Thursday, April 25, 2019

Inspired by a True Story

I recently watched the movie THE GREEN BOOK, about a famous black concert pianist in the early 1960s who hires an Italian-American as a driver and general assistant for a tour of the Midwest and the South. The film bears the caption "Inspired by a True Story." This label seems to serve as notice to the audience that the script may portray events and people differently from the way they existed in reality, as well as including invented episodes. For example, reading about the movie and its factual background reveals that the pianist had multiple brothers and was on good terms with them, while his film counterpart claims to have no family except one brother, from whom he's estranged. People who knew the real-life musician describe him as less uptight than the character shown in the movie. As for particular incidents shown on the concert tour, I didn't come across any information about which actually happened (if any) and which were invented.

Most movies "inspired by" real-life happenings seem to alter the facts to one degree or another. I'm thinking mostly of stories about people within recent memory, with friends, relatives, and colleagues who are still alive, rather than historical figures of the distant past. Some members of the Von Trapp family were famously upset by the inaccurate portrayal of their father as rigid and cold in the early part of SOUND OF MUSIC. Moreover, in escaping from Nazi-occupied Austria, the family didn't flee over the mountains by night; they openly boarded a train, left the country, and didn't return. SCHINDLER'S LIST, understandably, concludes with the end of the war, then skips to the present-day view of "Schindler's Jews" and their descendants visiting Schindler's grave. It doesn't mention the breakup of his marriage or his failed postwar business ventures. SHADOWLANDS, about C. S. Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham and her death of cancer, had two feature film adaptations "based on a true story." In the second, better-known movie (starring Anthony Hopkins), one of Joy's two sons is deleted. I consider this omission rather serious. On the other hand, changing the first meeting between Lewis and Joy to have Lewis's brother present (he wasn't) seems justified for dramatic effect. I found it mildly annoying that Lewis is shown driving a car (he tried to learn to drive at one point, and everybody involved quickly agreed that the attempt should be abandoned) and having no idea how to comport himself at a country inn (something he had ample experience with), but those departures from fact don't mar the story. It's a much more serious distortion to portray Lewis as an ivory-tower academic with no prior experience of either suffering or women. His mother died of cancer in his childhood, he was wounded in World War I, and he and his brother shared a busy household for several decades with the family of a woman Lewis had "adopted" as his foster mother.

What's your opinion of movies allegedly based on real people's lives that take broad liberties with the facts? In my opinion, minor omissions or unimportant deviations from actual events can be acceptable for dramatic purposes, but larger changes are problematic. I just tend to laugh or groan at blatant errors in films set in distant historical periods. With events that happened within living memory, though, I hope for stricter attention to accuracy.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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