Dexian Wang
by Dexian Wang

"Based On A True Story."

These words tend to suggest whatever you're about to watch is accurate and totally what happened in real life. However, that's often not the case. There are many different reasons why movies take creative license with the stories and characters. Usually, it's to heighten the drama of the story. After all, real life doesn't exactly lend itself perfectly to a neat little three-act storytelling structure, and the writers have to rejig it to fit the pieces. Sometimes, the real timeline drags the movie, and events are shifted around as a result. More commonly, the people involved may not consent to a portrayal of them, and their names are changed, or they become a composite of different characters.

Here are five movies that took creative liberties with their story, and the reasons why:


1) Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

This movie tells the story of Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey at the peak of the McConaissance), an AIDS patient diagnosed in the mid-1980s who smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas for treating his symptoms and distributed them to fellow people with AIDS by establishing the "Dallas Buyers Club". While Woodroof was a real character, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto's supporting characters were composites of transgender AIDS patients, activists, and doctors interviewed by the writers. And although Ron Woodroof's outlandish behaviour was portrayed accurately in the film, the character was made a bit rougher and more aggressive in the movie, and was also depicted as more homophobic than he probably was at the start of the film. This was perhaps done to have more of a pronounced change in the character's arc.

The more significant point of contention lays with how the movie depicts the drug treatments of the period. Writer Daniel D'Addario, in an article for Salon around the film's release, wrote that the film's "focus is so laserlike upon a particular character, and a particular time period, as to create a simplistic impression of a remarkably complicated time." and that "the film's take is perilously close to endorsing pseudoscience."

In the film, Woodroof states that the drug AZT (azidothymidine) is ineffective and counter-productive, instead preferring to use the protein Peptide T for his treatments. However, in real life, the medical community disagrees with how the movie's stance. Many years after the events of Dallas Buyers Club, AZT is still prescribed to patients with AIDS, albeit at a much lower dose. Medical historian Jonathan Engel, author of "The Epidemic: A History of AIDS," said that AZT was, in fact, a relatively effective treatment for the period, consistently prolonging lives for a year at a time when AIDS was damn-near a death sentence. Furthermore, journalist David France, director of the documentary How to Survive a Plague, suggests that AZT was actually "the first element of a cocktail of drugs that ended the era of AIDS-as-death sentence".

HIV/AIDS activist Peter Staley has described Peptide T as "a treatment which never panned out. It's a useless therapy, and it never got approved, and nobody uses it today, but the film implies that it helped him."


2) The Imitation Game (2014)

Telling the complicated story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) through the medium of film was never going to be an easy task. The Imitation Game is somewhat mired in controversy around film circles for the liberties it takes. Visual blog Information is Beautiful deduced, even taking into account the concept of creative licence, the film was just 42.3% accurate when compared to real-life events. The film does change many details, both major and minor, and it'd take forever to go through every single one of them.

For example, the film depicts the building of only one British Bombe, with Turing the focal point of its construction. In reality, more than 200 British Bombes were built under the supervision of chief engineer Harold Keen of the British Tabulating Machine Company, with none of them built at Bletchley Park. Personality traits of Turing were also simplified: For example, he is depicted to have Asperger syndrome or some form of autism. While he certainly was eccentric and enjoyed working alone, the adult Turing was described as sociable and had friends, was also viewed as having a sense of humour, and had good working relationships with colleagues. The movie shows Turing’s arrest in 1951 as stemming from a detective's suspicions of him of being a Soviet spy. In truth, the detective and that interview are both fictional, and Turing was actually arrested in 1942.

The most significant criticism stems from a purported downplaying of Turing's homosexuality, as well as a romanticism of his relationship with close friend and one-time fiancée Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley).


3) Green Book (2018)

This Best Picture Oscar-winning movie has been accused of perpetuating the "white saviour" trope. Black classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver/bouncer Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) are depicted as friends, instead of an employer-employee relationship. This has drawn criticism from Shirley's family, especially Don's brother, Dr Maurice Shirley, who called it a "symphony of lies." Shirley is also depicted as being isolated from both the black community and his own family. In turn, they cite his involvement in the Selma march and monthly conversations between the brothers. However, interview outtakes with Donald Shirley from the 2011 documentary Lost Bohemia appears to support the movie's portrayal of their relationship. "I trusted him implicitly. Tony, not only was he my driver. We never had an employer-employee relationship. We got to be friendly with one another.", says Shirley. What is the truth? No one alive knows for sure.

Differing opinions on the main characters' friendship aside, the film has some inaccuracies that are easier to pinpoint. The tour actually took a year and a half, and not the two months shown in the movie.

In a critiquefor Shadow and Act, film journalist Brooke Obie points out that the film erases the very object it was named after. The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide written by Victor H. Green that was continuously updated from the 1930s through the '60s. The guide offered African-American travellers a directory of hotels, restaurants where they were welcome across the segregated Jim Crow South. It was well-known in the African-American community and had an estimated circulation of about 2 million by 1962. Obie points out that in every instance Green's book appears in the film, it is a prop mostly handled by Frank. She says: "Black people [in the film] don't even touch the Green Book, let alone talk about its vital importance to their lives. And while the guide leads the pair to run-down motels in the film, the real guide would have offered higher-end options to suit Shirley's refined tastes."


4) Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Another film beset by controversy, Zero Dark Thirty is plagued by allegations of partisanship, improper access to classified intel, the understatement of the role of the Obama administration, and the portrayal of the efforts as being driven by one agent battling against the CIA "system". Most notably, its seemingly pro-torture stance landed the film in the headlines for weeks. The film seems to suggest that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" had played its part in acquiring intel that led to Osama bin Laden.

Then U.S. Senator John McCain, who had experienced torture as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, said that the film left him sick – "because it's wrong". In a speech in the Senate, he said, "Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information."

Arguably the most definitive statement on this matter was sent by Michael Morell, the CIA's then-acting director. In a public letter to the agency's employees on December 21, 2012, he said "Zero Dark Thirty takes significant artistic licence, while portraying itself as being historically accurate ... [The film] creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false. ... [T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence-led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved."

Perhaps in most cases, this degree of artistic license wouldn't be a big deal at all. One could argue it was the use of torture images intended as horror to shock the audience. However, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the film was at times presented as journalistic work - almost like a documentary, which made this glaring misinformation a significant detraction.


5) Patriots Day (2016)

This movie tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 and the subsequent terrorist manhunt. It has one major problem: the main character, Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg)... is fictional. Boston-area viewers criticised the insertion of a fictional character into all the major events of a real-life tragedy... and you know what, they're right. Saunders is implausibly at the centre of every major incident that happens... and one can see why native New Englanders may be offended.

A minor change in the movie revolves around the body of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old killed in the bombing. A lone state trooper stands watch over his body in the film. In reality, it was actually Boston police officers who carried out that duty, while forensics units sifted the scene for evidence.

The movie also dives into the hypothetical. At the trial, surveillance footage of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev buying milk is shown by the prosecution. He goes to Whole Foods just 23 minutes after the bombing and infamously returns a short time later to exchange it. No one knows why he did that. The movie's scenario is that Katherine Russell, his sister-in-law, had asked him to pick up whole milk for her toddler but that Tsarnaev mistakenly bought 2 percent instead. Peter Berg, the director, said it was the only reason he could think of for why she might have forced him to go back.