Recently someone wrote to us asking what we would think of a movie based on the 1912 Villisca axe murder story. The question was framed in the context of our ongoing critiques of sensational television shows and their departure from documented historical fact regarding the Villisca story.
We have always thought the Villisca story would make a great movie. In fact, we think it's almost certain that someone will eventually produce a Hollywood-scale version of this amazing tale, one of America's greatest unsolved mysteries. Over the years, and while we were located in Los Angeles, we had meetings with producers and writers affiliated with three major studios. Interest? Yes. A greenlight? No. It's difficult, if not impossible, to mount a successful period production without the mega millions that Hollywood can bring to the task. Fascinating though the stories may be, studios see period pieces based on "new" stories as a risk. People, they think, want to see what they've seen before.
The phrase "Based on a true story" holds a great deal of commercial power for the producer and intrigue for the audience. However, using the phrase in connection with a motion picture project implies a covenant between the filmmaker and the audience. Viewers should be assured, that while some dramatic license will be taken in the creation and presentation of the true story, the end result will not depart significantly from historical fact.
A fictional character and storyline superimposed over a factual rendering of the mystery is an example of a reasonable use of the phrase, and the obligation, "based on a true story."
But what if the producers depart from known historical fact to the extent of accusing innocent (and deceased) historical figures of heinous crimes, because it makes the story more dramatic? Do they have a right to revictimize someone who was wrongfully accused of murder and cleared decades ago? Would they still think it was okay if it was their own family member being depicted wrongfully as a murderer?
Example: Paramount's "Titanic" and the controversy surrounding its portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch.
I still hold that people want to know what really happened. They will accept reasonable use of artistic license, but will ultimately feel cheated, even if they enjoyed the film, when they discover later that they were duped by the filmmakers.
Case in point: U-571.
Some producers have begun to skirt around this issue by using a new phrase: "inspired by true events." That's a run-for-your-lives head-for-the-hills admission that may have played fast and loose with multiple story elements. A touching war-time love story orginally set in Vermont in 1944, is now a seedy tale of two gone-'round-the-bend used car salesmen facing off on the mean streets of present-day Trenton, New Jersey.
In "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," they did a similar two-step around history by prefacing the film with the phrase, "Most of what follows is true." Wink, wink. Fun movie, but raindrops kept fallin' on the truth. ; )
Alfred Hitchcock's "Pyscho" is an example of a work based on a book of the same title by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin. Neither the book nor the film claimed to be "based on a true story."
If it's fiction, who cares? If it's based on a true story, stick to the facts while judiciously excercising creative license. The 1912 Villisca ax murder story doesn't need to be "Foxed-Up" (as I heard someone say at a television trade show). It already reads like bad fiction...AND it's all true.
Our advice? Keep it that way, and the audience will be satisfied.
NEXT TIME: More answers to nagging mysteries from "Ask Ed."
COMING SOON: A response to our Six Degrees of Villisca challenge. Yes, there is a connection between the 1912 Villisca axe murders and someone involved in 1892 Lizzie Borden case. Can you guess who it is?