Issue 1: Feature Article—Why Tell a True Story?

Transforming a true life tale into a screen story is problematic for many reasons, both practical and creative. So why attempt it at all? If you hadn’t already guessed, RSL is all about the true life adaptation, so, for the first issue, it seems apt to start at the beginning and explore why writers, filmmakers and audiences want to create, make and watch true life adaptations…

Why would a writer choose to adapt a true life tale?

Any screenwriter looking for their next project knows the story they choose will be a part of their lives for a very long time as the script goes through its various (often frustrating) stages of research, planning, and (re)drafting. Then there’s the arduous process of trying to sell the finished script and get it on to the screen.

Even when established A-list names are involved, there’s no guarantee a project will move ahead quickly. For example, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter, for nearly 20 years, Leonardo DiCaprio has sought to bring the story of Billy Milligan (the first person to use multiple personality disorder as a legal defense) to the screen. Writers Jason Smilovic and Todd Katzberg are currently working on the script.

With so much time and creative energy required, for the spec screenwriter labouring alone, the material they select needs to appeal on any number of levels to ensure motivation remains strong as the months (or more likely, years) roll by. Key issues include eventual saleability and personal interest (see the first lesson in our series for more on this).

If the eventual goal is a sale, the real life adaptation can provide a solid foundation on which to pitch/sell a script, especially if the project focuses on a well-known subject or ties in with a popular non-fiction book. We all know how successful films ‘based on a true story’ can become – critically and financially – as well as how easily they attract big name stars and directors.

On a personal level, finding a true life story to relate to and connect with can be excellent kindling for a writer’s imagination. There is also the benefit of having some story elements already in place to guide the writer in the early stages (and maybe even living participants who might help you get their story on screen).

Additionally, while the process of adapting (or more accurately, transforming) any source material undoubtedly requires great creativity, this is tempered by having a body of focussed research to refer to – be it first-hand accounts, biographies, journalistic reports or historical record.

Why do true life tales make good screen stories?

On the surface, a good true life adaptation can draw audiences into an exciting story filled with memorable characters and (on some level) bring an episode of history vividly ‘to life’. However, the true life tale can also offer the opportunity to explore topical and controversial issues and events on a deeper, more human level.

Take American Sniper (2014) (RSL’s first analysis), which tackles the polarising Iraq war through the real life experiences of Navy SEAL sniper, Chris Kyle.

Whether or not you respond positively to the film (written by Jason Hall), it does attempt to ‘humanise’ something often discussed in the abstract. As screenwriting guru, Robert McKee said during an interview with Public Radio International: “I think one of the reasons for the success of American Sniper is it does try its best to somehow sort out morality”.

Taking this further, the true life tale can also:

  • provide an opportunity to look at history through a modern day lens
  • offer a fresh perspective or point-of-view
  • contribute to our understanding of past events*

In discussing criticisms of her 2014 film, Selma, director Ava DuVernay, commented that “folks should interrogate history”, and on some level, the true life tale gives audiences the chance to do just that; by exposing them to the filmmakers’ interpretation of events and offering them a window on a world they could otherwise only read about.

Of course, this raises the question of how closely writers should adhere to the ‘true version’ of events. But that’s a subject for another day…

So, how does the writer start the process?

Glad you asked…

Each issue, RSL will be providing a lesson for screenwriters on the basics of the true life adaptation.

The first one looks at finding source material and offers tips on deciding whether or not you’ve uncovered potential screenplay gold. Find the lesson here.

Feel free to share your views/comments on our Twitter page: @reelscreenlife

Issue 2 of RSL will be out on 8 June.

Head over to the subscription page and fill out the form to receive email previews of each issue, extra material and a FREE GUIDEPutting Real Life on Screen – which offers a useful overview of the topics we’ll be discussing.

*Anyone interested in exploring this point more fully would do well to check out the work of author and historian Robert Rosenstone, who writes on the relationship between history and the visual media, and also wrote the book on which the film Reds (1981) was based – see the resources section for more.