Based on True Gossip, and Other Issues with Historical Drama and Biopics

Promo material for 'Reign'

And we’ll never be royals, royals…

“Based on a true story” is a very slippery turn of phrase. I find I’m always wary when I see it, sidling up to any book, film or hip new series toting the words with my eyes narrowed, no matter how much they promise to give me an insight into the life of a great artist or public figure or make history cool and fun and bring it to the Kids of Today (ugh).

Not to say, of course, that I’m a villainous and harsh critic of all biopics, because a lot of them have won awards, gained huge fan followings and been generally accredited to be good pieces of art. But as to how much that art imitates life, well, that you have to take with a grain of salt.

At least most of them have the sense to say “inspired by” true events, because that’s closer to the truth in an industry that exists for playing with the truth. The truth is, most of the time it’s phenomenally difficult to make a story out of real things that have happened fact-for-fact because, even if most religions are in some way correct and the world as we know it was brought into being by some divine author, He, She or They did not plan every detail of every life out with a conventional narrative structure in mind. At least for most people, real life doesn’t move the way a story does.

Does real life have foreshadowing, character development arcs, coming of age stories and hella rad car chase scenes? Yes, that is all valid, but not always fitted so neatly. Even if someone lives the most gloriously dramatic and structured life, eccentric and outstanding enough that people exclaim “You could write a book/TV show/movie about this guy!” there’s still an inherent amount of iffiness in treating them and their lives like fiction.

Julian Assange as himself, Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange

Julian Assange as himself, Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange

The Fifth Estate has gotten into a tangle lately over how it reportedly toyed with the truth in its portrayal of the WikiLeaks controversy, with Julian Assange, the main character of the film and actually an actual person hiding in diplomatic asylum in London, saying it was a propaganda attack and “lies built upon lies”. He was also not consulted much, apparently, before the film got the green light, which is a pretty heavy blow when you consider the filmmakers ignored the person they were basing their story around in favour of their story.

Not saying of course that The Fifth Estate isn’t a good thriller with some important things to say, but one cannot ignore the strangeness and discomfort in the fact that the filmmakers shouted these important things over the top of the actual voices it was about. If you’re making a biopic about someone who has the good fortune to still be alive (as opposed to a historical one, for example), you’d think your craft or at least your integrity would benefit from consulting with them. Which the lead actors apparently did, in emails since Julian Assange is all but in custody, but it doesn’t change the fact that multiple WikiLeaks spokespeople have come out and declared that it’s “fiction masquerading as fact”. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, and we’ll never really know, because if you want a detailed look into the private lives of famous figures a thrilling biopic probably isn’t the way to go.

Even documentaries have to side-eyed rather than taken at face value most of the time, since, whether you’re following penguins or politicians, a filmmaker simply cannot present every piece of footage they collect and there’s an enormous and curse-peppered editing process (media studies flashbacks. Ughughuhuhuh) where an ugly amount of events end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. It’s that painful truth again: real life and real events often don’t make for a good story, so out of the stream of life the fly on the wall has witnessed one must pick the best parts and form a story around them. Or, you know, tweak them a bit, piece a few snippets together to deftly remove the context, or prod for some method acting in your stars/subjects. Or just harass them quietly a la Michael Moore. That works too.

Michael Moore, holding a camera and a gun

Bowling for bias

Real life is, of course, often stranger than fiction, so we don’t need much incentive to jump on it, especially in the realm of history where literally thousands of years of costume drama potential stretch before us. There’s been a recent stream of period soap operas, in the vein of The Tudors, The Borgias, The White Queen and most recently Reign, which all follow the drama of various high society circles and royal courts from the Renaissance to the War of the Roses.

To be fair, there’s a hell of a lot that goes on in the lives of the rich and famous and lots of crazy stories come out of the antics of kings. Showrunners have found an excellent way to capitalise on both people’s love for celebrity scandal and period settings. And it’s better than Game of Thrones because this actually happened, dudes! But, of course, it’s history, and for many people that comes heavy with the association of mellow-voiced documentaries and sawdusty textbooks, so to boost the appeal the media gurus make it as sexy and soap opera-esque as possible.

Which is… all well and good, but you can’t help but wonder if there are any departed royals or court-folk rolling in their graves (under an English car park, perhaps) because of how they’re being depicted for the HBO audience. And that’s without all the qualms popping up over inaccuracy of costuming and sets and mishandling of characters (which were real personalities!) all over the spectrum of shinified and scandalised historical dramas. What’s more troubling than filmmakers and showrunners shrugging off the fact that the people in question aren’t around to contest their portrayal is their assumption that no modern day people will mind either, since nobody who watches dramas cares about history.

'Sexy Tudors' by Kate Beaton

A Kate Beaton comic for every occasion

Lord, as if the recording of history wasn’t already biased, “sexed-up super-hyped sassy-posing questionably-accurate period drama” is its own subgenre now, I swear, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Not to say that everything that fits within that list is immediately trashy, but well, I tread carefully within that realm if not edge around it altogether. There’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me personally about the twisting of actual events into a drama for other people, whether a few months or hundreds of years later, to gawk over.

Sure, make up your own characters and story set in or inspired by the time period or events that interest you. In many cases that would work better. The line between fiction and reality is a tightrope, and it doesn’t really bode well that writers and filmmakers are happily flinging themselves into the safety net below thinking either no one will care or ignoring those who do.

Should I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, or just stick with all the books her husband wrote that star versions of her anyway? I am conflicted. And a little concerned about all the other almost-biographies out there that are being sold as fact on technicalities, whether they’re expository documentaries with a biased view or TV shows that have Mary Queen of Scots snogging a royal French bad boy who never existed.

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Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

2 responses to “Based on True Gossip, and Other Issues with Historical Drama and Biopics

  1. Pingback: Symbolic Rap Music and Artistic Anachronism | The Afictionado

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