Fiction’s reality fetish

Many of the Oscar contenders are adaptations of historical events. Why are movies based on true stories so revered?

Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in "Harriet."
Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet Tubman in "Harriet."AP/Globe Staff

The world of fiction is obsessed with things that actually happened.

A good deal of movies contending for the 2020 Oscars are based on historical events, keeping with a seemingly ever-growing trend in the entertainment industry. Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” depicts a legendary mobster, “Ford v. Ferrari” narrates the competition between two automobile giants, and “Bombshell” is based on the accounts of several women at Fox News who were sexually harassed by the late Roger Ailes.

In “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino mixes fictional and historical characters. Cynthia Erivo received two nominations for “Harriet,” a biopic about the abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman. “The Two Popes” dramatizes a succession at the helm of the Catholic Church whose real consequences are still unfolding. Greta Gerwig injected a bit of realism in her adaption of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” by turning the movie into a meta-fiction (technically a poioumenon) about the process of creating the novel itself. Sam Mendes’ war movie “1917” relates to historical events in an even more intimate way: Core parts of the story come from tales that the director heard from his grandfather, a World War I veteran.

An unfathomable number of movies, TV series, and plays based on actual events have flooded the market, matching a burgeoning appetite for plots hinged on historical facts. Even Terrence Malick, arguably one of the most abstract directors around, made a 2019 movie based on the real story of an Austrian peasant refusing to serve in the Nazi army during World War II.


From the beginning, Hollywood has relied on events that really occurred. The silent movie “Saved from the Titanicwas released in the U.S. just 29 days after the ocean liner sank. It featured a survivor of the tragedy, the actress Dorothy Gibson, playing a fictionalized version of herself. The “based on a true story” trope was familiar enough in 1996 that the Coen Brothers mocked it by claiming that their movie “Fargo” was based on an actual criminal case and that they told it “exactly as it occurred.” Although two aspects of the movie (including the unforgettable wood-chipper episode) had real-life inspirations, the story was made up. The Coens said they just wanted to make something “in the genre of a true story movie.”


But lately the based-on-a-true-story genre has risen to a new level of sophistication. Works of art rely on documentary techniques, claiming to accurately portray historical events. Distributors and publishers take great care to inform viewers about the factuality of a movie or TV show. The standard note on film posters is often enhanced with qualifiers: based on the “incredible,” “harrowing,” “impossible,” “triumphant” true story, as if this very fact increases the work’s intrinsic value. No producer sells a plot by saying it’s “based on an incredibly ingenious fictional story.” Some relationship to veracity is a highly marketable feature.

Why do we care so much whether a story is rooted in real events or is purely fictional? What difference does it make if a narrative intended for artistic purposes relies on facts or is entirely the result of a creative process?

Sarah Doole, director of global drama at Fremantle, a London-based TV production company, says the public’s hunger for true stories is reshaping her company’s strategy for the dramas it produces. She suggests that demand is surging because of the concurrent rise of fake news and disinformation. “People are looking for some truth in life, and they trust TV drama to deliver that,” Doole said.


The success of the based-on-a-true-story model hints at a paradox, because the great invasion of reality could be fueling our inability to grasp the truth. We all know that based-on-a-true-story movies take a lot of liberties with the facts. But if we value stories more, or differently, if they have even a loose connection with circumstances that actually occurred, we’re flattening the notion of truth and diminishing the power of fiction.

Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson in "Bombshell."
Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson in "Bombshell."Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Lionsgate/Globe Staff

Strictly speaking, to say a narrative is “true” means that it sticks to a set of facts that can be independently established and described. Freddy Mercury’s life is a historical reality that may be examined through documents and witnesses, and then turned into a biopic aiming to adhere as much as possible to the main facts, as director Bryan Singer did in his visually magnificent “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This definition of the truth is akin to the one used in scientific inquiry.

In a larger sense, however, the term “true” alludes to the meaning of a story. A great novel is also true in that it communicates meaningful things about the human experience. Literature masterpieces stand the test of time precisely because they convey those things through generations and changing social circumstances. This conception of the truth has to do with “the old verities and truths of the heart” William Faulkner referred to in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950. Without these “universal truths,” Faulkner stated, “any story is ephemeral and doomed.” Historical accuracy is utterly irrelevant to this notion of the truth.


In some ways the “based on a true story” fetish is old-fashioned. In the 19th century, Western literature mostly leaned on realism. When Faulkner and other novelists of the 20th century abandoned that literary paradigm, they did not surrender their quest for truth. As Salman Rushdie noted, artists who broke with the realist consensus “created stranger, more surreal texts, telling the truth by means of obvious untruth, creating a new kind of reality, as if by magic.” The based-on-a-true-story ecosystem emphasizes a shallow connection with reality while depressing the deeper, symbolical association with meaning.

There’s a predictable objection to these arguments. How does the supposed resurgence of realism fit with the Marvel phenomenon and the endless flow of franchise movies? One possible answer hints at a peculiar sort of polarization. Like the political spectrum, the narrative landscape is sharply split into two camps. On one side stands narrow realism; on the other, pure fantasy. And just like in politics, extremes hold some concealed commonalities. What “true” stories and the Avengers have in common is the tendency to downplay the dimension of meaning, either by focusing on mindless entertainment or by appealing to factuality as the main source of artistic value.

In a widely discussed op-ed in The New York Times, Martin Scorsese argued that franchise movies are not cinema: “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes,” he wrote. But a similar case could be made about some films based on true stories. “Tolkien” a biopic about the author of “The Lord of the Rings,” meticulously retraced the formative years of his life, and the director, Dome Karukoski, conducted extensive research on the subject before filming. And yet, “the result doesn’t rise above the insight of a Wikipedia page,” as David Sims charitably wrote in The Atlantic. An accurately researched biopic can be as meaningless as the latest Spider-Man sequel (or prequel). The difference is that Tolkien’s film comes off as naturally endowed with higher cinematic dignity because it traffics in actual events.


That’s not to say true stories are necessarily hollow or evanescent. While some of them are “ephemeral and doomed,” as Faulkner put it, others touch the most intimate depths of the human soul, and they will undoubtedly last. It’s just that the fact they are historically based does not say much about their artistic value. Instead, the implicit tenet of today’s realist resurgence is that factuality is in and of itself a virtue, and it claims as proof that viewers’ engagement increases when they know they are exposed to a real-life narrative.

A movie that doesn’t aim for the “verities of the heart” and is content with the veracity of the story is an impoverished form of art. It’s closer to the spirit of superheroes and CGI fiction than is generally thought. After all, what’s the most superficial, predictable, trivial, and disposable form of TV entertainment? It’s called a reality show.

Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio.