Historical Accuracy in Films

One of the first things I do after seeing a movie labelled as “Based on a true story” is look up what actually happened. It’s pretty common for biopics or historical drama to not be fully accurate depictions of the real events that inspired the films.

I wanted to write this piece shortly after having a discussion with some writing colleagues following Bohemian Rhapsody’s unexpected Best Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes. While I have MANY thoughts on why Bohemian Rhapsody is undeserving of awards recognition, beyond Rami Malek for his performance as Freddie Mercury, one of the criticisms lobbied towards the film is that it’s not exactly accurate to Freddie Mercury’s life, which seems a bit more egregious with Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor so closely associated to the film while Queen’s manager served as a producer.

Here’s the thing though, Bohemian Rhapsody is not the only historical drama to come out this year, nor is it the only one to receive awards buzz. Pretending accuracy matters in one film and not the others is a bit daft.

What’s even more daft is pretending that historical accuracy even matters in film in the first place. Hollywood does not, nor has it ever, cared about accuracy when it comes to dramatized versions of historical events. Let’s not forget that Braveheart, widely regarded as the least accurate historical film of all time, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

It’s not as though film adaptations of real-life events are the only films to fudge with the source material. Talk to any bookworm who’s seen a film or TV adaptation of a novel they’ve read, and almost undoubtedly, they’ll tell you the book was better.

There’s a simple reason for this. Story does not translate the same way from page to screen. Nor does it translate from real-life to screen. More often than not, the true story is not compelling enough to serve as a dramatic film.

In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was moved up by two years to prior to the band’s epic performance at Live Aid in 1985. This was done specifically to add drama to the story. Having Freddie put on perhaps his best ever live performance while combatting the symptoms of an incurable disease makes for some highly compelling viewing.

But that’s just one example, of many, within the film. Mike Myers has a cameo within the film portraying a record producer. The thing is, the character he played doesn’t exist. The character was an amalgamation of several producers Queen came face to face with. In this case, all of these producers were combined into one to remove the need for repetition within the story. Rather than show the same scene with however many different producers, the film depicts it as one meeting.

Furthermore, the film tends to dance around Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, never really knowing quite how to handle it.

That’s not to say Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad movie. It’s not. I enjoyed the movie when I saw it. It does a lot of things well and for the most part, provides a general depiction of who Freddie Mercury was and how Queen came to be, but it is in no way 100% historically accurate.

I think it’s important for audiences to be aware that complete historical accuracy is not the primary goal when making these kinds of films. And I don’t think it should be considered a big deal when they’re not totally accurate as long as the film succeeds as a piece of art and entertainment.

Often times I think issues with historical dramas arise when audiences already know enough about the subject matter being examined in the film. When the audience goes in expecting to see so many elements of the real story and they don’t get all of them, or they get them in a different way to how the real version played out, it can be disappointing. Especially if it’s a topic that is of high interest to the audience.

So, my question for you is this, how important is historical accuracy to you in “based on a true story” films? Does it change how you view a film?

Thank you for checking out Motion Picture Commentary. I do hope you enjoyed this piece. Until next time...