Life Stories: Can we handle the truth?

In a recent article in the Evening Standard, David Sexton addressed the new surge in biopic films, which trace the life stories of distinguished individuals and offer audiences a glimpse of history in motion. Recent years have seen the lives of countless famous figures brought to life on the big screen, including Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher and even the Queen. However, as Sexton points out, these biopics are not without their controversy, thanks to their potential to provoke backlash as well as praise. Bennett Miller, Oscar-tipped director, is the latest victim of the life-story backlash, centred on his recent release, Fox-Catcher, the true story of John DuPont, a multi-millionaire who sponsored a team of Olympic wrestlers, including medal-winning brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, the latter of whom DuPont shot dead whilst suffering from mental illness. Mark, who survived the attack, was heavily involved in the film’s development, but has since turned against Miller over reports of the film’s supposed homosexual undertones in the portrayal of his relationship with DuPont. In this case, as in many others, the sincerity of the story may have been corrupted by Hollywood’s addiction to sensation on the big screen, much to the dismay of Mark Schultz, which begs the question: is real-life interesting enough to fill cinemas and warrant peak DVD sales?

 The Theory of Everything  (2014) - Film Poster
The Theory of Everything (2014) – Film Poster

Another of this season’s cinematic biographies, The Theory of Everything, arguably demonstrates a similar imbalance. Documenting the lives of Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane, the film, which won Best Actor and Best Original Score at the Golden Globes, appears to have captivated the nation with its universal story of unshakeable love. However, it’s interesting that The Theory of Everything has stirred-up such interest, whilst the protagonist’s own biopic of his life, Hawking (2013), which he co-wrote merely a year earlier, seems to have been vastly overlooked. It’s hard to believe that truth is what we’re seeking if we’ve collectively shunned an autobiographical documentary starring Hawking himself, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, in favour of a glitzy Hollywood love story. Although The Theory of Everything is also based on real life, and cannot therefore be discredited, viewers have certainly leapt at the chance to veil the sad and uncomfortable truth with something far more romantic. As Sexton suggests, ‘[w]e want to have our cake and eat it: we want the story to be packaged for us as satisfying drama, point-fully shaped, excitingly paced, while at the same time enjoying the frission of believing it to be all true.’ But what happens when the sensational and romantic embellishments are taken away?

Life Stories in Popular Literature

A similar fascination with life stories arose in literature in the early millennium, which witnessed anyone who was anyone settling down to write their memoirs, documenting their struggles and successes in the big wide world. Unlike autobiographies, memoirs focus personal and emotional, rather then historical or factual, truths, and in the absence of a Hollywood director, they’re often a lot more honest than their visual alternatives. Naturally, the lack of censorship appealed to society’s curiosity, and readers across the world devoured the pages as quickly as they were written, frenzied by the opportunity to glimpse into someone else’s life from a first-person perspective. Writers such as James Frey, Beatrice Sparks, Margaret Seltzer and Misha Defonseca were immediately thrown into the spotlight, admired for their harrowing yet inspiring stories. However, in the world of life writing it seems almost traditional that sensation should be shortly followed by inquisition. In fact, there’s a long trail of wounded life writers each bearing the scars of their media backlash, having been accused of falsifying events, embellishing beyond recognition, or simply causing offence.

Augusten Burroughs, is one such memoirist who knows the tenuous divide between marvel and outrage. His first memoir, Running with Scissors, captivated its readers with tales of the most unconventional childhood imaginable. A burden to his psychologically unstable mother, Burroughs tells how he was left in the care of her shrink, Dr Finch, a dead-ringer for Santa Claus who believed he could read God’s will from the contents of the toilet bowl. Burroughs’ life spent with the Finches is both charming and terrifying (some might say, the trademark of a good memoir) leaving readers feeling like an intrusive fly-on-the-wall. A raging success in America, Running with Scissors was swiftly catapulted onto the big screen by none other than Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story.

Burroughs’ Candid Consequences

 Running with Scissors  Augusten and Natalie Finch, after punching a hole in the kitchen ceiling.
Running with Scissors Augusten and Natalie Finch, after punching a hole in the kitchen ceiling.

However, in the four years that it had taken to leap from publication to adaptation, Burroughs had encountered his fair share of trouble. In 2005, Burroughs found himself in the middle of a lawsuit over the exploitative and intrusive depiction of the Finches. In 2007, Vanity Fair published an extensive article on the scandal, including an in-depth interview with the Turcotte’s, know in Running with Scissors as the Finches. Theresa Turcotte, or Natalie Finch, was the first to dispute the memoir, claiming that ‘It was filled with things that were categorically false or had been wildly embellished.’ Although Burroughs’ memoir is remarkably unique, his post-publication circumstances are certainly not. Like Burroughs, almost all of the biggest names in life writing have fallen victim to similar attacks. As noted in New York Magazine’s retrospective on his career as a memoirist, Burroughs was unable to avoid the controversy surrounding the memoir, much as ‘James Frey suffered the most visible public flogging in the long history of global torture, as Margaret “Gangland” Seltzer was outed by her own sister as a pampered suburbanite, [and] Misha Defonseca admitted that she was neither a Holocaust survivor nor raised by wolves.’

