What responsibility does a filmmaker have when making a film that claims to be “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” (or whatever weasel words they use to warn us that they’re making some of this shit up)?
On a recent episode of his show, YouTuber John Campea made the startling claim that the filmmaker has no responsibility to make sure the film is accurate to history, and that adapting a film from actual events is really no different from adapting a novel to the screen. The filmmaker only needs only be concerned with making a good film, even if that means taking whatever liberties with the facts that they feel are necessary to tell the story.
This is complete bullshit. There is a clear distinction between adapting a novel, play, or other fictional work for the screen and basing a film on real events. When Paul Verhoeven threw out most of Robert Heinlein’s novel to make Starship Troopers, he may have invited the wrath of the novel’s legions of fans, but he was under no ethical obligation to be true to the source material, any more than Peter Jackson has some moral imperative to include Tom Bombadil in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
While it’s true that films based on true stories often need to condense, compress, and composite elements and people to fit that story into a cinematic structure, I believe the filmmaker is under an ethical obligation not to recklessly or purposefully distort the story in a misleading way, especially if that distortion portrays real people in a way that is false and defamatory.
In the 1970 film Patton, George C. Scott as the titular character is shown callously slapping a soldier suffering what they called “combat fatigue” back then. Had Patton never done any such thing, and the filmmaker inserted the scene just to make the general look like a bad guy, that would have been ethically wrong, and no claim that “it made for a better movie” would justify it. Of course, not only did Patton slap a soldier under the circumstances shown in the film, it actually happened twice. Condensing the events into a single incident is perfectly okay because it streamlines the narrative but doesn’t misrepresent the real event in any way.
However, if the real Officer Murdoch had survived the sinking of the Titanic and lived to see James Cameron’s 1997 film, where he is shown taking bribes and shooting a passenger, none of which is supported by any evidence, he might have had a solid slander case against Cameron. Portraying criminal behavior on the part of a historical person, who has surviving relatives, is an unsupportable ethical lapse on Cameron’s part (which the director kind of now admits). Just because 85 years separate the film with the events it portrays doesn’t free up Cameron to slander the people involved. He already had fictional main characters in Jack and Rose, so Cameron could easily have given those actions to another fictional character rather than slandering a dead man.
Another film that does real disservice to a historical person is Ron Howard’s otherwise inoffensive Cinderella Man, which relates the story of James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe), a boxer who overcame grinding poverty during the Depression to beat the heavyweight champion, Max Baer. The film gets some things right about Baer, showing him as a skirt-chasing party boy who fails to take Braddock seriously, but it also shows him as a vicious, brutish man, gleefully unrepentant about killing an opponent in the ring. The real Baer was guilt-ridden over the man’s death. He financially supported the fighter’s widow and came to hate the sport that made him wealthy and famous. Needless to say, his portrayal in Howard’s film did not sit well with those who remembered Baer, especially his son, Max, Jr, better known as Jethro Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.
This obligation cuts both ways. While no one claimed that The Greatest Showman was meant to be a rigorous biopic of P.T. Barnum, people had a legitimate complaint that the film whitewashed some of the less savory aspects of Barnum’s biography.
A more serious problem, in my opinion, was Oliver Stone’s JFK, where the filmmaker filled in the gaping holes in his bonkers conspiracy theories with completely invented scenes not based on any known evidence (not even among those who believe the assassination was the work of a conspiracy). Almost every scene that connects the key players (Lee Harvey Oswald, David Ferrie, and Clay Shaw) is a total invention of the filmmakers, as is the scene where David Ferrie essentially confesses. Just as problematic was Stone and Kevin Costner portraying Jim Garrison as a wholesome Jimmy Stewart-esque Everyman, Mr. Smith Goes to Dallas, rather than the unhinged, paranoid, reckless, and probably corrupt politician that people who knew Garrison say he was.
Hypothetically, imagine if someone made a film about the My Lai Massacre that portrayed Lt. Calley as a hero instead of a war criminal. Or what if someone had gotten to Schindler’s List before Steven Spielberg and made a film that advanced an agenda of Holocaust denial?
Or, making it more personal, what if years from now someone made a film about a YouTuber named John Campea that showed him beating his wife and drowning puppies? I guess, as long it it made for a good movie, the real John Campea would have no problem with that.