Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Loosely based on something that may or may not have happened at some point

Nowadays, it seems like every movie trailer I see comes with the claim that the film is "based on a true story." Just the phrase "true story" seems problematic enough, but I'm fascinated by our cultural obsession with authenticity. Like saying something is "based" on something real makes the movie better. I mean, one could argue that everything is loosely based on something true-- James Bond is loosely based on some British spy, Napoleon Dynamite is a composite of various teenage nerds that actually exist, and Clark Griswold is clearly based on everyone's well-meaning but hapless fathers.

So "The Haunting in Connecticut" claims to be based on true events. That could mean ANYTHING. It could just mean that once, someone thought a house in Connecticut was haunted. I have a theory that my refrigerator is haunted (it makes some seriously wack sounds and my cat won't go near it) but I'm not about to write a screenplay about it.

I wish we still valued straight-up imaginative stuff -- everything that comes out now on stage or on film is an adaptation of something already written/created or (supposedly) based on something real. There are movies based on plays (Frost/Nixon, Doubt), plays based on movies (Grey Gardens, Legally Blonde) plays based on movies based on books (High Fidelity), movies based on plays based on earlier movies (Hairspray), and even movies based on theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean).

The trend continues: in the 1990s, 27 films based on true stories were released. This decade, the count is up to 101 (source: Wikipedia). And that's not counting all the adaptations of stories from other mediums. Sadly, it seems like originality has become pass


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about not working from raw imagination. I've noticed this trend too to just adapt things or remake stuff. It's like noone writes original scripts anymore. Although I have to say, I loved Atonement. And my favourite movie of all time is Out of Africa which is also an adaptation of a book. -Hairee

J.A.G. said...

And really, Grey Gardens is a musical based on a documentary, which is (by its nature) a true story. I saw a PBS documentary on the musical based on the documentary based on real people, and my mind imploded.

(There's also going to be a Drew Barrymore movie-Eww-based on the documentary movie based on...)

Andrew said...

What's even more annoying in my opinion is that you have to go back to 2002 to see both the Best Actor and Best Actress awards going to actors playing fictional characters. We've been on a tear for the last six years (and even a little bit before that - Erin Brockovich, for example), giving awards to people portraying real people. Heck, in 2003, 2006, and 2007, BOTH Actor and Actress went to actors playing real people. Now, I'm all for Sean Penn winning for Milk and Hoffman for Capote and Theron for Monster, sure, but I think it's indicative of a trend where many people want "real life" in their daily media consumption - a feeling that somehow, fictional stories are less compelling than real ones. I dunno. Frustrating.

This is partly why the intro to Fargo is so fantastic. It says the story is based on a true story, but in fact the Coens based no part of it on anything they had read or seen, ever. It was entirely fictional. They simply put that in the opening because the story COULD be a true story, and people would believe it. And they did, myself included.