As a society, we have a pretty consistent track record for suspicion against memoirs. Unlike cinematic representations of life, which are transformed by directors, producers, scriptwriters and actors, we expect a certain amount of truth from a story that is told from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. If, like Burroughs’ example, the life stories intersect with the lives and rights of others, we question how much of the truth we should tell and whether we need permission to tell it. Alternatively, if, as in Frey’s case, the memoir’s extra characters are unable to speak for themselves due to death or incarceration, we speculate about the levels of fiction employed and cry deceit if the truth is enhanced with embellishment. So, do we have the rights to our own stories? And if so, do we have a choice in how we tell them?

In Vanity Fair’s intense enquiry regarding the potential offence caused to the Finches, Burroughs declares:

‘This is my story […] It’s not my mother’s story and it’s not the family’s story, and they may remember things differently and they may choose to not remember certain things, but I will never forget what happened to me, ever, and I have the scars from it and I wanted to rip those scars off of me.’

Here, Burroughs touches upon an idea that concludes David Sexton’s article, that is: ‘Any recreation of a story is bound to be more or less a misrepresentation, however much it aims for fidelity.’

Lena Dunham’s Provocative Confessions

Dunham at her book launch in London.
Not That Kind of Girl Dunham at her book launch in London.

Needless to say, it’s a question of interpretation and perspective – something that applies to readers as much as it does to writers. It was impossible to avoid being sucked into the media scandal that surrounded Lena Dunham after the release of her memoir last September, in which she reveals the questionable intimacy of her childhood relationship with her younger sister, Grace. Dunham was accused of assault as the press clung on to the descriptions of her exercised sexual curiosity in outrage. However, although Dunham was undoubtedly out of line in casually comparing herself to a ‘sexual predator’ during an attempt at a quippy joke, it might be a step too far to accuse her seven-year-old self of sexual exploitation. For those who have seen Dunham’s popular TV series, Girls, her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, is merely an extension of her brash and confrontationally honest persona. It’s curious that Dunham’s ability to tell the truth, which was a refreshing revolution in television, seems to have brought her downfall on the page. But if Dunham hasn’t changed, maybe the discomfort surrounding her memoir isn’t her problem, but rather, ours. Would we be any less outraged if she’d concealed the truth and offered us an idealised, predictable version of her life?

We love Dunham’s blunt humour, providing that she leaves out the awkward confessions; we’re happy for Burroughs to exploit his adopted family, until we learn that they’re filing a lawsuit; and we’re inspired by Stephen Hawking’s remarkable story, but only if you leave out the heartbreaking details of his illness. To echo Sexton’s argument, it seems we’re a little childlike in our desire for the truth, demanding to know everything and then crying ambush upon the revelation that our pet rabbit wasn’t sent to live on a farm, but actually died a grizzly death at the jaws of a city fox. But if we’re not ready to confront the truth in all its ugly details, perhaps we should offer a little lenience to those who attempt to fluff out the timelines with a little light-hearted fun.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam, ‘The Memory Addict’ in New York Magazine, April 2008.

Bissinger, Buzz, ‘Ruthless with Scissors’ in Vanity Fair, January 2007.

Sexton, David, ‘Just because a movie is a biopic doesn’t mean it will all be true.’ The Evening Standard, January 2015.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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53 Comments

  1. Xenia Cosby
    0

    I’m still waiting for that rumored biopic about Freddie Mercury in which Sacha Baron Cohen is supposed to star. I remember reading/hearing about that and thought it was perfect casting.

  2. Lannie Tovar
    0

    I hated teh Running with Scissors movie. The book was so amazing. My friend who was watching the movie with me [who DIDNT read the book], was completely lost and didn’t like it either. Ugh!

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      I actually saw the film first, and though I wasn’t blown away, it did spark my interest. I think it suffers from trying to please too wide an audience. The book was so good I only allowed myself to read a chapter a day because I didn’t want it to end! It’s so funny and heartbreaking and fascinating – have you read anything else of Burroughs’? I’m planning on reading Dry soon.

      • I know I’m in the minority and will probably be flamed for this comment, but I personally didn’t care for the book. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it per se, I wanted to like it, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. Can’t put my finger on it, I’m afraid, maybe it’s just not my kind of book.

