Writing Screenplays “Inspired by” versus “Based On” True Events

In my last post, I touched on writing stories “inspired by” versus “based on” true events. I figured this topic might be of interest of many people, because (a) there are a lot of fascinating true events out there to be told or reimagined, (b) truth is stranger than fiction, and (c) Hollywood has an affinity for stories “inspired by” or “based on” true events.

That said, how many times have you watched a movie based on true events and then heard critics slam the movie for not adhering to historical accuracy or for taking too much creative license? If the thought of being panned before the story is even written is not enough to stop a writer from writing it altogether, it certainly stirs up a lot of angst and paralysis during the writing process.

The thought of being criticized that way terrifies me. But it also motivates me. It’s all about striking the balance between telling the story “truthfully” as history intended or “honestly” based your interpretation as a writer, as a human being with your life experiences. To me, to write a story “based on” true events is to write “truthfully” while adhering as much historical accuracy as possible. To write a story “inspired by” true events is to write “honestly” by interpreting the events and presenting them through the lens through which you want others to see while respecting the history or the truth.

Put in another context, in the U.S. legal system, a witness must tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A lawyer must be honest, but she/he can selectively choose the pieces of the truth to present to the jury or judge that would be most favorable to the client. A criminal defense lawyer, for example, in zealous defense of a client, may not deliberately mislead the court, but has no obligation to actively tell the defendant’s whole truth. Applying this logic to writing, a writer writing a story “based on” true events is that witness who must tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” A writer writing a story “inspired by” true events is the lawyer that must be honest but is not obligated to present the whole truth. Both perspectives are important. Which approach resonates more with you?

Consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind. It is one of my favorite films. It was a commercial success, grossing over $313 million worldwide and won four Academy Awards, one of which was for Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet it received criticisms for inaccuracies related to aspects of John Nash’s life and portrayals of Nash’s medical illness. The movie has never claimed to be historically accurate. It is not a documentary of John Nash’s life. It was never advertised as a movie “based on” John Nash’s life. The filmmakers were honest from the outset that they made creative choices for the sake of telling a compelling story and that they never meant the story to be a literal representation of Nash’s life. The filmmakers were “inspired by” Nash’s genius in the face of his struggles with his mental illness and found a way to visually dramatize the illness. While the filmmakers exercised creative license, the end product was a movie that was true to the spirit of Nash’s life story.

Contrast that with Schindler’s List, another one of my all-time favorite movies, which is “based on” the true story of Oskar Schindler. The movie was not only a commercial success, grossing $332 million worldwide and winning numerous Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay, but it has also been designated by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The filmmakers adhered painstaking details to bring authenticity to the screen. There is a basis for every event that happens in the movie: the fact Schindler kissed a girl is true; the liquidation of the ghetto is true; Jewish families sharing a room with others they did not know is true; the fact Schindler was arrested is true. The efforts to be faithful to the truth were also evidenced in the length of time it took to make the movie: 10 years. Despite the historical accuracies, the movie received some criticisms, mostly from academia noting that the film depicted stereotypical views of Jewish people and portrayed the characters in simplified absolute good versus evil.

These examples illustrate that both approaches to writing, whether “based on” or “inspired by” true events, can work and do work. Neither one is better than the other. Both are subject to criticisms. Both have the potential to render authenticity and beauty to a subject matter. Both have the powerful potential to educate and inspire. In the end, as a storyteller, you must decide whether you want to tell the story “truthfully” or “honestly.” Your approach to write “based on” or “inspired by” true events will largely be determined by how the subject matter resonates with you and which approach you believe will enable you to tell the most compelling story.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent legal advice. If you have questions about the legalities of writing about your subject matter, please consult with an attorney.

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