Thinly Veiled: Ten Fictional Films Based On Real Life Stories
The cinematic equivalent of the literary roman à clef, a film à clef (from the French for ‘film with a key’), is a film that tells a real-life story from behind a façade of fiction. Not documentaries, or films based on fact or fiction, instead the romans à clef create great drama from little more than a grain of truth.
The story of the origins, production, release and subsequent reputation of Orson Welles’ debut 1941 feature film would take far more space than we have here, except to note that the character of Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles from a young teenager to a dying old man) was a gossamer-thin caricature of press magnate William Randolph Hearst. Heart, an immensely powerful and wealthy individual, was not pleased with his portrayal and waged a relentless campaign to have Welles’ film suppressed.
Italian director Federico Fellini’s 1963 hallucinatory masterpiece is one of the greatest films ever made about how hard it is to make a film. Marcello Mastroianni starred as Fellini’s alter-ego with the director basing his mixed-up script, filled with dreams and flashbacks, on his own difficult experience in suffering from writer’s block after the international success of eight of his films (including La Strada, Nights of Cabiria and La Dolce Vita) throughout the 1950s. Fellini went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, where 8 ½ also won the Oscar for Best Costume.BadlandsTerrence Malick’s mesmerising debut feature, which had Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as young lovers on the run from the law in 1950s South Dakota, was very loosely inspired by a tragic real-life killing spree orchestrated by a couple of bored youngsters. Although Malick has never confirmed or denied the link between his 1973 film and reality, the characters of Kit and Holly follow much the same path as the case of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate’s case, which horrified the United States in the summer of 1958.
Saving Private Ryan
Although the story of the search for the titular G.I. in Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary 1998 WWII epic is entirely fictional, the director and his screenwriter Robert Rodat were inspired by the story of Sergeant Fredrick “Fritz” Niland, a real-life paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division whose three brothers were killed in action in different theatres of the war around the same time. When the top brass discovered that Niland’s mother had lost three of her four sons in battle, they didn’t have to mount a special mission to track him down; they knew precisely where he was. Returned to the United States, he served out the remainder of the war as a military policeman in New York.
Made under the stringent rules of the Dogme 95 movement spearheaded by director Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg’s caustic 1998 family drama Festen was inspired by real-life events, supposedly related to a Danish radio host by a psychiatric nurse who claimed to have treated the young man at the centre of the story. Vinterberg heard the broadcast and together with screenwriter Mogens Rukov, adapted it into a film. It subsequently transpired that the story wasn’t, in fact, entirely based in fact, but by then Festen had screened to rapt audiences all over the world and won armfuls of awards (including the Jury Prize at Cannes and the Discovery Prize at the European Film Awards), so the truth or otherwise of the story didn’t really matter anymore.
It was a lucky thing that writer and director Tom Hall didn’t know how to work the radio in his car on a journey through the West of Ireland. Flicking through the local stations, Hall heard the tail-end of a report about a real-life court case where a man was convicted of running a brothel on his farm. Having found the germ of an idea, Hall adapted the bare facts of the story into his screenplay without attempting to conduct any further research, with the resulting film starring Domhnall Gleeson and Luanne Gordon being released to glowing reviews in 2011.
A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater’s innovative 2006 animated adaptation of science-fiction writer Phillip K Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly contains all the writer’s trademark identity crises, paranoia and mind-bending narrative techniques but the story is, in fact, a lightly fictionalized account of Dick’s own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in California in the 1970s. "Everything you see in A Scanner Darkly, I actually saw in real-life”, Dick told an interviewer before his untimely death in the early 1980s.
Lost in Translation
Although she has never confirmed it, it is widely believed that the characters of Charlotte (played by Scarlett Johansson) and her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) are loosely based on writer-director Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband, fellow filmmaker Spike Jonze. Furthermore, the inspiration for having Bob (Bill Murray) do a Suntory whisky commercial was inspired by the fact that Coppola’s father, Francis Ford Coppola, made a real Suntory commercial with director Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s. Only Coppola’s second feature film, the 2003 comedy drama was a commercial and critical sensation, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and grossing more than $150m worldwide.
Lord of War
Nicholas Cage starred as amoral arms-dealer Yuri Orlov in writer and director Andrew Niccol’s 2005 drama, which told the story of the Ukranian-American’s attempt to expand his gunrunning business into war-torn Africa throughout the 1990s. The details of Niccol’s plot are based on real-life stories of the illegal arms market, his protagonist is an amalgam loosely based on several real-life arms dealers, while the character Colonel Oliver Southern obviously hints at Oliver North, the central figure in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, which saw the United State government secretly sell weapons to Iran in order to free citizens held hostage in Lebanon.
Ewan McGregor plays a ghost writer hired to help a former British Prime Minister (played by Pierce Brosnan) complete his controversial memoirs in Roman Polanski’s 2010 adaptation of the novel by writer Robert Harris. In real life, Harris is a former BBC political reporter and a friends of ex-PM Tony Blair and based his central character Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan) on the scandal that surrounded Blair’s involvement with the Second Iraq War, which the writer vehemently opposed.