Dear Hollywood: Why So Many Liberties With “Real life” stories?

Dear Hollywood:

So I finally got a chance to see “Trumbo,” which came out last year and did not appear at a single theater in my state, or at least my part of it. Because the woes of Hollywood screenwriters in the fifties did not strike me as a topic worth sitting for two hours plus in a theater, I was not particularly crushed by this. However, when Oscar time rolled around, and Bryan Cranston received a Best Actor nomination for his performance in the lead role, I decided to track it down when I got the chance. Sure enough, the story of a man who stood up to a political witch hunt, was jailed for his actions, and wound up triumphing with multiple screenwriting Oscars afterwards is fascinating. And if at times I was aware that Bryan Cranston was Giving a Performance, it was definitely an Oscar-nomination worthy one.

Then I did some online research. By this time, I already know that what actually makes it to the big screen is almost always loosely, loosely “based on a true story.” But I was still annoyed to find out that the following had been done.

Omitting key details: In one scene, Trumbo confronts actor John Wayne and makes it sound like he, unlike John, was actually Making Selfless Sacrifices during the war, which in reality he was not. But it doesn’t prevent the character from disparaging Mr. Wayne for not serving his country.

Inventing fictional characters: “Arlen,” (Louis C.K.) Trumbo’s friend and fellow rebel is a fictional character. Other than being there for Trumbo to bounce ideas off of, his main function in the film is to serve as an anti-smoking warning – at least by today’s standards, as he passes away from lung cancer. Serious question: If there were nine other Hollywood rebels to portray, why bother with a composite character?

Demonizing the “bad guys”: The conservative actors and politicians who oppose communism (and communists) are given everything but cartoon mustaches to twirl.

Outright misrepresenting the truth (to put it politely): Example: Actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) did testify before Congress, but he did not tattle on the Hollywood Ten.

Jeez, the poor man at least had the courage not to name names, and his reward is to be portrayed by Hollywood as a big old snitch, which as anyone knows who has attended elementary school, is about the worst insult you can throw at someone.

Take another Oscar-bait movie, “Dallas Buyers Club,” that came out a few years ago, and which I saw because I couldn’t resist seeing how “Wooderson” (Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused”) plays real-life based Ron Woodruff, a guy who’s supposed to be a tragic hero.

In a short span of time, Matthew’s character loses everything that matters to him, after he’s diagnosed with AIDs. His friends ostracize him! He loses his job! He doesn’t appear to have any family to turn to! He even gets evicted from his home! His life has become a Lifetime Movie.

Only trouble was that in real life that wasn’t exactly what happened.

Mr. Woodruff had a family. He may have felt alienated at times, but he had at least some form of support. And far from being the ultra macho angry straight guy against the world, he was actually bisexual – and open about it at the time.

Not quite the story I saw in the theater.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have gone through a crisis, provided love and support to a family member, only to find yourself deleted from the narrative years later in order to win awards on the big screen. I don’t think it’s a dilemma I’ll ever have myself, but still.

Or take another biopic “The King’s Speech,” and the scene where King George (Colin Firth) describes childhood trauma to his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), including being abused for several years by his nanny.

It’s very moving. I’m pretty sure my eyes were damp by the time it concluded.

Only thing is, it was his older brother who received most of the abuse.

It’s not that I believe everything I see on screen without reservation, it’s that I used to expect that the basic narratives based on real life would be represented, more or less intact. That if a character stood up for something, he would not be portrayed on screen as endorsing the opposite opinion. Yes, things can be fudged, but I guess I assumed that overall, the script would try to be faithful to the real life facts.

As for inventing fictional characters, well, I guess there are times when that works. Or dropping several of the children of the main character for brevity’s sake. But other omissions are harder to forgive.

I imagine myself in the Tom Cruise role in “A Few Good Men,” in which he confronts Jack Nicholson, who plays a colonel who possibly caused a young Marine’s death.

JN (Dripping with contempt) “You want answers?”

TC “I want the truth.”

JN (Soaked through with contempt) “You can’t handle the truth!”

But, Hollywood, I think it’s you who can’t handle it. I think audiences are a lot more perceptive than you give them credit for. I think you should know that some viewers really do settle into their seats wanting multi-dimensional characters (both good and bad), dealing with complex moral dilemmas.

So why not humor me and give it a try?


One comment on “Dear Hollywood: Why So Many Liberties With “Real life” stories?

  1. Josh Hammond says:

    This drives me crazy too. “Based on a true story” is now “Inspired by true events” – what does that even mean? It’s like the filmmakers are afraid the audience can’t handle a story with any nuance, hence the simplified versions of Dallas Buyer’s Club or American Sniper. That’s why I stay away from biopics (Oscar bait that they are).


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