“Based on a True Story”: History and Biography in Narrative Film
When you see a film and the words “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events” appear on the screen, what do you think? Presumably the filmmaker wants you to know that he or she did not make this up-at least not entirely. He or she has dug into the trove of human experience to tell a story worth telling: the inspiring life story of a revered figure; the lurid tale of a criminal figure; or the stirring heroics of ordinary individuals, taking on a formidable adversary and, we hope, winning. History is full of wonderful stories of people and events that lend themselves successfully to dramatization, and, from a commercial perspective, historical truth is a valuable selling point: people want to be inspired by the examples of others. Yet there is almost always a tension between the artistic and commercial demands of the film medium and the historian’s ethical and professional obligation to render the past as it actually happened. But while the historian can easily cry foul when a movie distorts the past, we must acknowledge that writing history also involves constructing narrative. Though not as bound by commercial imperatives, historians must use their imaginations and intellect to interpret events and present them to readers in a coherent and meaningful way. It is a painful cliché, but there is a lot of story in history, too.