Fargo, the recent FX television series based on the Coen Brothers’ film of the same name, has impressed critics on both sides of the Atlantic. For those unfamiliar with the source material, though, the claim that it is a ‘true story’ might be startling.
The 1996 movie begins with the same statement, although the Coens have since admitted that its plot doesn’t cleave to any actual events. Some inspiration was gleaned from a shocking Connecticut murder, but that’s as far as its relationship with the real world goes.
It’s a good device, though. After you walk out of the cinema or close your laptop at home, you’re left wondering – did that happen? Really? Surely not, but maybe? Even the most tenuous connection with the truth can make a story seem more affecting.
Of course, grand claims to veracity aren’t always accurate.
Here are four tall tales that stretch the idea of a ‘true story’ to breaking point.
Sam Raimi, the man behind cult horror favourite The Evil Dead, directed 2012 shocker The Possession. It claims to be based on a true story, although it largely appears to be based on spiritual predecessors like The Exorcist.
Apparently, the Raimi movie was inspired by the tale of a Jewish wine cabinet haunted by an evil spirit; as many pundits and reviewers pointed out at the time, relying on the testimony of one superstitious furniture-owner probably doesn’t make your film factual.
The Blair Witch Project
This is a bit of a grey area; nobody behind this seminal 90s flick genuinely believed it was real, but its marketing campaign (one of the first to go viral online) relied on fake police reports and other ephemera to contextualise the ‘found’ footage.
A genuinely true story is that seeing this at the cinema scared the 11-year-old me witless.
A Million Little Pieces
It’s really, really hard to sell books nowadays – so what’s a budding writer to do if they want to generate a readership?
James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces, knew the score. Publish a ‘misery memoir’ ostensibly based on your own life, then watch the sympathetic interviews and critical plaudits roll in.
Obviously, it helps if you’re not just making it all up.
It might seem a little churlish to point out the flaws in an historical film; the nature of the medium means that stories need to be shuffled around to create a narrative, and nobody wants to be the pub pedant noting anachronisms down in his little black book.
Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is an egregiously flawed example of the genre, though.
For instance, kilts weren’t actually part of the Scottish wardrobe until the 17th century, while the events of the film took place in the 13th century. Obviously they were crucial to setting up the best large-scale mooning scene in Hollywood’s history, so it’s an understandable anachronism.
Is relying on a ‘true story’ for gravitas or shock value justifiable? Are there any better examples than these? Let us know in the comments!