Straight Outta Reality: 3 Principles for Adapting True Stories

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

True stories have fascinated audiences since the early days of storytelling. Knowing a story is based on actual events sparks interest in films that might never draw the curiosity of the average moviegoer. These stories often carry a weight of truth in their themes not always found in the fictional narrative. It’s the reason so many films now begin with a text card informing us that what we are about to see is based on something that really did occur.

With films such as Straight Outta Compton and The End of the Tour finding box office success, you might be compelled to bring your own real life story to the screen. The Academy Awards have always been friendly to such stories. It’s no wonder that writers who hear of or experience events that hold drama often desire to adapt them into scripts. Here are three guiding principles for adapting stories from real life.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto plays Rayon, a transgender woman who is HIV-positive and struggling with a drug habit. "I always saw Rayon as someone who wanted to live ... life as a woman, not just someone who enjoyed putting on women's clothing," Leto says.

1. SIMPLIFY

combine characters and events while compressing space and time

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie Azoff, is a composite of several characters from the protagonist’s real life. Ron Woodroof’s diagnosis of AIDS occurs in one dramatic moment in Dallas Buyer’s Club, but doctors actually informed Woodroof about the possible diagnosis over a period of several years. Both of the other central characters in the film, Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks, are composites that didn’t exist either. The creation of Rayon gives Woodroof a specific challenge in overcoming his prejudices while facing the disease.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Pamela Travers plays cat and mouse with Walt Disney to negotiate the details of bringing her Mary Poppins story to the screen. While Travers did visit the U.S., the negotiations surrounding the story took place over a number of years. Walt never flew to London to seal the deal. However, the events that actually took place were less than dramatic. In order for the story to work, the writer had to compress the timeline and put the protagonist and antagonist in the same physical space, rather than have the conflict worked out through telegrams and letters.

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2. FOCUS

concentrate on themes, not just details

Some details make a story feel authentic. Other details are distracting. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding events that were omitted from the film A Beautiful Mind. The central character of the story, John Nash, fathered a child before he met his wife Alicia, who is pictured in the film. Nash refused to support his son and neglected the boy as well as the woman who bore him. The narrative in A Beautiful Mind is arguably Alicia’s story of tenacity in an unwieldy relationship, which wouldn’t work well with those darker details from Nash’s life. This is one of many omissions and changes the scriptwriter felt necessary to enforce the theme of the film.

We must remember that we are not documentarians. We are storytellers. And a story should not be judged on its historical accuracy but rather its ability to engage an audience.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler came under similar attack for historical inaccuracies. In the film, the central character appears to dislike Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The real Eugene Allen (named Cecil Gaines in the film) has actually spoken fondly of both men in interviews. However, the portrayal in the film is meant to reinforce the difficulties of people of color under those administrations. The writers have spoken about the relationship being metaphorical and symbolic rather than literal.

The King’s Speech is admittedly inaccurate in many of its details. For good reason, stories like this claim to be only based on real events. The theme of the film deals with the role of friendship in overcoming obstacles. The creators chose to omit and alter history to reinforce the themes they wanted to tackle. Many of the historical details are either irrelevant to their theme or would simply bore their audience. Story was king in The King’s Speech, and audiences responded.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH stars in THE IMITATION GAME

3. DARE

don’t be afraid to change what actually happened

When adapting events from life for stories, we cannot be afraid to completely change what might have actually happened for the sake of the story. Many times when workshopping scripts based on actual events — often from their own lives — writers will insist that a note is not valid because it’s not what really happened. Real life must always take a back seat to good storytelling when adapting for the screen.  

Lincoln doesn’t try to encapsulate the American president’s life, but only depicts the last few weeks.  Spielberg and the film’s other creators made great efforts to be historically accurate. However, one of the most emotional scenes of the film involves Thaddeus Stevens and his lover, a person of color, at the end of the film. While Stevens was accused of having a relationship with his housekeeper by his anti-abolitionist critics, there’s no actual evidence it was true. However, it gives us a compelling backstory for his character and offers a potential motivation for the hard work Stevens offers to the cause.

In American Sniper, Chris Kyle enlists in the military after finding his girlfriend in bed with another man and seeing American lives lost on the news. In actuality, there’s no record of either of those events occurring. He had always intended to enlist after high school. However, these fictional details help give us a stronger reason for our hero to go on his journey and provide a logical through-line where real life didn’t necessarily offer that.

While these examples can be swept away as minor details in the narrative of what occurred, there are many more significant examples of history being altered for the sake of a better story. Alan Turing single-handedly invents and physically builds a machine that breaks the Germans’ Enigma code in The Imitation Game. This simply wasn’t true. The machine Turing “invents” in the film was actually created by Polish cryptanalysts before Turing was even working for the British government. Turing’s innovation was actually designing a modified machine that broke codes faster by looking for likely letter combinations and ruling out others. Mathematician, Gordon Welchman, partnered intimately with Turing to create the design, but is not mentioned in the film.

A similar critique was launched against the film Captain Phillips and the diminished heroic role of others in the story. Do these historical changes weaken the films? Not at all. They make their stories stronger. The changes allow us to focus on the journey of a singular character, without getting into convoluted details about contributions the audience won’t likely care about. Our hero in the film is who matters and the story is better for the changes.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

One thought on “Straight Outta Reality: 3 Principles for Adapting True Stories

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  1. The Poles are seldom given credit for making the initial inroads on breaking the Enigma ciphers. They transferred what they’d learned via France to England.

    It’s true that a little cautious fictionalizing can improve a story. However, in the case of Enigma, the movie (2002), attempts to turn it into a spy thriller lost the true dramatic core and obliterated the greatest “moment,” the point where the solution engine generated the first German plaintext.

    Omission of facts is much safer. It simplifies the plot, shortens the film, and emphasizes what remains.

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