Editor’s note: “Art in Adaptation” is a bi-weekly column exploring the changes between original works and adaptations as well as their effects on popular culture.
Sometimes real life operates in a way that is more extraordinary than fiction. There are countless historical figures and inspirational leaders that people look up to, and some have legacies so notable that books, movies, shows, and merchandise are created in their honor.
Filmmakers, in particular, have always had this urge to combine stories rooted in reality with the world of fantasy. Real life is often used as inspiration for elven tales and sci-fi epics, and sometimes fiction is told as an allegory for real life. Other times, reality is slightly tweaked to fit what the filmmakers want audiences to see. That is what separates a biopic from a documentary — the ability to skew and distort events but still claim that it is set in reality.
The exaggeration of real-life events and people are not specifically constrained to film. We see it everywhere in journalism, music, and even on social media. What makes on-screen media different from other forms of storytelling is this attempt to recreate events for audiences so that they feel like they are witnessing it firsthand. Inflating another person’s life story for better audience retention seems like an issue, but one that goes unnoticed if a film is received well enough to forgive the misrepresentation.
Let us take the biopic that followed critically acclaimed martial artist and UW alum Bruce Lee as an example. “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”dramatized many parts of Lee’s life, such as his immigration story and fight scenes, exaggerating these in a way that was not rooted in reality — or gravity.
One of the most notable embellishments from the film was that Lee severely injured his back during an epic duel with his martial arts rival Johnny Sun. In reality, Sun is not real and Lee injured his back doing strenuous weight exercises. Why bother adding these plotlines if they were not originally a part of Lee’s life?
Fictional characters and events in biopics are often added to enhance the entertainment value of a film. Yes, it deviates from real life, but many critics actually claim that this “larger-than-life” depiction of Lee makes the film more fun and engaging. In the end, it’s cinema, and weren’t we all taught as kids not to trust what we see in the movies?
This reasoning, however, does not necessarily absolve audiences from confusing fictitious elements of biopics with that of the real-life people they are based upon. When does it stop becoming harmless fun and start to transition into misinformation under the guise of being “loosely based” on a true story?
Filmmakers throughout history have simplified racist historical figures and their harmful actions into characters of the past. While not a traditional biopic by any means, “The Greatest Showman” largely bases its story on controversial circus showman P. T. Barnum. The film spins it as an inspiring tale of outcasts coming together to speak out against the world’s prejudices through song and dance, when in actuality, Barnum largely exploited and abused his performers and “attractions,” who were either enslaved Black or disabled people.
Was it necessary for “The Greatest Showman” to adopt Barnum’s name instead of creating a fictional character that did not share his dark past? No, but it adds to this mysticism of historical figures that filmmakers love. Barnum lived the traditional American dream of a touching “rags-to-riches'' story, and “The Greatest Showman” wanted that specific depiction of him to be highlighted.
While you can argue that this film had no notable impact on our reality, it has an impact on the legacy Barnum left behind. His existence will always be tied to “The Greatest Showman,” and the film will always have a more forgiving depiction of him as a real-life person.
A more concrete example of the potential harm biopics have on an audience's perception of real people is more noticeable in films that follow convicted criminals. “I, Tonya”is a biopic that follows former figure skater Tonya Harding and her part in orchestrating an attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The film “I, Tonya” is told through Harding’s unreliable narration of the events leading up to Kerrigan’s attack and the real-life tribulations that occurred. While the film is intentionally embellished as a commentary on changing narratives and how the media is often unforgiving to public figures, some critics claim that the film attempted to paint Harding, “an unrepentant felon,” in a forgiving and sympathetic light.
Sure, true crime documentaries and biopics are allowed to present these new ideas and different perspectives, but there is no denying that the filmmakers underestimate the impact their films have on the audience’s perception of these people in real life.
Even fictional shows manage to find a way to misrepresent people. “The Queen’s Gambit,” while following a fictional female chess prodigy, includes many big names from the chess community. In an offhand comment made by one of the characters, the show deeply misrepresents real-life female chess player Nona Gaprindashvili, claiming that she never competed against men in chess tournaments.
Gaprindashvili was actually the first female in history to achieve a chess Grandmaster title through high-profile matches with a variety of competitors, including men. The show’s intent was to make the main character, Beth Harmon, look all the more impressive compared to her female predecessors. Gaprindashvili ended up filing a lawsuit against Netflix, which streams “The Queen’s Gambit,” for defamation and invasion of privacy as she felt belittled by this comment.
Why did the filmmakers feel the need to uplift a fictional character by trivializing the accomplishments of a very real person? Well, like “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” the series wants our admiration and appreciation for the protagonist to be enhanced, even if the series of events are under artificial pretenses.
When done right, biopics can receive multiple accolades and find beautiful ways to honor the people depicted and their influence on society. When done wrong, these biopics can still receive this same reception. Many viewers do not actually care if the biopics they are watching are truthful as long as it makes for a good story and as long as you are aware these films should be taken lightly.
This does not change the fact that the legacy of the real figures behind biopics can never be separated from their media depiction. People will always associate Mark Zuckerburg with “The Social Network”and Jordan Belfort with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” They are memorialized as both real-life people and fictionalized characters. Which version is remembered is up for future generations to decide.
Reach columnist Kimberly Quiocho at email@example.com. Twitter: @kimberlyquiocho
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