Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Based on a True Story

by Jennifer AlLee

We've all seen books and movies that are "based on a true story." If you're like me, you can't help but wonder just how much artistic license was taken with the actual story... How much of it is fact, and how much is fiction?

Take the movie, We Bought a Zoo. It's a great film (one that I'd recommend to anyone) about Benjamin Mee, a widower who wants a fresh start for himself and his two children, Dylan and Rosie. When looking for a new home, he comes across the perfect property... which also happens to be a zoo.

Matt Damon is great as Benjamin, and Scarlett Johannson turns in a wonderfully unglamorous performance as the head zookeeper. The possibility of romance is aluded to, but never stated outright. I figured this was the part where fact and fiction parted ways, because someone some where decided the story would be better with a little romantic spark in it.

At the end of the film is your basic wrap-up paragraph, which says something like this: "Benjamin Mee continues to live at and run the Zoological Park with his children, Ella and Milo."

Ella and Milo? Why did they change the children's names for the movie? When I saw that, I had to dig a bit deeper. And I found that when they said "based on a true story" they weren't exagerating.

In the movie, the zoo is Rosemoor Animal Park, located in California. In real life, Benjamin Mee owns the Dartmoor Zoological Park in southwest Englad. In the movie, Benjamin buys the house and the zoo it sits within because he wants a fresh start with his kids. In real life, Benjamin was already in the process of buying the zoo before his wife died. And, just as I suspected, there was no mention in Mr. Mee's book of a zookeeper who looked or acted like Scarlett Johannson.

None of that detracted from the movie for me. But I find it interesting what things movie makers decide need to be embelished. It's like when a man comes home from a fishing trip and starts talking about the one that got away. Before you know it, that fish has grown from a guppy into a swordfish.

How about you? When was the last time you watched a movie and found out later how little of it really was like the true life story that inspired it?

JENNIFER ALLEE believes the most important thing a woman can do is find her identity in God – a theme that carries throughout her novels. A professional writer for over twenty years, she's done extensive freelance work for Concordia Publishing House, including skits, Bible activity pages, and over 100 contributions to their popular My Devotions series. Her novels include The Love of His Brother (Five Star, 11/07), The Pastor’s Wife (Abingdon Press, 2/10), The Mother Road (Abingdon Press, 4/12) and the upcoming A Wild Goose Chase Christmas (Abingdon Press, 11/12). She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance.
Visit Jennifer's website at


  1. Stop Stop! I don't want to know!

    You mean fiction...isn't...real?

    Well, heck look what they did the Scarlett O'Hara. Her life was fiction and they even changed THAT!
    How'd you like to have been Wade Hamilton and Ella Kennedy?

    Well, I think seeing Scarlett Johanssen as anything but a 'siren' nowadays would be worth the price of admission.

  2. I read a biography of the Von Trapp family years ago. Quite different from The Sound of Music musical/movie. I think Maria and the captain had been married about a decade before they left Austria. By that time, they had several more children (in addition to the ones from his first marriage).

  3. I recently read and watched the Hunger Games, which of course isn't true in any sense. But I did have that same feeling of "why did they change things." The way little Rue dies is different. They made her death seem like partly Katniss's fault. Maybe because they had to skip through the games and didn't have enough time to take her through the emotional ringer. And perhaps more important, the ending is different. It's missing some of the factors and motivations that made Katniss's decision seem selfless. Can't help but wonder why. Of course some of the changes gave us other points of view and info that didn't come until later books. That I liked.

  4. C.J. There is a Von Trapp family resort in VT. The real Von Trapp family. Now there's a place to go to learn the real story! Or maybe we like the fictional versions more.

    The settings for the Sound of Music have made some pretty nice tourist attractions. I know that much...

    DIna, I know more about the costumer in Hunger Games than I know about the story. Oh - and the male lead in the movie is Miley Cyrus' boyfriend WHO does a fair American accent considering he's from Austrailia. ( I only know this from catching five minutes of the Ellen show the other day. ) or am I way off?

  5. I guess they think no one would go for the real story? Personally, I think the true story sounds more interesting. But I guess they thought no one would watch a movie about a family in the process of buying a zoo when the mom dies and how they deal with it. Maybe they didn't want to kill off Scarlett's character? Interesting thoughts Jen!

  6. I don't like getting too much reality mixed in with my escapism, and for me, books and movies are escapist therapy. Too much "based on a true story" messes with my head.
    I didn't even watch Titanic until after it came out on video, and then only because a friend begged me to watch it with her.
    I figure I'll end up watching this one sooner or later, whenever hubs brings it home from Redbox, but in the meantime, I'm sticking to pure fiction! : )

  7. I've never seen a movie that mirrored the book. However, I can forgive the industry because books and movies have different agendas. At one time, they had different audiences, too. If you go to any of the screenwriting classes either online or at a conference, you'll see that they're formulated differently. Yes, you can take a screenwriting class to improve your writing, but when you sit down to actually write a screenplay, you'll find you have to change your mentality.

