Home > Movies, Writing > Stranger than Fiction: When Real Life Becomes Film

Stranger than Fiction: When Real Life Becomes Film

With the upcoming release of DisneyNature’s African Cats (2011), I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how we approach the concept of fiction. The overall assumption is that everything is made up. From out of the blue, creative people come up with creative ideas and creative solutions. While this is possible, I would hardly call this the norm. Ideas come from experiences and observations. Sit in a park and watch people walk by, inevitably a story idea can come to mind just by observing real life. Nothing trumps experiencing life when trying to come up with story ideas.

African Cats (2011

This then takes me back to African Cats. Walt Disney was a firm believer in this concept, believing that nobody could ever create the stories that could be given to us by nature itself. Indeed, this was one of the inspirations for the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland. Walt initially wanted the ride to include live animals (something found later in the Kilimanjaro Safaris in DisneyWorld), but backed off after being convinced that animals wouldn’t ‘perform’ throughout the day for guests. Instead, the attraction went with animatronic animals.

The Jungle Cruise at Disneyland

But Disney was able to use this concept in his highly successful series of films titled True-Life Adventures(1948-1960). A series of short documentaries, the films brought viewers into the world of wild animals and gave viewers an opportunity to sympathise with them. By humanizing these animals, wild and natural experiences took over the narrative. Some controversy still exists over how many of the scenes were faked, and how many violated animal cruelty laws, but the theory is still sound: by observing the behaviour of wild animals, Walt Disney was able to attain stories that he never could have sitting behind a desk. As a side note, many of these documentaries were used as research and inspiration for the animal creatures in Disney’s animated features.

The Title Image for True-Life Adventures

Fast forward to the modern era and the Walt Disney Company has returned to it’s roots by starting the production studio DisneyNature. From this we have viewed such well received films as Earth (2007), and Oceans (2009). This studio holds the values from True-Life Adventures at it’s very core: there is no more human experience than that of animals.

Two Whales from DisneyNatures Oceans (2009)

As a concession, the humanizing of these animals comes from some creative editing and storytelling largely assisted by voice over, but the stories could not have come out had we not been observing in the first place. But of course this theory doesn’t only apply to documentaries. There are several examples of successful films based on real-life encounters.

Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter (2010)

Sporting films are a market traditionally served by basing films off actual events. To only look at boxing films Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1979) is loosely based on the life of Chuck Wepner, while films like Cinderella Man (2005) and The Fighter(2010) are far more literally based on their real life counterparts, James Braddock and Micky Ward respectively.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

There’s also the biopic, whether it be fictional or not. Both examples can be seen by looking at Citizen Kane (1941) and The Social Network (2010). The former takes the fictional approach and creates Charles Foster Kane to act as a surrogate for the real life character William Randolph Hearst. The benefit from this approach is the ability to create your own ending, and not be tied to a literal close. The Social Network, instead, stays grounded in our reality. With no fictional character, the film has to stay more or less true to the actual events that inspired Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010)

While there is no right or wrong way to craft a story, most people will agree that to find that story, you have to experience and observe the world that happens around us. So what stories do you find the most intriguing? The versions that literally translate actual events, or the versions that fictionalize them for the purpose of the story? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, Writing
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