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Truth as a Hornet That Stings: How Accurate Does a Biopic Have to Be?

Truth as a Hornet That Stings: How Accurate Does a Biopic Have to Be?

Whenever a film opens with a title card that reads ‘based on a true story’, it is striving for the authenticity biopics get without even trying. Biopics are an art form worth some discussion. Not only are they often hugely successful they also seem to have a way of cutting straight to our emotions by relying, or so they say, on the truth.

Part of their success is to do with the pre-existing fanbase or interest in the subject the biopic is presenting, but that isn’t all of it. We like the idea that the story is true, maybe because these remarkable stories make our world seem more exciting or maybe we imagine these things could happen to us. Whatever it is it, seems to matter to us that it really happened. That’s why I found myself a little disappointed when I watched Bo Widerberg’s Joe Hill (1971) and I noticed an inaccuracy.

Joe Hill was a member of the Industrial Works of the World and the original protest singer (perhaps his most famous achievement is coining the term ‘pie in the sky’). He was sentenced to death on a dubious murder charge. On the 19th of November 1915 he was blind folded and tied to a chair, Hill listened to the marshal say “Ready, aim” and then Joe Hill yelled “-Fire! Go on and fire!” While this is what happened in real life, in the movie however Joe struggles on his chair, trying to see some birds that he hears singing off camera. It’s still a powerful scene, speaking to us of Hill’s and the union movement’s desire for freedom. But it’s nowhere near as good as what really happened. My disappointment made me ask myself a question: was I annoyed that the biopic was inaccurate or that the lie they told wasn’t as good as the truth?

Are Accurate Biopics Better?

Films like Selma (DuVernay, 2014) and The Big Short (McKay, 2015) are often praised for their accuracy. If the standard of the genre is truth, then these movies are top of their game. To be one-hundred percent accurate and still tell a compelling story is a real achievement, as many films that have the privilege of making things up can’t even do  that. The fact is that real life is usually not that compelling. Even if exciting things happen, sometimes they may need to be tweaked or reordered to make them understandable and engaging to an audience. Biopics are still movies whose main purpose is to be watched, so should there not be some wiggle room for the filmmaker’s creativity?

A movie that raised a lot of conversation around a biopic’s duty to being truthful was Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer, 2018), which follows the story of British rock legend Freddie Mercury. The main accusation is that the filmmakers reshuffled some dates. In the movie Mercury tells his bandmates that he is HIV-positive before they play Live Aid in 1985, but in reality, he didn’t find out about his illness until April 1987 – a long time after the concert.

I imagine these changes were made very early on when plotting the story, as the emotional pay off of Mercury playing Live Aid after having just been diagnose is definitely more dramatic than the truth. The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody grossed 905.2 million USD at the box office and has an 8/10 on IMDB suggest that for many of us the facts are not as important as the story. Bohemian Rhapsody is maybe permissible to us despite its inaccuracies because it still speaks a truth of who Freddie Mercury is to us and how he is represented across culture. Of course, this is still a lie, if only a white lie. The mistake is to sell it as truth.

Telling someone a movie is true in any real sense of the word is always a lie. When you watch a film you compare its elements to your own experience, your own taste, as well as to what’s happening around you, both locally and on the global stage. Any filmmaker when making a movie does this too; the research they do, the script they write, the actors they pick, and any other discussion made along the way is informed by millions of opinions and biases even when you try to avoid it. It reminds me of something Werner Herzog said when he was on a panel of documentary makers; they all said you should try and “be like a fly on the wall and not interfere” with the subject. Herzog cut in: “No we should be the hornets that go out and sting.”

If Herzog can say this of documentaries, can we not say it with even more gusto when it comes to biopics? They are a dramatic art that exists in a world of biases and numerous hot takes just like anything else.

Fact or Fiction?

The main difference between a biopic and other narrative movies is not so much in its form but in how it is viewed. If anything is viewed as true, whether it’s a film, a book, or a news cast, the maker has a responsibility to handle it with care. The idea of being truthful, not just in our cinemas but in our class rooms and culture at large has never been more prominent than in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. We are at a point in time where the huge narratives that have dominated the public consciousness are beginning to shift. All artists and public figures have more responsibility than ever to tell difficult truths about where we have come from, even if that’s hard to hear. That includes the film industry’s role in preserving an old way of thinking.

The art of the biopic is using the truth as a hornet that stings. It’s about understanding that the main job of a film is to be watched, and that the only reason to pick a true story is to impact your audience. So like in the case of Green Book (Farrelly, 2018), if you’re going to make a biopic about Jim Crow American, you should probably fact-check with the main character’s family or friends first.

I don’t think we can go so far as to say that you can never play with the facts, but you should be very careful when doing it. Ask yourself not just what the effect will be, but also who’s side are you lying for. Looking back at my viewing of Joe Hill, there are numerous scenes that probably didn’t happen quite the way they’re shown and a few others I would have personally left out. But for all it’s inaccuracies, I still love the film because it speaks to me of my own mythical image of Joe Hill and the image he has in protest music. The changes made to his story are only to set him more solidly in our minds today. It’s a good lesson for any filmmaker: if you have to lie, please make it more compelling than the truth.


Words by Edward Murden.

Illustration by Edna Monteiro.

Looking for more film critique? Check out Mouthing Off’s Film & Television Section.

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