The Truth Is out There

April 12, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Sorry, "X-Files" fans, this isn't for you. (I'm not one, but my wife is, so I know what that phrase means to you.)

I have never understood why Hollywood is always so eager to slap a "Based on a true story" tag on movies. Most of the time, the basis is tenuous, and a factual framework doesn't make the tale any more or less dramatically forceful. A movie either works on its own terms or doesn't work on its own terms. Historical accuracy is only important when it's a documentary (or when the producers claim rigorous accuracy, such as with Gettysburg).

Until recently, the most idiotic instance of a movie claiming to be based on a true story was Hidalgo, which was pieced together using snippets of a tall tale that some gullible historians have mistakenly represented as fact. Disney apparently didn't do their research, since they proudly trumpeted Hidalgo as a fact-based movie when probably about 1% of the screen events ocurred.

But now there's a new contender for this honor: The Amityville Horror remake. When Jay Anson's novel was published in the late 1970s, it could be found in the "non-fiction" section, and the first Amityville Horror bore the "based on a true story tag." Had Anson's book recounted facts, this would have been an accurate label, and, at the time, most people accepted the novel's account as being true (if a little exaggerated). But much has changed in 25 years.

The majority of The Amityville Horror has been proven to be a hoax. (And it wasn't "disbelievers" at the forefront of the investigation, but paranormal investigators who wanted to debunk the story for fear it would damage the public's perception of real unexplained phenomena.) Yet somehow the word of this hasn't gotten out. The novel still resides on non-fiction shelves and Dimension Films (who are releasing the new movie) singles this out as being "based on a true story." As with Hidalgo, only the names haven't been changed.

The "truth" or "fiction" of a story has no relevance to the quality of a movie. A rigorously accurate account can be as dull as dirt, while a highly fictionalized version can be rousing. So why do movie distributors cling so desperately to the "based on a true story" tag-line? Do they think it will bring in more viewers? They would do better to consider another oft-repeated cliché: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story."