Powerful Storytelling On Screen vs Telling The Whole Truth?

The HBO series Chernobyl has received huge praise in recent months. It's currently the highest-rated TV series of all time on IMBD. Inspired by the worst nuclear power disaster in history, the series has been applauded for its attention to detail and powerful storytelling. Whilst not the easiest to watch, it skillfully tells the human stories behind the events which sent shock waves around the world.

Biopics at the flicks

Though very different in subject matter, the recent success of the rock biopics Bohemian Rhapsody and, more recently, Rocketman have also tapped into the audience’s love of true life stories.

Dramatisations of real-life events have always been a popular narrative source but they are not without their issues. There are significant ethical and creative concerns that rise when real people and real lives are portrayed on screen. Although an absolute box office smash (currently the highest-grossing music biopic of all time) Bohemian Rhapsody was criticized for downplaying Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. Similarly, Rocketman had Elton John on board as an Executive Producer and with the subject of the film so heavily involved, it was suggested that the film sugar-coated some of his more diva-like qualities.

The teams behind these films have responded to these criticisms by reminding the viewers that these are narrative pieces, not documentaries. In fact, even in documentaries the route a writer and director choose to go down will always involve decisions about the story arch, visualization and the key themes which will be divisive. No portrayal of a true story can be completely objective, but a good film will strive to be as fair to the real people featured as possible.

The ethics of true life storytelling

In a similar vein, but on a darker note, a true story narrative at this year’s Oscars also caused a great deal of controversy. Detainment was nominated in the short film category and is based on records from the James Bulger case, depicting the harrowing police interviews with convicted killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

It was strongly condemned by James Bulger’s family who weren’t contacted ahead of the production and were sickened by what they perceived as a sympathetic portrayal of their son’s killers. They campaigned to get it removed from the Oscar short-list, proof that the ethics of retelling stories essentially for entertainment are incredibly complex. Some would say bringing the shocking details to light may help raise awareness of some of the issues, or even go some way to preventing them happening again. However, there is no question that when dealing with traumatic subjects, especially where the people affected are still living, there are significant moral factors to consider.

Handle with care

In film making it’s almost impossible to tell “the whole truth” but there is a duty of care for the people you are portraying. The upside of real stories is that the script is already part-written for you. The challenge is having the integrity to portray the events and those involved without resorting to broad brush strokes or one-sided narratives.

In a recent interview with the BBC some Chernobyl survivors shared their views on the TV Series. Although they highlight some of the technical inaccuracies, they felt “the emotions and the mood at that time are shown quite precisely”.

Whilst an on-screen portrayal of real life events may never be completely accurate, compassionate storytelling which is as fair as possible will always stand out from the crowd.