Sunday, November 20, 2011

Observations: “inspired by a true story”

Julie and I recently watched a movie with the claim, “Inspired by a true story.” What does this mean exactly? How close to the real story does it have to be to include the words “true story”, and how much fiction does it have to have to necessitate the words “inspired by”? Are there any kind of real guidelines here? Is this just saying that they met someone who had a slightly interesting story, but not interesting enough to hold their attention for more than a few minutes? Or is it saying that the screenplay writer is better at exaggerating someone else’s story than they are at being original or telling the truth?

My guess is that it’s like the trick that stores do where something costs $1.99 instead of $2.00 so that after you’ve gone away and forgotten a little bit, you remember it was “a dollar something”, which later turns into “only a dollar!” which then seems like a much better deal. In the same way, we’re meant to eventually believe that stories merely “inspired by a true story” are actually based on a true story and then be impressed by how amazing that story is.


If this is the case, fiction writers should really spruce up the opening credits with this misleading tagline so long as there was at least one element that resembles something they’ve seen or heard before:

  • “I like dinosaurs. I wish they had them at the zoo.” Boom—Jurassic Park. Inspired by a true story.
  • “I had a dream once where someone was sneaking into my dreams.” Bang—Inception. Inspired by a true story.
  • “I heard about a guy and girl who were mutually attracted to each other, but at least one of them had a secret they were sure would destroy the relationship that eventually came out or at least one of them seemed obnoxious and unchangeable and said something really insensitive, but after that, they managed to get over it and begin a relationship. I kinda lost interest after that.”  Bam—every romantic comedy ever made. Inspired by a true story.

Thoughts? Does anybody know if there’s some legal reason movies say this?

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