Fantasy vs. reality: Real-life portrayal in movies

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We all enjoy going to the cinema to catch a movie from time to time. And while there’s plenty of fun to be had with movies based on true events, one of the joys of watching films is that the content isn’t always real: it’s a chance to kick back, relax and enjoy a really fun story that keeps us gripped and entertained for an hour or two. And with a wealth of film reviews now freely available, we can all easily find something – either real or fantasy – which we love to watch.

But sometimes, staying faithful to historical events really does matter when we’re at the cinema. From films covering sensitive historical moments to movies which may affect our own lives, there are various sets of circumstances in which we have to be aware of what really happens – otherwise we can’t fully appreciate the message.

Reflecting accurate history
Hollywood production companies don’t have an obligation to tell us the truth in the way that a news report might do, because we all know that the primary purpose of any movie is to entertain rather than inform. Sometimes, though, the topic of the movie is about something real and sensitive, and that’s where studies of how factually and historically accurate our movies are can be useful in keeping us clued up on what’s real and what isn’t.

The folks behind the Information is Beautiful report have done this service for us, and ranked a number of “true story” films based on just how true they actually were. The critically acclaimed biopic Selma starring David Oyelowo, for example, received a 100% accuracy score. The movie American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, though, only received a 56.9% grade. “A lot of the events in the movie did happen, but Kyle’s involvement in them was repeatedly exaggerated,” the report’s author said.


Telling fair stories
When movies like this reflect someone’s personal history rather than a story you’d read in the history books, there’s an obligation to make sure that what’s portrayed is a mixture of truth and invention for the purpose of clarification. While movies of this nature don’t have to be completely accurate, they do need to be shown either through format or detail to be a retelling rather than a biography. That is particularly true if the person is still living, as their reputation could be unduly harmed.

Prime examples of this are the recent collection of movies that focus on telling the stories of prominent American sportswomen. Molly’s Game – which focuses on the crimes of former skier Molly Bloom – and I, Tonya – which revolves around the life of famous figure skater Tonya Harding – both tell a biographical story, but it’s also made clear that some details of the movie are fictitious.

Inspiring people’s lives
Finally, some movies are designed to encourage us to make decisions in our lives. While it’s clear that very few – if any – people are going to encourage prehistoric animals to trash islands as a result of watching Jurassic Park, it’s clear that in other movies the influence a director has over those watching his or her movie is quite significant. With that comes weighty responsibility.

Movies that feature a big lottery win, such as the 1991 film 29th Street, are likely to encourage people to have a flutter on the lottery themselves. That’s because they make people wonder whether the winning numbers will come up for them just like they have done in the film – and winning lottery numbers, of course, mean life-changing sums of money.


Whatever you like to watch at the cinema, it’s likely that you’ve experienced both a mixture of reality and fantasy from time to time. All genres draw from both the real world and the imaginations of the production crews, and that’s an essential part of the rich creative tapestry that forms and sustains our current film universe.

But with some films requiring a little more reality than others in order to honor a person’s reputation or make sure that a historical story is accurately told, it’s not uncommon for film directors to err more on to the side of adding in some truth rather than taking it out. Especially true for the waves of recent films which have told true stories of people and events without turning their movies into biographies. It’s likely that we will see more and more blurring of reality and fantasy in film as time goes on.

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