Telling True Stories: 7 Challenges in Adapting Real-Life Events for Film

I love “Based on a True Story” movies. It would usually be a movie that inspires and makes me think about issues.

At the same time, when a film is advertised as being “based on a true story,” it’s natural for audiences to expect a certain level of historical accuracy and authenticity. However, translating real-life events to the screen is a complex process that involves navigating multiple challenges and potential pitfalls.

Here are 7 pitfalls to keep in mind when writing a script based on a true story.

#1: Ignoring or Distorting the Facts.

One of the biggest pitfalls of writing a script based on a true story is ignoring or distorting the facts.

While you may take some creative liberties with the story, you must ensure that the core events, characters, and locations are accurate. If you take too many liberties with the facts, you risk losing the audience’s trust and turning your story into a work of fiction.

The Social Network (2010) was criticised for its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, with some real-life figures disputing the accuracy of the events and conversations depicted in the film.

#2: Oversimplifying Complex Issues.

Real-life events are often complex, with multiple factors and perspectives at play. When writing a script based on a true story, it can be tempting to oversimplify these issues to make them easier to understand or to fit the narrative arc. However, oversimplification can lead to a shallow and inaccurate portrayal of the events.

The movie Erin Brockovich (2000) focused on the titular character’s fight against a power company’s pollution of a California town’s water supply, but some environmentalists felt that the film ignored the complexities of the issue and the role of government regulation.

#3:  Focusing Too Much On the Sensational Aspects.

Real-life events are often filled with drama and sensational moments, but focusing too much on these aspects can detract from the overall story. If you focus too much on the sensational aspects, you may end up portraying the events as more of a spectacle than a meaningful and accurate portrayal of real life.

American Sniper (2014) was criticised for its portrayal of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with the highest number of confirmed kills in U.S. military history, as a heroic figure without exploring the moral complexities of his actions in war.

#4: Ignoring the Emotional Impact.

Real-life events can have a significant emotional impact on the people involved. When writing a script based on a true story, it’s essential to consider the emotional impact on the characters and convey this impact to the audience. Ignoring the emotional impact can lead to a shallow and unconvincing portrayal of the events.

In The Theory of Everything (2014) – which was about the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking’s some critics felt it didn’t fully explore the emotional impact of his physical decline and the strain on his marriage.

#5 – Being insensitive to the People Involved.

When writing a script based on a true story, it’s important to remember that the events portrayed may have real-life consequences for the people involved. Insensitivity or disrespect to the people involved can lead to criticism and backlash. It’s essential to treat the people involved with respect and dignity.

A great example is The Help (2011) which was praised for its portrayal of African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi, but some critics felt that the film didn’t fully explore the racial tensions and complexities of the time, and some African-American viewers felt that the film relied too much on white saviour tropes.

#6:  Straying Too Far From the Original Story.

While some creative liberties are acceptable when writing a script based on a true story, straying too far from the original story can lead to a confusing and inaccurate portrayal of events. If you want to take significant creative liberties, it’s important to explain these changes to the audience and ensure they understand the distinction between fact and fiction.

Braveheart (1995) told the story of Scottish warrior William Wallace’s fight for independence from England. However, it’s considered one of the most historically incorrect movies. Critics felt that the film took significant liberties with historical events and characters.

#7: Simplifying or Stereotyping Characters.

Another pitfall in adapting a true story to the screen is simplifying or stereotyping characters. Filmmakers may do this for the sake of narrative clarity, but it can result in a lack of nuance and complexity.

In The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – The movie about Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman who becomes homeless with his young son, was criticised for relying too much on stereotypes of black poverty and not fully exploring systemic factors that contributed to Gardner’s difficulties.

In conclusion – adapting a true story to the screen is a challenging process that involves navigating multiple potential pitfalls. It’s important for filmmakers to prioritise accuracy, nuance, and sensitivity, and to acknowledge the sources and inspiration behind the story. By avoiding these common pitfalls, filmmakers can create compelling and authentic stories that resonate with audiences while honouring the complexity of real-life events.

Now it’s YOUR turn – Are there any true stories that you think would make for a great movie adaptation?

Would love to get your input in the comment box below.

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