    I think the biggest difference is that in writing a book, we're told to show not tell. But a screenwriter has to tell and not show - that's the director's job. A film will live or die on the way the director and actors interpret the screenplay.

    A screenwriter may start with a book, but he has to try and fit the elements into a '3 act play'. And it's very difficult to get the same emotional charge when the book is scrunched into the movie's time frame. So the screenwriter adapts the story to catch and hold the audience at distinct times. And the audience has to catch on and react fast in only a few minutes - seconds even - of footage.

    You could liken it to dreaming where days and weeks pass, but in reality, you've only been sleeping a minute or two.

    So the screenwriter takes elements from the book, and fits it into the movie wherever it works best to entertain the audience. Because after all, that's what it is - entertainment. And no one wants to pay $15 to sleep at a movie.

  8. Interesting thoughts, all. Yes, for a movie you've got about two hours, give or take, to boil down a several hundred page book... or to encapsulate someone's life. There are choices which are made for artistic reasons, to increase the tension or the emotional impact. But sometimes, those choices just seem silly.

    Here's an example... back in high school, one of my favorite authors was Lois Duncan. One of her books, Summer of Fear, was made into a TV movie starring Linda Blair. In the book, the heroine had a dog named Trickle who was fairly important to the plot. Well, Linda Blair loved horses, so because of that, Trickle became a horse. I probably don't need to tell you that the book FAR surpassed the movie!

  9. I remember having this discussion with my classes back when I taught English. I used movies as a reward for reading a book, and then we'd discuss how they were different.

    I would expect part of it is the screenwriter's agenda, part how well the book translates to film, and part how respected the author is, Classic literature seems to be changed less, for instance--but not always. I saw one adaption of Tom Sawyer that, after the first half hour or so, took a left turn. Like the screenwriter read the first three chapters of the book, closed it, and said, "I'm good. I'll take it from here."

    In some cases, "based on a true story" might be best phrased "inspired by a true story." I know I've been inspired--but then that "what if" starts popping. I think I'd be a dreadful true crime writer.

  10. Great post, Jen (I loved "We Bought a Zoo" too!).

    Dina, I had the same thoughts about The Hunger Games. There were some pretty crucial elements that had to do with Peeta that didn't get set up in the way I thought they should have, because they're important in the following movies. Same thing happened with Harry Potter. Lots got left out that set up dynamics in the finale, so the last movie was a bit of a "Huh?" stew for non-readers.

    There's a Ewan McGregor movie coming out soon "based on a true story" about a family's experience in the Thailand tsunami. Also, there's "Argo." Of course I want to watch the movies *and* learn later what really happened.

  11. Dina, I too thought about The Hunger Games. Oh, and did any of you guys see the Ewan McGregor movie about Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. That was supposedly based on a true story too. I wouldn't ind watching it just for the cast.

    I agree Jen that sometimes the changes seem pointless and sometimes they're just insulting, like thinking names needed to change so an audience could better relate.

  12. I think I've seen 'inspired by the true story' used, which is much better than 'based'... or so it seems to me, as a writer. Well, you know how we like to fiddle with nuance.

    I guess the subplot of this post is, let's all watch a Ewan MacGregor movie. I'll make the popcorn,

  13. Deb, I like how you think! Speaking of Ewan... this is loosely related to what we've talked about. Did anybody see the movie "Miss Potter" with EM and Renee Zellweger? In the movie, Ewan has this fat walrus-type mustache. But on the cover of the DVD, you see him with Rene, and he's clean shaven. He's NEVER clean shaven in the movie, but I guess they figured people wouldn't recognize him otherwise. BTW, it's a really good movie... made me cry.

  14. Jen - I never noticed that but I'll check out the cover next time I'm in the library (my other shelf of DVDs lives there).

    yes, love that movie and hey, that SHOULD be based on a true story because it's a story of Beatrix Potter but I have this feeling it's way off base too.

    enjoyed the discussions, ladies!

  15. Hmmm, in this case, the true story was kind of boring story it seems to me, especially without the romance. I would want to see him find a new wife, personally. Then there’s the fictional rewrite though, which is worse, because the book is better. I think these situations can be disappointing though when we think life is more glorious than the true story, and feel short changed. My dish coworker rented the movie on his Blockbuster @Home account and I thought it would be a chick flick, but surprisingly, it was perfect for helping me think about the relationship with my son and me. He was saying how setting up a queue is better than figuring out if the Redbox has something he wants, when his queue can always be full of movies he knows he would like.


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