“Based on a True Story” is a powerful marketing hook. From “Birth of a Nation” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” filmmakers have looked to historical events, personal biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives for inspiration. Recent critical and box-office successes based — all or in part — on actual people, places and occurrences include “American Hustle” (the 1970s Abscam scandal), “Saving Mr. Banks” (the making of Disney’s “Mary Poppins”), “12 Years a Slave” (the life of Solomon Northrup), “Captain Phillips” (the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama) and “Dallas Buyers Club” (the life of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof).
But just because a story is true doesn’t mean it will necessarily make for a viable motion picture project. Neither does writing about true events free you from the narrative and dramatic challenges you inevitably face when constructing a tale from whole cloth. In fact, “true stories” tend to come with problems that can make a screenwriter yearn for the freedom of writing pure fiction. (Not the least of which is becoming the target of critics who will inevitably lambast you for playing fast and loose with the facts.)
If you are thinking about adapting a true story into a screenplay, there are many questions you need to ask yourself. Considering these issues critically can save you the time, expense and psychic energy required to put any story — true or otherwise — on the page.
Who is the hero? By “hero” we, of course, mean “protagonist,” the individual who drives the action. Heroes can be obvious good guys like the titular “Captain Phillips,” crooks like stock swindler Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” or difficult-yet-sympathetic individuals like author P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks.” As in fiction, lead characters don’t have to be classically “heroic” as long they they’re inherently interesting. Problems can occur when trying to tackle big, amorphous events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks or the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2012. Whose story do you choose to tell? Will you tell just one person’s story, or perhaps several? Can you tell multiple stories without creating narrative confusion? For all but the most adept and experienced screenwriters, choosing a story with a single protagonist is probably the best bet.
Who is the villain? Just as a story needs a hero, it also needs a villain. And again, by “villain” we mean the person who works to prevent the hero from achieving his/her goal. In other words, an antagonist. When telling “true crime” stories like 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the villain is often the law enforcement officer who is trying to bring the story’s “hero” to justice. (Likewise, in “Saving Mr. Banks,” Walt Disney made for perhaps the nicest antagonist you’re likely to see in any film this year.) If your story has a natural antagonist, you’re lucky. More often than not, true stories have no single “villain,” requiring the screenwriter to either fashion a composite character based on numerous real-life adversaries or to simply create one from scratch.
Is your hero active or passive? Often, you will happen upon a compelling story about a person who endured the proverbial trials of Job. All kinds of crap happened to him/her. Such abuse can generate enormous sympathy for a character…for a while. But if the individual never took positive action to remedy his/her situation, you can find yourself saddled with a dramatically neutered hero. As in fiction, real-life protagonists need to be active to be interesting. They need to do things. Their actions need not be successful — in fact, failure is often far more interesting than success — but the character needs to be in constant motion.
Does the story have stakes? As in fiction, true stories work best when the hero is faced with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from without suffering serious consequences. There need to be stakes, and those stakes need to be severe. (The stakes not be life or death. Often, the threat of lost love, respect, honor, etc. can be just as compelling.) If your real-life hero wasn’t truly at risk, then you may have to create threats just to keep the story dramatically viable.
Does the story have a natural three-act structure? Conventional stories need three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always present narratives in such tidy packages. Rare is a true story that builds through a serious of obvious plot points, twists and reversals to a dramatic crisis, climax and resolution. (The infamous Zodiac Killer case of the 1960s/70s is a perfect example of a gripping story that fails to achieve satisfactory resolution.) For writers of based-on-true-events movies, finding the dramatic structure is often the most challenging part of the assignment. The solution often involves combining,
Does the story have consequences? At the end of the story, what changed? What effect did the events in question have on its participants or, better yet, on society as whole? The need for consequences is one reason why stories about trailbalzers — the first people to accomplish various feats — always made good motion picture fodder. It’s also the reason why small, personal stories often don’t make for commercially viable films. When faced with this problem, one solution is to look for themes that go beyond the concerns of the individuals involved. Look for the universal within the intimate.
Is the story too small? Very often, you’ll run across a true story that, while initially interesting, just doesn’t have the size, scope or depth to sustain a feature-length motion picture. Often, someone is faced with a single problem and he/she either overcomes or succumbs to, and then the story’s over. This can pose a serious dramatic challenge. Again, as in fiction, the best true stories are those in which the threat escalates over the course of the narrative, things going from bad to worse than then completely to shit. They need complexity.
Is the story too big? Conversely, it can be difficult to capture a huge, sweeping narrative, such as a famous person’s life, a war or a political movement, within a typical motion picture framework. There just isn’t enough time to explore all the nuances of a world-changing historical figure or movement in just two or three hours. This is why it’s often best to scale down the time frame and just concentrate on a key portion of a person’s life. For example, although Steven Spielberg based his 2012 bio-pic “Lincoln” on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s sweeping biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” he and his screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to focus solely on the 16th President’s efforts to pass the 14th Amendment. For 2005’s “Capote,” screenwriter Dan Futterman focused solely on the titular writer’s efforts to write his seminal work, “In Cold Blood.” For the Emmy Award-winning HBO movie “Game Change,” writer Danny Strong took Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s massive book about the 2008 election and focused solely the rise and fall of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Limiting these stories allowed the resulting products to have greater depth and resonance than had they been a more traditional string of historical “greatest hits.”
Assuming you have resolved the above issues, there are still two critical questions you need to consider when writing any based-on-fact screenplay:
1. Do you have the rights? Just because a story is a matter of public record does not immediately put its telling in the public domain. There are numerous laws that protect individuals from having their lives protected from commercial exploitation. In most cases, if you’re going to portray real individuals using their real names, you need a legal release to do so. This even applies to people who have been dead for many years, the rights to their commercial exploitation being held by their estates. Even going far back in history is no solution, since you will likely have to rely on published sources for your details. In such cases, you’ll need to obtain the filming rights from the authors/historians, or their estates. Before embarking on a based-on-fact screenplay, check with an entertainment lawyer to understand what your legal obligations are.
2. How much can you change the historical details? The pat answer to this question is, “As much as you need to, but as little as you have to.” As a screenwriter, your first obligation is to your audience. You need to tell a story that is compelling, entertaining and, hopefully, enlightening. To do this, you will inevitably have to choose which incidents to dramatize and which to ignore, which personages to portray and which to cast aside, and to structure events in an order that, while perhaps not historically accurate, bests creates an effective dramatic narrative. Details will inevitably differ from historical fact and dialogue never spoken by the individuals portrayed will have to be fashioned. And this is where we inevitably discuss the difference between “the facts” and “the truth.” “Facts” are data points that allow us to measure but, by themselves, lack meaning. They’re just dots on a graph. “Truth” emerges when we look for order amidst the noise, when we find hidden patterns and discover lessons we can apply to make our own lives more rewarding.
And that is ultimately why real-life stories are often so difficult to crack. The order and meaning we look for in drama is often lacking, or at least very well hidden. And, as writers, we too often have to bend, twist and corrupt “the facts” to find “the truth” that makes the tale worth telling.
Or as Mark Twain is supposed to have stated, “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” – Allen B. Ury