When Doing ‘Inspired by True Events’ Stories, You Have to Punch Up, Not Down
Today, I explain the importance of always punching up, not down, when you’re doing an “inspired by true events” story.
This is the Cronin Theory of Pop Culture, a collection of stuff I’ve noticed over the years that I think hold pretty true.
SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE STILLWATER
My buddy Richard Marcej did a comic review of the 2021 film, Stillwater, as part of his long-running comic diary (obviously, his diary comics are two years beyond his “current” timeline) and it reminded me of something that made me so mad about Stillwater that I realized can pretty much stand as a truism.
When you’re doing an “inspired by true events” story for your movie or your TV show, you really have to punch up and not down.
By which I mean, you have to play fair with the victims of the stories, if you’re GOING to tell their stories. You don’t have to stick to the facts 100%, of course, as that is the whole point of a fictionalized version of a real life event, but if you’re going to do something like that, don’t be a dick to the VICTIMS.
If you want to take some pokes at the BAD PEOPLE in the story, that’s totally fair enough. Who cares? They’re the bad guys in the story. You can mess with their character a bit, if you’d like. But when you’re messing with the VICTIMS? Like, why would you want to do that? How messed up is that?
In the case of Stillwater, the film is essentially a fictionalized version of the Amanda Knox story, an American exchange student living in Italy who served four years in prison for her wrongful conviction in the murder of her fellow exchange student, Meredith Kercher. Knox’s story is that of a woman who was a victim of a flawed justice system. It is a sad story, and it is definitely reasonable that you would want to do a movie about the story.
However, in Stillwater, the Knox character in the film, played by Abigail Breslin, it turns out that she hired the guy who ultimately killed the roommate (and her former lover), but only hired him to evict the roommate (to “put her out” of the apartment), but he instead murdered her. Here’s the thing, those are all actual things people said about Knox that weren’t true. That she was a lover of her murdered roommate (she wasn’t) or that, if she didn’t do the murder herself, she got the murderer to do it (she didn’t). Soo….what the heck, right? Why would you put that in your movie? For a “twist” that the “innocent” woman wasn’t actually innocent, even though, in real life, she WAS innocent? Is that really worth it?
Again, if you want to reveal that Bernie Madoff was secretly blah blah whatever in your movie based on Bernie Madoff, I get it. It’s normal and fine to punch up, and knock down powerful people. But when you start punching DOWN and knocking down the NON-powerful people? The victims of this world? That’s not a good thing to do, and you should probably just avoid it.
Knox herself had a powerful essay on this topic that I fully concur with, but, again, I think it goes beyond just her specific instance and into a general thing. Don’t punch down with your “inspired by true events” stories.
4 thoughts on “When Doing ‘Inspired by True Events’ Stories, You Have to Punch Up, Not Down”
See also: a vast majority of the “based on true events” stories from LAW & ORDER (and all spinoffs, including and especially SVU), BLUE BLOODS, at times CSI (and its own spinoffs), and a large chunk of the “cop shows” on network TV (but especially CBS and NBC).
If you tried to count all of the “based on true events” stories from those shows which muddied the waters more than the real events did and “punched down,” you’d have no time to do anything else.
This is one reason why the term “Copaganda” has arisen. It is easy for a cynic to see many of these shows, and films like “STILLWATER,” as laundering operations meant to enforce the status quo that “all cops are right if they’re pale” and “women and ‘those people’ are always as guilty as we say they are somewhere.” And like many laundering operations, are actually profitable regardless of the core objective. Now, I think a chunk of this is good old fashioned ignorance mixed in with a “we want to tell an interesting story and we’re both too lazy to come up with one whole cloth yet too proud to just summarize a script from an AP article” vibe, but the end result is the same, unfortunately.
And a happy Friday to both of you, as well.
(Just because you’re both correct doesn’t mean I have to like it.)
I have similar thoughts about the musical Ragtime. It’s mostly great but it portrays Evelyn Nesbit — a rape victim who then married, and her unstable husband went and shot the rapist — as just a naughty little minx and that pissed me off.
Great point, Fraser.