        On the other hand (yeah, adding insult to injury), I liked the movie. Didn’t think I would after all the disastrously negative comments, but I did. Normally, I’ll take the books over their film adaptations any day, or at least enjoy them more or less equally by taking them for what they are, but in this one case, it was the other way around. I didn’t love the movie, and I only saw it once, but I did like it. Loved some of the performances.

    • Uh, the book totally sucks too. At first, it was somewhat amusing listening to the prissy boy talk about his fastidiousness. When it got to the homosexual rape scene, it lost me. Maybe it’s because I’m straight – and hate rape scenes. Then the book starts to feel like a string of disconnected random thoughts – “Then we tore out the ceiling”, “Then we went a practiced singing to some people in a hospital”, “Then we went to Smith and walked under a waterfall.”

      Christ! What a yawner!

      What the heck’s funny about rape, poop, and a bunch of depressed people?

      The guy can’t write. He describes dialog in scenes, like between Dorothy and his mother and he wasn’t there. How is that autobiographical? I’m listening to the audiobook. The guy reads his book with the inflections of a teenage girl from, like, the valley.

      Another loser on that pile up rubbish we call the New York Times Bestseller list.

  3. The Big Sur, Saving Mr Banks, The Big Sur… Last year was loaded with them.

  4. Whatever happened to the The Who biopic Roger Daltrey planned all those years ago?

  5. I had low expectations of Theory of Everything, but surprised by how moved by it I was, there was audible sniffling and tears being wiped in the seats near me in the P&I screening. Redmayne made it for me, I totally believed he was Hawkins, his performance is up there with My Left Foot and Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Felicity Jones was equably believable as his wife Jane.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      I think most people would agree with you – especially now that he’s bagged a Golden Globe for his performance! I recently read an article that was upset about the portrayal of disability by a non-disabled actor; My Left Foot was cited as another example. I didn’t think that was particularly fair as a criticism, but it’s certainly a thought-provoking argument.

      • I thought Redmayne looked uncannily like Hawking at times. To my eyes, he also appeared more vulnerable and less patrician than Cumberbatch did in his excellent portrayal of Hawking. This made the human element of the story even more poignant.

  6. wierdbuthatsok

    Have to be honest I love a good biopic, especially “I love you Phillip Morris” when I saw that I thought it was one of the best biopics ever

  7. Morgan R. Muller

    Awesome article! Very well written! I love Lena Dunham.

  8. Mary Awad

    I really want to see the theory of everything. But now I’ll make sure to check Hawking as well! Thanks for the article~

  9. Kristian Wilson

    Loved this article, but would have liked to have seen some mention of Dunham’s recent legal battle regarding her depiction of her rapist.

  10. McCaggers

    Fascinating article! I’ve never been really fond of biopics to be honest. I feel they meander too much. But I was interested in The Theory of Everything. I’ll be sure to check Hawking too. Well done!

  11. Samantha Brandbergh

    Never watched “Girls” but with all the controversy surrounding her and what she wrote in her book, I thought that the whole thing with her sister was really, really disturbing. I don’t know her humor or whatever she was trying to go for with that, but it was all really strange to read…

  12. Nof

    Awesome article! I agree with previous comments, very well written! I’ll have to check some of these out.

  13. This is a message many people need to hear. Nietzsche in his “Birth of Tragedy” talks about how the ancient greeks used tragedies in a symbolic way to embrace their humanity, not just their happiness but also their suffering. This artform helped reaffirm their authentic existence. Since then we have moved away from this mode of story telling to one that tends to edit out the suffering and emphasize the normalcy and successes of the characters. I think what we are uncomfortable with says a lot about ourselves. You outlined perfectly how drawn we are into these polished, idealistic portrayals of real life. Great article!

  14. Although this sounds slightly crazy, they should make a Bob Marley biopic with James Franco in the lead. In terms of facial features he’s a dead ringer. And, sure, Marley was half-black, but he was also half-white. (I’ve seen people suggest much more obviously black actors for Marley a lot and nobody bats an eyelid. I remember someone suggested Idris Elba to me once, despite Elba looking absolutely nothing like Marley, and not conveying the character of the man at all, i.e. a laid-back, smiling stoner.)

  15. KRIZZIE
    0

    Endless meaningless films about meaningless minutiae of meaningless celebrity’s meaningless lives.

  16. Musical bio-pics are the worst. Can’t think of one that was watchable!

  17. I am surprised no one had done a Johnny Carson one yet… even a made for TV one. Well if it does get done, I hope it done with integrity and they show him doing Carmac (sp?) because I love that bit and I do whenever I am announcing things in a meeting or with clients. Always a hit!

