The Most Disappointing Phrase In Film

Along with Princess Diana and J. Edgar Hoover, Steve Jobs is about to be the latest star of a new line of biographical films aiming to take a new look at a well-known person. A lot of money is about to be put into director Joshua Michael Stern’s story of one of the most influential inventors of our time. Looks impressive, right? I thought so too until the most disappointing phrase in film filled my screen: “Inspired by a true story”.

Hollywood seems to have found a new money-making formula that includes taking a popular person – doesn’t matter who, whether they have a story to tell or not – and telling the world their life. Only it’s not their life. If it was it would be interesting, but since Hollywood have gone fast and loose with the idea of “fact” they make up a lot of the story and hope we won’t notice.

And for the most part we don’t. Credit where it’s due, these stories are often very captivating. It’s not until we start to question the various fairy tales that we become disappointed.

To understand my disappointment, you should understand the difference between true stories. There are two basic versions: “Based on” and “Inspired by”. Danny Boyle’s 2010 feature, 127 Hours, was based on the real-life canyoneer Aron Ralston, who chewed his own arm off – no more, no less. That was Boyle’s plotline and he was sticking to it. “Based on” means as little as possible facts have been changed or invented for artistic freeloading. Whereas, the well-known Oscar-winning, 1997 film, Titanic, was ‘inspired’ by the real ancient ship hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage, but it’s not the ship featured in the Celine Dion music video, memes and parodies, or “20 Most Romantic Films” lists. “Inspired by” means taking the tiniest idea or element (a name, a person, a place, an event) and did whatever they wanted with it, fabricating plotlines everywhere around it.

Maybe those are bad examples, since I happen to love Titanic and got bored by 127 Hours. Maybe it’s not about how much you fabricate but what you fabricate. Giving Steve Jobs family issues or court battles that never happened to add an edge to a severely boring story of someone building a phone is not impressive and simply encourages the voice in my head saying, “Pics or it didn’t happen”.

And why stop there? These made up plotlines are only worth paying attention to if they’re real. If they’re not, then they’re any average Joe who made a phone or a website or went rock climbing. Steve Jobs was an internet idol. If you’re going to make up stuff, make him Supreme Ruler of the Universe and have him ride a unicorn into greatness. It would make just as good a movie, and be just as much of a waste of time. Or if you want to be dull, just have him standing there eating an apple. At least that has some form of irony.

Whereas, films like 50/50 and Garden State take a relatively unheard of, true, character and adds a bit of spice to their story. It doesn’t matter who they are because their stories can be applied to the average Joe, and they still are an average Joe, just now with a story to tell.

What is so difficult about that? Finding someone with a genuinely brilliant true story? The local gossip magazines manage to do it every week. I’m not saying I want to watch two hours of the guy with ten wives and the woman who almost died in childbirth, but it proves people have done amazing things – why do they have to be already famous for their stories to be worthy?

Pain & Gain, Any Day Now, Frost/Nixon, etc. True stories are out there. Sure there’s some arguing about the finer details but that can’t be helped no matter what you do, because peoples interpretations of events differ. When people start arguing about entire plotlines, then worry.

Putting a guy who everyone either likes or hates on our screen isn’t enough and Hollywood knows that. That’s why made-up plotlines appear, but then why bother? When you know they’re not real, the magic goes. If you’re going to make a biography, make a biography. Tell us the facts we asked for. No one asked Hollywood to tell us a story about Steve Jobs that isn’t true.

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