Why 'Based On A True Story' Is A Meaningless And Kind of Awful Phrase.
Here's Scorpion, currently airing on CBS.
It is 'based on a true story.'
In it, the main character, Walter O'Brien – a real-life man from County Wexford in Ireland who is the CEO of a small computer support firm – is the fourth smartest person in all of human history, who hacked NASA when he was eleven years old and who is recruited by a special US government team along with his own personal group of geniuses.
I'm going to shock you now and say that this might not be a strictly factual representation of events. Water O'Brien is, in fact, a fifty year old Irishman with a bachelors degree in Computer Science from a middling university (the University of Sussex, ranked thirteenth in the UK) who owns Scorpion Computer Services, a company he insists was named for his childhood nickname and not just because it sounds cool. He has claimed, among other things, that he has no emotions and that he is a karate master.
Incidentally, by 'small', I mean its headquarters is, as far as anyone can tell, a UPS Store, and that it purportedly has one employee. I also mean that when I sent a web archive version of its website to my colleague at Nine Over Five, she paused in bewilderment for a moment and then said “Why have you sent me a link to a Geocities website?”
But I'm not hear to talk about Mister O'Brien, and if you want to hear about him, there are numerous sources cataloguing his bizarre claims now that he's been thrust into the limelight. No, I'm here to talk about that most desired of phrases that media creators like to use: 'Based on a true story.'
What does it even mean? Well, generally, that one element might possibly be true. In Scorpion's case, it's that a man named Walter O'Brien does actually exist. He is a real person who you can touch, but probably shouldn't for reasons of politeness. In the case of something like two hour long racist diatribe The Blind Side, there is genuinely a man called Michael Oher (again, real and touchable, again, Fission Mailure does not advocate touching people without their permission) who was adopted by actual people called Sean and Leigh Tuohy (also can be touched, also shouldn't, Fission Mailure urges you not to touch these people) and who played American football at some point in his life. In the case of 300, there was a battle at Thermopylae with three hundred Spartans (and over a thousand others).
|"ANY RESEMBLANCE TO EXISTING PEOPLE ALIVE OR DEAD|
IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL!"
What audiences take from it, though, and what they're meant to take from it, is 'this is the unaltered truth. Everything you see is fact, or else distorted so little as to barely be worth noting.' That's not stupidity, it's just human nature: We like triumphant stories, and we like them even better if they turn out to actually be true.
Even better, we like stories that confirm what we already believe about the world, or want to believe about the world, and the stories that slap 'based on a true story' on themselves are those kinds of stories: Scorpion wants to tell you that there are people so incalculably smart that they need down-to-earth single mothers to drag them back into line, and that appeals to us. It's not true: Stephen Hawking, a man whose intellect is only matched by his personal wit, doesn't require the aid of a 'normal' person to make his views known, unless that normal person is repairing the devices he needs to speak and write.
300 wants to tell you that three-hundred brave men can hold a pass against a Persian army and die like heroes. The truth, that it was many more than that and that Thermopylae was not just a loss but a failure on their parts, is a lot less pleasing to us. The Blind Side wants to tell you that a talented young black man literally cannot achieve anything in life without a white person's support. We know for a fact that narrative appeals to people. They're awful people and we should stop pandering to them, but they exist, and if that doesn't make your skin crawl, who knows what would. The truth is, however, that Michael Oher already enjoyed and was already good at football long before the Tuohy's adopted him, and their upbringing of him was very hands-off, as it would be if you were adopting a teenager.
|I don't want to post a picture from The Blind Side, so here's a|
Satan-possessed doll from a film that's 'based on a true story'.
It has reached the kind of strange, bizarre point where a story with 'based on a true story' slapped on it generally bears less resemblance to real life than something which is entirely fictional. Note that historical fiction almost never does this, even when they're about actual people's actual lives, and the incidence rate of them slapping this label on drops sharply the more accurate they become. It's because if you're telling a story that's actually true, you don't need to inform everyone around you of how truthy it is. We don't start actual true stories with 'this is a true story' for the same way we don't name actual democracies 'The Democratic Republic of Fairpoliticia.'
Certainly it's more deceptive: If the intent is to convince the audience that what they're seeing is a real story – and it is – then of course that's more deceitful than just fiction marketed as fiction with no pretence at being real.