When we think of adaptation, where does the so-called true story fit in? It would seem to occupy both ends of the scale: on this very blog I lambast Wolf Creek and its supposedly true origins and this website provides ONLY films that are based on true stories. Peter Broughan of Flying Scotsman Films was charged with talking us through the specifics and miscellany of producing a film based on a true story. I hadn’t expected to find this element particularly interesting, since I have never been one to watch biopics or be interested in autobiography. I was surprised then to discover this was actually my favourite aspect of the course: Peter was frank and honest about his films, Rob Roy and The Flying Scotsman (for those of you who don’t know, this is a biopic of the record-breaking cyclist Graeme Obree: I didn’t).
So, why adapt from real life? Peter confessed that he had just left the BBC as a producer to become an independent, was making no money and basically freaking out. He said he was thinking, “There must be something really big, really Scottish, that no one has done before.” The answer was of course Rob Roy: Peter got a book out and was knocked out by the extraordinary story of this larger-than-life figure. There were no rights to buy, since it was already all in the public domain either.
Yet how much fidelity should one have to the person whose story it is? Well in the case of Rob Roy, Peter told us he “immersed” himself in research – then “picked out his truth”, his interpretation of the life. The writer of Rob Roy, Alan Sharp, produced what Peter called an “emetic draft” where he flushed out all these details and story elements of Rob Roy’s life… Before structuring a more focused, less chaotic draft. They didn’t want to tell a story that would let Rob Roy down, but equally they didn’t want to tell a story that would sanitise him too much either. Rob Roy’s main competitor that year, Braveheart, has been criticised for being too “free” with the truth – Peter mused that perhaps this was because true Scots were not behind the film? He was also at pains however to point out that there is no such thing as “an absolute truth”.
With Graeme Obree’s story then, it was quite a different affair: for one thing, Graeme Obree is still very much alive. I was unaware that it is not possible to libel a dead person, so libel would never have been an issue in the case of Rob Roy as it *could* have been with Obree. In fact, “Errors and Omissions Insurance” is issued in the case of true story films, where you have to demonstrate you have done everything you can to show that you won’t be libellous if that person is still alive (similar I would think with the journalistic notion of “due care” when it comes to libel in newspapers and magazines). In comparison then to Rob Roy where the passage of time makes it difficult to know how accurate one is in the representation, they knew they were manipulating certain elements for the sake of drama: for instance, Obree is shown at the beginning of the film as being a cycle courier, a job he never had. However it “pigeon holes” his vocation nicely and adds to the story. Certainly Obree did not object to be being represented like this, anyway.
From the sound of it however, Peter Broughan was fortunate to have Obree very much on side: Obree was concerned about committing the “sin of omission” and actively wanted his depression and suicide attempts included in the film, though he worried about being too graphic on account of his own children watching it. Obree wrote a book at the same time as the film being made, an interesting reversal of the book-to-film notion I thought. Peter too speculated that perhaps the main cause of Obree’s personal problems – low self esteem – could be improved by the movie and the fact people are now so interested in his struggle? Let’s hope so.
PART THREE: What Do Publishers Say?