and scenes in Saving Mr. Banks does not necessarily do the viewers a disservice.
“Based on a true story” is a phrase we’ve all become familiar with, as well as “based on true events”—and a good nonfiction movie is just that, it’s “based” in fact. Not every sequence or detail is true—these are the white lies of plot which are fabricated but not detrimental to the overall story or message. These changes do not alter important facts or affect the core story. How many times have we heard tales from behind-the-scenes where the script, or original book, article, or research, struggles to translate from page to screen? John McFee’s The Control of Nature is an example of a book that excelled despite its densely-packed and detail-oriented text. Nonfiction books are essentially printed information, but to make the transition to visuals sometimes the narrative must be reconstructed. When a studio secures the movie rights to a book, they have identified the story as powerful, as worthy, but making a text interesting enough to watch on screen can call for tweaks.
If we were to identify the key points in Saving Mr. Banks, they would include:
—P. L. Travers’s difficult childhood
—the author’s resistance to turning Mary Poppins into a movie
—setbacks and disagreements during the production process
—the final outcome of Mary Poppins the movie
None of the embellishments—Walt Disney visiting Travers at her London abode, Travers dancing to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” or Paul Giamatti’s character, Ralph, who represents a composite of different Disney limo drivers—detracts from the main story and, I believe, only enhances an already intriguing narrative.
By losing the ability to enhance, reconstruct, and speculate, genres such as historical fiction would not exist. Movies like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus give the audience factual information about Arbus and an insight into her character despite the specific plot being fictional. Sure, we’ve invested ourselves in something that doesn’t exist—a relationship, a character, an action—so our disappointment is the reason we react with such surprised disgust at learning the untrue sections of a movie. Frankly, I would not change anything about Saving Mr. Banks. It is a fine film, one of Disney’s best. So why do I hold literature to a higher standard of accuracy and truth than cinema?
When a movie gets it wrong, we barely blink an eyelash, but James Frey was torn into a million little pieces for lying. On the other hand, David Sedaris, wildly popular as he is, has admitted to “adulterating his nonfiction with many imagined settings, scenes, and dialogue” and few seem to mind. Perhaps our tolerance for truth-bending has less to do with format and more to do with how entertained we feel.
The practice of embellishing and enhancing in cinema can be a slippery slope. Going against an author’s wishes to change the ending (My Sister’s Keeper), misrepresenting family dynamics (as Roseanne Cash stated about Walk the Line), and fouling up basic facts (age, race, nationality, etc.) are all examples of bad nonfiction storytelling. But by the end of a film, a dash of creativity and an imagined scene or two never hurt anybody—confused or misinformed, maybe, but hurt, no.
Quotations from this article were gleaned from “Not Quite All Spoonfuls of Sugar” by Margy Rochlin on www.nytimes.com and “David Sedaris and His Defenders” by Jack Shafer on www.slate.com.