Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have been fascinated with dramatizing the lives of real people. While some try their best to adhere to the truth, others take artistic license to an extreme, producing very inaccurate movies based on true stories. Every time this happens, history buffs come out of the woodwork to call out these false representations.
Some filmmakers are inspired by questionable source material. Others do not care about intentionally deviating from the truth - including inventing new or composite characters - to make their movies more dramatic. Some are even so fascinated by reworking and re-envisioning history that they base their careers on it. As director Oliver Stone - infamous for his unreliable historical explorations - once told an interviewer, "I will come out with my interpretation. If I'm wrong, fine. It will become part of the debris of history, part of the give and take."
Directors and screenwriters who make and market movies based on true stories that end up full of inaccuracies have raised some serious questions about the purpose of adapting stories for the big screen. Here are a few of the most glaring examples.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Clint Eastwood's 2014 biopic based on the book of the same name by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle won praise and awards for its tense depiction of the conflict in Iraq. Bradley Cooper's portrayal of Kyle as a veteran readjusting to civilian life after his tours of duty wowed audiences and critics.
The truth, though, differs from what's in the film. To start, the movie presents a tone-deaf, black-and-white look at the Iraq conflict. Both in the script and in the book, Iraqis are referred to as "savages," which sets the stage for them being cast as stereotypical bad guys.
Kyle himself was outspoken about using his sniper skills to wipe out as many Iraqis as possible, and he claims in the book to have slain hundreds. America's rules of engagement, he claims, were as follows: "If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot 'em. [Take out] every male you see."
The film makes every termination seem justified as a means of saving American lives. In reality, there were over 450,000 "excess" Iraqi slayings from 2003 to 2011.
Between Eastwood's desire to depict the conflict in Iraq as a good and heroic venture and Kyle's own bombastic rendering of his experiences, American Sniper relies on inaccurate, prejudiced tropes and patriotic stories to tell a tale that brushes away the moral complexities of its subject matter.
- Actors: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jonathan Groff, Kyle Gallner, Leonard Roberts
- Released: 2015
- Directed by: Clint Eastwood
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
The romance between Pocahontas and colonist John Smith depicted in the 1995 Disney animated feature never happened. There was no raccoon sidekick, no immersion in the beauty of the natural world, and no singing about "the colors of the wind." The true story of the native Powhatan woman is much less glamorous and family-friendly.
The Native American girl was actually born with the name Matoaka in Virginia, and she adopted the name Pocahontas from her mother during a coming-of-age ceremony. John Smith, a British colonist from the nearby Jamestown establishment, did interact with the Powhatan people, and was even captured by them at one point, but he and Pocahontas were never romantically involved.
While conflicts escalated between her people and the colonists, Pocahontas married a Native American warrior at around 14 years old and had a child with him. She was later snatched by English colonists as a leveraging tool against her tribe - a common practice at the time.
Kept on an English ship off the coast, Pocahontas was eventually forced to marry Englishman John Rolfe in order to create a tobacco crop alliance. Used and dehumanized, her name was changed to Rebecca and she was sent to England to be exhibited to British elites who disagreed with mistreating Native Americans. Her captors hoped to show their benefactors that colonists and Native Americans were getting along just fine.
During her trip, Pocahontas started vomiting and passed soon after. It's suspected she was given poison. She was only 20 years old at the time.
Instead of returning her remains to North America, Pocahontas was buried in an English cemetery.
- Actors: Mel Gibson, Christian Bale, Billy Connolly, Linda Hunt, Frank Welker
- Released: 1995
- Directed by: Eric Goldberg, Mike Gabriel
- Photo: ABC
Published in 1971, Go Ask Alice was marketed as an anonymous journal written by a teenage girl who expired from an OD. People flocked to bookstores to buy copies. Two years later, a made-for-TV film was released that brought the diary to life. Sold as a true story about a young woman's fall from grace, the film shocked viewers and riled up parents and teachers across the country.
Apparently, none of these people took the time to read the small print on the book's copyright page: "This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously."
In the "diary," Alice is a pseudonym for the girl whose life unravels after an acid trip at age 15. She descends into a world of hard substances until her life comes to a quick end. This reactionary, egregiously deceitful story is depicted in gritty realism by the film.
While it's now common knowledge that Alice's nameless girl never existed, the identity of the person who penned the fake diary remains a mystery.
- Actors: William Shatner, Mackenzie Phillips, Andy Griffith, Robert Carradine, Julie Adams
- Released: 1973
- Directed by: John Korty
- Photo: NBC
In an interview with The New York Times, actress Sally Field discussed bringing the story of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder to life. "Once we started filming, I knew I had done the right thing. I took all the characters and gave them definitions, and walks, and postures, and how they held their heads," she said. A book - Sybil - about the woman's experiences was published just a few months before Field's made-for-TV movie of the same name debuted on NBC.
In both the film and book, Sybil struggles with "16 separate personalities" as her psychiatrist uses her expertise to save her. However, the story is completely false.
It turns out that the real Sybil, Shirley Mason, cooked up the personalities to win the favor and attention of her mental health counselor, Dr. Connie Wilbur. As Mason's personalities multiplied, Dr. Wilbur recognized a unique opportunity to document and publish her patient's treatment.
With a looming book deal and deadlines to meet, Mason and Wilbur engaged in an unhealthy working relationship that disregarded medical ethics, professional standards, and, most importantly, the truth.
- Actors: Jessica Lange, JoBeth Williams, Tammy Blanchard, Fab Filippo, Gary Levert
- Released: 2007
- Directed by: Joseph Sargent