Whether they center on the daily travails of Cleveland comic-book author Harvey Pekar (“American Splendor”), or on the love story between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (“Sylvia”), or detail the dark journey of convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos (“Monster”), a slew of movies based on real-life subject matter are among this year’s contenders. But to what extent do these and others (including “Seabiscuit,” “Shattered Glass,” “In America” and “Calendar Girls”) mirror the actual events and characters that inspired them? And where do they diverge from fact for cinema’s sake? When we asked some of the screenwriters behind these films about their particular tweaks of the truth, they admitted to compositing characters to save screen time, collapsing the facts to tighten the emotional focus of the story, and toning down the actual truth “so the audience,” as “Sylvia” scribe John Brownlow puts it, “will stay with it.”
Gary Ross adapted the tale of Depression-era champion horse “Seabiscuit” from Laura Hillenbrand’s eponymous bestseller.
“There were many cases when things had to be fictionalized, or condensed or changed or altered,” says writer-director-producer Ross. “But every time I departed from fact I talked to Laura; I was able to use her as a sounding board.
“In reality, Red Pollard’s family was not wiped out by the Depression; they were wiped out by a flood that took out their brick factory on the side of the river. They were then plunged into poverty and had to abandon Red at a racetrack, which began his life in horse racing. I altered those facts to be that (the Pollards) were wiped out by the Depression — instead of a flood in 1916, they were wiped out by the stock market crash in the 1920s — which then led to poverty, which then led to Red being abandoned by the race track. That’s almost the same series of events; it just is a little more resonant to focus on the era which is so much at the heart of the movie.”
“Sylvia” is based on biographical material, interviews with people who knew both the poet and husband Ted Hughes, and what Brownlow calls “a reading of her poetry as biography.”
“The poetry slam was completely invented,” admits the scribe. “We wanted to show somehow that (Plath and Hughes) were in this environment which was filled with poetry. There are all sorts of very boring ways to do that, and we were racking our brains, really, for a way of portraying drunken, enthusiastic young people brimming over with poetry. Someone told me about an old Russian drinking game in which everyone stands up in turn and has to recite a poem as fast as they can without making a mistake. And if they make a mistake, they have to drink, of course — that’s where the idea for that scene came from.
“Also, we were wondering what kind of poems they would be ranting at each other, and we thought it was a good idea to make them not very literary poems. They’re almost doggerel — children’s poems, Rudyard Kipling — which showed that these people were capable of fun, because, to be honest, there isn’t much fun in the rest of the movie.”
“Monster” draws from court transcripts and depositions given by convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her girlfriend, and 12 years’ worth of letters Wuornos wrote from prison to her best friend.
“To manipulate the story in any direction went completely against my rules,” says writer-director Patty Jenkins. “I felt like I always had to ride the line between staying true to the greater truth of the story and going out of my way to protect the people who were still living — so I would actually change things about the victims, and things about the girlfriend purposefully — her name, what she looked like. But as far as her relationship with Aileen, I stayed completely true (to it).
“Every conversation they had, and how involved she was — that came straight out of court transcripts. It’s about staying true to the events and the dynamics without unnecessarily dragging a person’s name and image through the mud.”
For the autobiographical “In America,” Jim Sheridan and daughters Kirsten and Naomi dramatized their family’s experience of coming to New York in the early ’80s.
“I wrote a couple of drafts and then I gave it to Kirsten and Naomi to try and fix it, to find the story, because it was just a series of anecdotes,” says writer-director Sheridan. “I took their stuff and put it all together, but we still didn’t have a story. And then I said to them, look, I’m gonna make this about my brother Frankie who died (and whom Sheridan consequently wrote into the script as the protagonist couple’s lost son). That’s when the story got some perspective.”
“Everything in the film happened. Every single event, some of which the kids remembered, some of which I remembered. At the hospital, when the baby was being born, she was put in an incubator, and it cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. Everybody staying in the hospital was black — we were the standout white people. My wife wrote a thank-you note to the hospital staff, who were all black too. And a nurse said, ‘Thank you for the note. I never had a thank-you note in my life in this hospital.’ I didn’t want to put that in the film, because it was racial. So I changed it, and I made the black guy (Mateo, the neighbor played by Djimon Hounsou in the film) pay for the bill. ‘Cause I’m for the positive. I just want to kind of assert the positive all the time. Sometimes they say that’s sentimental, but they can all go to hell!”
In “Shattered Glass,” writer-director Billy Ray adapted the story of disgraced media star Stephen Glass from a Vanity Fair article, with several of Glass’s former colleagues at the New Republic magazine signing off on any fact distortions that may have been included in the script.
“Any time you’re working from a real story you have an obligation to history to get it right, but that was exponentially true in our case, because you’re telling a story about fraudulence in journalism,” says Ray. “So if you’re telling it in a fraudulent way, it would be unforgivable. The attempt, at least in our movie, was to apply the standards of journalism to our storytelling — we couldn’t put anything in the movie that we couldn’t prove.
“Those standards were something we took very seriously, but I felt we had a little room to composite some of the characters to save screen time — that seemed completely permissible to me. Or in cases when I had sources that wanted to remain anonymous, I would change the character around to protect that source. That was not only permissible, that was, I think, the decent thing to do.”
“Calendar Girls” is based on a Britain-issued calendar featuring middle-aged members of a ladies’ club called the Women’s Institute, who posed nude to raise money for leukemia research.
“In the script, there was a sequence of scenes where Annie (played by Julie Walters), the girl whose husband dies (from leuk-emia, therefore inspiring the women to raise money for research), starts to believe that the spirit of her dead husband is embodied in a bird,” says co-screenwriter Tim Firth. “We got all the way to building an animatronic crow, and it cost thousands of pounds, but in the end, it was sort of Grand Guignol, over-dramatic, and the scenes got cut. You sometimes have to tone down the truth to make it believable.”
“The third central female character, Ruth (played by Penelope Wilton), has to deal with a cheating husband, but that wasn’t based on a specific woman or a specific story,” adds the pic’s other scribe, Juliette Towhidi. “But because women, especially older women, quite often in life have to deal with that experience, we decided to encapsulate it in one of the characters.”
“American Splendor” is based on three decades’ worth of comics written by Harvey Pekar and illustrated by artists including Robert Crumb.
“The first time Harvey watched the movie he freaked out about a couple of things, because he’s very much a stickler for details,” says co-writer-director Shari Springer Berman. “For instance, he was upset because when he met Crumb for the first time, it wasn’t at a garage sale, which is how we portrayed it in the movie — it was in someone’s basement at a record swap. We needed an outdoor location so we didn’t have to light a basement for five hours. He was like, ‘OK, man, I’m just a little worried that Crumb would be upset!’ ”
“Where we diverged from his material is that we found Harvey to be much more sociable and likable than he projects himself to be in his comicbooks,” adds Robert Pulcini, the pic’s other co-writer-director. “He’s a very warm guy. He has this kind of misanthropic world view, but on the other hand, he really loves people. We tried to capture some of that warmth, which may be harder to find in the comics.”