Cinematic Biopics: Does Historical Accuracy Truly Matter?

Curator's Note

The goal of a biographical picture (or “biopic”) is fairly straightforward: tell the story of a significant figure within history (recent or otherwise) and emphasize the importance of not only their contributions that we know them for today, but more often than not, their background history prior to and following their “big breakthrough.” Whether it would be a future “tech-savvy mogul” such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg, or a musical prodigy, such as Freddie Mercury, Johnny Cash, or even Elton John, a mainstream, Hollywood studio could see the potential in bringing these figures back into the realm of historical prominence by adapting their own personal lives and experiences into a screenplay-formatted, multi-million dollar, “based on a true story” tale that is sometimes guaranteed to find financial success and awards consideration....that is, if you’re lucky. Because on the one hand, you can have Steve Jobs (2015), but on the other hand, you can have Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Jobs suffered a massive loss that put something of a damper on Universal’s financial earnings for 2015, and despite critics raving about the film’s performances, Danny Boyle’s direction, and especially Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, audiences didn’t necessarily seem to care about what exactly the film was trying to say about this figure. Not to mention, the only awards consideration that the film ended up receiving was primarily limited to Best Actor (Michael Fassbender) and Best Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet). Rhapsody, however, had quite the opposite impact upon its release: the majority of critics, while praising Rami Malek’s electric performance as Freddie Mercury, found the film to be rather dull and undeserving of Queen’s legacy, while audiences, on the other end of the spectrum, absolutely fell in love with director Bryan Singer (and Dexter Fletcher’s) on-screen vision. What followed was an over $900 million worldwide gross (easily the highest-grossing musical biopic), and five nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for which Malek ended up taking home that iconic gold statuette). So……..what happened, exactly? How did one biopic financially succeed while the other fell flat on its face, even with it being generally considered a “critical darling?”

Well, to try and understand it, we need to recognize what a “biopic” is even classified as in the first place. Yes, it’s technically a “biographical picture,” but really, as long as the focus of the film is primarily on one prominent figure whose decisions and actions alter the entire framework of the film as a whole, it’s a biopic. The film is about the woman who invented and eventually patented the “Miracle Mop?” David O. Russell presents Joy (2015). The film is about a “less-than-B-movie-director” who was strangely obsessed with cross-dressing and transsexuality? Tim Burton presents Ed Wood (1994). The film is about one of the most iconic and revolutionary U.S. Presidents in American history? Steven Spielberg presents Lincoln (2012). To put it plainly, these films are nothing more than thoughtful, yet deeply analytical, love letters to icons whose life experiences and events, as far as the audience is concerned, “actually happened.” Because again, according to the one or two theatrical trailers, the countless television spots, and practically any other form of marketing or publicity material for that specific film, this story is inherently “based on or inspired by real-life events.” And this is ultimately where the argument comes into play.

Obviously, for an adaptation, creative liberties are undoubtedly inevitable when it comes to writing that particular screenplay. No matter what the story is that’s being adapted, there’s a simple, but often intimidating line that directors and screenwriters are forced to tightrope when crafting a biopic: on one side, there’s the historical accuracy and faithfulness to the original material, and on the other side, there’s the compulsive desire to change the story so that it works more within a narrative framework rather than conveying the events like it’s a Wikipedia article. If they can successfully stay on that line without ever tilting towards each edge, then the adaptation itself, theoretically, should be able to please both audiences. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network, at first glance, may solely give the appearance of a film that is negating most of the history in favor of telling its own story (while regardless of the apparent inaccuracy) using characters that are real, just not exactly portrayed in the way on-screen. Mark Zuckerberg was never an insecure jerk that desperately wanted to join one of the exclusive “clubs” at Harvard. Sean Parker was never an arrogant businessman who was fired by Zuckerberg over an incident involving cocaine possession. And if all of this is technically the truth of this “true story,” then why is it that Sorkin won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2011? And why is it that “Social Network” is still highly regarded as one of the most significant and influential films of the current decade? Well, it’s because it works. Sorkin knew exactly where to take the original material and within his own narrative framework, adapt it into a compelling-enough story. Were changes made? Absolutely. Does that detract from the fact that the film on display still works as its own “entity,” if you will? Frankly, not at all. What Sorkin and director David Fincher have accomplished here is something that most creators wouldn’t even dare to try for themselves: purposefully betray what actually happened, in order to tell a (for lack of a better word) “better” story. I mean, it still has to work as a movie, above all else.