  18. I havn’t seen The Theory of Everything adaptaiton, but how does it stack up against the 2004 TV movie (the Cumberbatch one)? I thought that was very good. Looking at the IMDB cast list, I note the absence of key names in Hawking’s story (people like Dennis Sciama and Roger Penrose) from the cast of the Redmayne movie, when these people were captured so superbly in the Cumberbatch one.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      I think the main difference is that Hawking can rightly be called a biopic, whilst The Theory of Everything is more or less a romance, with the added merit of being based on a true story. Like you said, many of those who Hawking believed to be crucial enough to include in his own rendition of his life are excluded from the latest adaptation. It’s still worth a watch though – it is very moving!

  19. I want the biopic of the Legend of Luciano Pavarotti starring Hugh Jackman. He sings like just like Pavarotti. Watch Les Miserables. He could win his oscar.

  20. I propose an Elliott Smith biopic starring Paul Dano. Go!

  21. Awesome article! I saw Theory of Everything and loved it! There are a lot of biopics in the running for Oscars this year which is surprising but well-deserved.

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Thanks! I think the biopic genre is really interesting, I’m just a little iffy on the excessive amount of them emerging! I’m craving some original screen writing…

  22. Matthew Sims

    I think that when you go into a biography adapted into film, you have to be aware that certain dramatic elements will be dramatised, and therefore, not all factual elements will be there. Plus, just be careful next time with the spoilers next time. If I wanted to watch Foxcatcher, which I do not, I would not have been happy. I am assuming that it was covered in the news back when it occurred, but still, I was not aware. Just a suggestion to warn people at the start of the article. Otherwise, a great article.

  23. Adnan Bey

    Good article I like how you incorporated both film and book in your article to push your point across.

  24. Dominique Kollie

    The clear solution to all biopics is to make everyone a Vampire Hunter

  25. ScottRaia

    This is so relevant this year. Bennett Miller was on a panel at Telluride last summer, just after Foxcatcher premiered, about biopics shaping [or twisting] the facts of a story for the narrative’s sake. Jon Stewart was also a panelist, debuting as a director with Rosewater, the biopic based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me—I should write about that film next. . .

    There was this theme throughout the whole festival that “narrative truth” is paramount to factuality. Joshua Oppenheimer even emphasized his loyalty to himself as the storyteller above the subjects in the “documentary” The Look of Silence. (Oppenheimer defines non-fiction film as non-actors playing themselves—even if scripted and staged.) I think that storytellers have the responsibility to tell other people’s stories with the same tact they would expect for their own.

    (The seminar was called From Real to Reel: How Does a Film Shape Fact, Moderated by Annette Insdorf, 31 Aug. 2014)

    • Jessica M Farrugia

      Ah, that sounds really interesting! Thanks for letting me know, Scott. I’m fascinated by the idea of narrative truth – it’s such a complex topic but definitely worth delving into. I’ll have to check out that seminar!

  26. Jamie Tracy

    Very interesting article.
    Thanks for the read.

    Narrative truth is fascinating. It’d be great to read the reasoning behind changing plot lines in biopics.

  27. Helen Parshall

    This is a very excellent article! Biopics are almost becoming the “fashion” in movies nowadays, and it’s interesting to me to wonder where the line between stories and truth is drawn. Take the Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing… I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the film romanticizes so much of Turing’s life. But I’ve also heard that it’s one of the most moving and important films of 2014. I’ve yet to see it, although I plan to remedy that soon… but it’s really interesting to me to see where we draw the line with “too much” truth. Excellent work here!

  28. Matt Phillips

    Great piece… I was waiting for the Lena Dunham bombshell to drop. I don’t know––there is a part of me that loves her honesty, but I don’t think everything should be on the table for storytelling… then again, maybe I do. Burroughs said something important: It was HIS story.

    I think Joan Didion said it best: “As a writer, you’re always selling somebody out” (that’s a paraphrase).

  29. The cynic in me never takes celebrity autobiographies at face value, but rather with a very large grain of salt. As you mentioned, this is a popular feeling amongst readers and audiences in both literature and film.

  30. I call caution on the uprising of celebrity memoirs. The American society is becoming all too familiar with the persisting myths of the ‘American Dream’. I fear that reading rags to riches stories are fostering an ever-growing dream that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. This is causing a societal chasm between those who realize the true reality and those who battle with false blind hope. Blurring the lines and hiding the prevalent prejudices in race, sex, gender, orientation, and income classes are quite dangerous. Memoirs began as people sharing their experiences of life from humble introspection. Presently, Hollywood has entered into the bloodstream of memoir, coagulating the fluidity of sharing human experiences. Celeb-reality has mutated the memoir from the real human experience to The Real Housewives of Memoir-Land. It has become yet another arena for self-promotion of the ‘troubled’ lives of the Hollywood heiress.

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