Working With True Stories

At the moment, I’m looking at a true story with a view to adapting it, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about how to select factual stories to turn into fiction.

Everyone loves a true story. The knowledge that the events they’re watching actually (more or less) happened helps audiences overcome any logic problems, makes characters more relatable, and often makes a project set in an obscure time or place easier to sell.

There may be name familiarity, or a history event that viewers will remember, giving you a hook to sell the story to an audience. People who wouldn’t go see a story about a fictional politician might go to see a movie about Winston Churchill.

And true stories are also one of the best ways to get a story about a non-white, non-heterosexual, or female lead into production. The story demands the casting of an actor outside the usual list of white males who can ‘open’ a movie, removing the pressure on you to change the story to fit the sex and race of the latest big star.

So what should you be looking for when evaluating material for adaptation?

Every story, true or not, needs a strong central character. So look for something where a single character is taking most of the action and suffering most of the consequences. Stories about a large group of people just don’t work, not unless you can tell their story by concentrating on one person.

Steven Knight’s Amazing Grace isn’t about the many campaigners seeking to abolish slavery on British soil – it’s about William Wilberforce. It may commit a historical injustice in focusing on one man – but it ensures a good movie.

Is your story visually interesting? People talking in rooms is not generally interesting (though Frost/Nixon shows us it can be.) Is there a dramatic world for your story to take place in – the courtroom, the battlefield, rock concerts or public appearances? Does the story have visual scale and moments of beauty and wonder? Does it take us to places we’ve never been before, show us new and exciting worlds?

Someone being famous is not a narrative (aka Biopics Are Hard.) Just because a historical figure became rich and famous, or won battles, or became emperor, doesn’t mean you can turn their life into a compelling story.

Like any fictional character, they need to begin with a problem and a character flaw, undergo tests and trials which they initially fail, and finally learn their lesson and become a better person (or fail tragically). If there’s no framework to create that story out of the bare facts of their life, then you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.

It’s the peripheral characters who will cause you problems. Even seen a biopic where a character (often a business partner or ex-wife) turns up for a couple of scenes, is extremely bland and polite, and then disappears? That’s the person who threatened to sue if they were depicted doing anything remotely criminal, evil, or even mildly unpleasant (true or not).

In the story I’m looking at, an extremely famous person (allegedly) seduced the central character’s girlfriend, embroiled him in an ‘investment’ that was actually a con, then ran off with both girl and money. It’s one of the most interesting elements of the story – but, knowing how jealously that person’s memory is guarded by his fans, I either cut that section, or spend the rest of my life in a libel court!

So, think carefully about who’s likely to sue you and whether it’s worth it.

Is this a story that resonates with a modern audience? Or – why should anyone care? Julius Caesar was a fascinating historical figure, but does his life story have anything to say to us today (at least, anything that can be conveyed in a two hour movie)?

The key to this is: what is your character trying to achieve? Audiences love to see someone be the first to do something, or achieve a specific goal against overwhelming odds, or go from rags to riches, or stand up to oppression or prejudice. All of these things are relatable and familiar, even if they’re taking place in another century or another country. If your character is doing one of these things, you can be reasonably sure of getting an audience.

And last of all – you’re going to put in a lot of research time, time spent getting legal clearances, literary or music rights, and all kinds of other stuff you don’t normally have to deal with. Are you so dedicated to telling this story that you’re prepared to do all that?

If so, go for it…!

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