The Ethics of True Stories in Cinema

Niamh Brook - Writer

It’s no question. Audiences love a biopic. We are able to learn with minimal effort in a concise amount of hours. A history lesson for the lazy. A formula is beginning to form in Hollywood (Hollywood making using a formula to make money? I know. What a shock.) A current well known actor playing rock stars or actors who thrived in the past 30 years. Throw in a feel good soundtrack and you’ve got yourself a hit. However, we are not only plagued with the glam rock of the 80’s, period pieces are key in the biopic armada. We’ve seen our fair share in the past year (and a bit) such as, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, Tolkien, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Each of these films were received from both critics and audiences in a manner of different ways. Tolkein, for example, grossed $7,776,413 worldwide out of an estimated $20,000,000. Where as Bohemian Rhapsody grossed $903,655,259 with a $52,000,000 budget and also nabbed four oscar whilst it was at it. This drastic difference in receptions of the films could be the result of many different factors. Arguably, there are far more Queen fans willing to watch a glorified visual album with added 70’s/80’s nostalgia than there is LOTR fans willing to watch a 2 hour WW1 period drama. As a result Tolkein flew relatively under the radar unlike the inescapable Bohemian Rhapsody.

Furthermore, we have reached an age where biopics are so few and far between we are beginning to have cinematic crossovers of real life people. For example, in both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman 70’s music mogul John Reid is heavily featured played by a Game of Thrones actor respectively. However, the tone of the character differs drastically between the films. In BoRhap, he is painted out to be a somewhat generic manager type. A character that is quickly forgotten 10 minutes after the credits role. Whereas in Rocketman, he is painted to be such a villain Thanos himself is afraid of him. A man who emotionally abused someone in one film is but a stepping stone character in another. Can this be seen as a misrepresentation of the truth? Did Bohemian Rhapsody deliberately blur out Reid’s actions? Or in reality did the members of Queen not experience Reid’s abuse thus it’s lack of presence in the film. 

This question leads me to my main point of discussion, are biopics ethical? Is it right that the supposed temperment of Reid was just brushed under the rug? Moving on, another ethical issue one must discuss is that of the ethics of telling a story about the deceased. Many of the biopics in the list at the beginning of this piece focus on figures who have passed away. In the case of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a film that focuses on the horrific crimes Ted Bundy committed during the 70’s. The question begins to rise when one begins to think about how a victim's family must feel watching ‘heartthrob’ Zac Efron being charismatic and charming during the films run time. These victims are not an act of fiction created to help fuel the story. These victims were real people who were brutally murdered and their story is now being glorified on the big screen. There seems to be an ethical grey area surrounding the reflection of the Bundy’s and the victims’ stories. On one hand, it could be argued that the victims’ stories must be told, to understand the horrors that they went through at the hands of Bundy. On the other hand however, the film itself does not tell the story of the victims, who’s brutal attacks are merely mentioned in court, whilst Zac Efron charms his way through the case. The film’s main focal point is Bundy and how he was perceived. I believe a more ethical way to approach the topic would be to focus more on the victims. Allowing for a greater sense of empathy and respect to be gained from the audience. In addition to this, a documentary may have been more respectful to those involved as opposed to having Troy Bolton and Sheldon Cooper fight it out in a courtroom.

Overall, I enjoy a biopic. I thought Bohemian Rhapsody is a good rainy day option and Rocketman might be one of my favourite films of the year. However, we must remember that the two hours of entertainment we get through these films are in some cases, someone’s entire lifetime. There should be an element of respect taken from all angles of the process from the filmmaker all the way to us, the audience. We should not ignore the reality of the images on the screen. We should challenge some of the hollywood sugar coating many biopics are accustomed too, such as the server toning down of Freddie Mercury or the changing of real life events to fit better in the films narrative. We must make sure we enter biopics with a level of respect for those on screen and must insure that we leave with the knowledge of someone's story, and in the case of more popular biopics, jumping straight on Spotify to download the soundtrack!

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