But when “making it straightforward and simple” becomes the primary focus of the adaptation, you end up with a Man on the Moon (1999), and to an even worse extent, Bohemian Rhapsody. A (talented) director such as Milos Forman can take the life of one of the most iconic and yet infamous comedians in Andy Kaufman and incorporates the theme of “people don’t understand me, but I’m a genius” into his story. Thus, as a result, the inner complexities and overall agenda of a comedic figure that arguably embraced his own surreal methods of “making em’ laugh” become completely left behind, and as a result, the persona of someone such as Kaufman isn’t as deep and nuanced as it can be. This was a man who found entertainment in reading The Great Gatsby to a live audience; a man whose sole purpose was not to entertain his viewers, but more or less, entertain himself. A film such as Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher’s Bohemian Rhapsody, however, had a worse fate under Anthoney McCarten’s screenplay. With humorous comparisons to Jake Kasdan’s parody of musical biopics, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), Rhapsody purposefully omits countless historical facts in favor of the most basic of biopic formulas, only instead of it being almost self-aware in its approach, McCarten acts as if this is a serious portrayal of this true story. “Musical prodigy forms a band, the band becomes massively successful, ego and drugs eventually tear the band apart entirely, but they eventually manage to come together once again for one last performance during the climax”: this is essentially the structure that Rhapsody chooses to follow, and to say that it’s been done-to-death would be an obvious understatement. Yet, for whatever reason, audiences still flocked to the theaters to see it for themselves, and the majority of them would go as far as to say that the film is worthy of being an awards-season contender.

If you’re going to deviate from the original events, have a good reason to. If it’s for the purpose of strengthening your narrative and the characters that help move it forward, then unfold this story your own way, but still remain faithful to what actually happened. Otherwise, acknowledge what your film truly is and decide whether or not the execution is enough to make-up for its shortcomings. This is where a film such as Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman (2019) triumphs over Rhapsody, because even though the story of Elton John has been seen before (it practically follows the same model as Rhapsody), the way Fletcher and cinematographer George Richmond tell it is novel.  At the end of the day, it’s about the film itself. Justice to the character does certainly matter, but believe it or not, it’s not nearly as crucial as others have made it out to be. What’s more important is crafting a compelling character first, then paying respects to the original material later. And when it comes to why one biopic fails while the other ultimately succeeds, generally speaking, all comes down to subjectivity and timing. One viewer may love Bohemian Rhapsody, but considering that they’re not exactly ready for yet another musical biopic, they’ll probably skip Rocketman (especially since the latter was released only seven months later). The same applies to the Steve Jobs, because the fact of the matter is, no matter what the overall consensus may be, we have already seen what Ashton Kutcher looks like as the titular innovator, so we’re not really interested in seeing Fassbender take on the exact same role two years after the previous film’s original release. Maybe audiences have had enough of Steve Jobs for a while, which in many respects, is certainly a shame when comparing the quality of both “Jobs” films. Maybe not every figure in history needs a biopic…...then again, Hollywood, especially now, often likes to think otherwise (just ask Baz Luhrmann about Elvis Presley, or Marielle Heller about Mr. Rogers).

But to finalize my argument, historical accuracy is by no means everything, as long as the director and/or screenwriter manage to not only have us invested as movie-going spectators, but still pay their respects to that particular icon, deceased or otherwise. Anybody can just research the historical figure and their true story for themselves using the Internet…..but why just simply read one’s life story when you can become immersed in it for yourself? That’s the so-called “magic of the movies” after all. 


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