QOTD: Is a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to the truth or to a good story?

Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis

There’s always some grumbling when a fact-based narrative film takes liberties with the way things really happened, but there’s slightly louder grumbling at the moment, with three of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture — Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty — coming under criticism that they’re not entirely as factual as they might be. From the AP (via Boston.com):

Filmmakers have been making movies based on real events forever, and similar charges have been made. But because these three major films are in contention, the issue has come to the forefront of this year’s Oscar race, and with it a thorny cultural question: Does the audience deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? Surely not, but just how much fiction is OK?

Carson Reeves, who runs a screenwriting website called Scriptshadow, says writers basing scripts on real events face a constant problem: No subject or individual’s life is compelling and dramatic enough by itself, he says, that it neatly fits into a script with three acts, subplots, plot twists and a powerful villain.

‘‘You just have to get rid of things that maybe would have made the story more truthful,’’ says Reeves, who actually gave the ‘‘Lincoln’’ script a negative review because he thought it was too heavy on conversation and lacking action. He adds, though, that when the subject is as famous as Lincoln, one has a responsibility to be more faithful to the facts.

Screenwriter and actor Dan Futterman, nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for the ‘‘Capote’’ screenplay, has empathy for any writer trying to pen an effective script based on real events, as he did.

‘‘This is fraught territory,’’ he says. ‘‘You’re always going to have to change something, and you’re always going to get in some sort of trouble, with somebody,’’ he says.

Mark Boal, [Zero Dark Thirty]’s screenwriter, said in a recent interview that screenwriters have a double responsibility: to the material and to the audience.

‘‘There’s a responsibility, I believe, to the audience, because they’re paying money, and to tell a good story,’’ he said. ‘‘And there’s a responsibility to be respectful of the material.’’

(Click back to Boston.com for details on the liberties taken in the three Oscar nominees.)


Is a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to the truth or to a good story? Or is it somewhere in the middle? Are there liberties that go too far, even if it’s made perfectly clear that a story is fictional, not factual?

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