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From James Frey to The Imitation Game


Television Review: A million little works of fiction

Illustration: Jim CoganIllustration: Jim Cogan

‘Based on a true story” ….”Inspired by actual events”…automatically these words on the opening credits lend an extra frisson to a film or a TV series. But to arrive at some understanding of this fiendishly tricky subject, we should probably start with a book, A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey.

It was a book about alcohol addiction which was offered to various publishers as a work of fiction, and rejected. It was eventually published as “non-fiction” and it sold millions, driven by an endorsement from Oprah – who then had to haul the author back to berate him like a bold boy for misleading her and the American people, when it emerged that several parts of the book were exaggerated or just invented.

Frey was in no position to argue, but I would argue on his behalf that he was to some extent the victim of an industry which had lost its confidence, which was dumbing down. That he had written a powerful novel, but that it needed this fake stamp of authenticity – “it all really happened, you know” – to get it on Oprah.

So I think there is more to this “based on a true story” racket than issues of artistic licence, and of where exactly you draw the line between fiction and non-fiction and all that. There is also at times an element of cynicism, of declaring that a story is true and then making it up anyway, a bit like the events recalled in Charlie when they were putting bogus stamps on the beef to Iraq.

Charlie itself was not motivated by any of that dark stuff, but the arguments that blew up around it are being replicated all over the free world – The Imitation Game, the biopic of the code-breaking genius Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is accused of taking horrible liberties, of misrepresenting really important parts of Turing’s story, and of actually making the man more unloveable than he was.

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Posted on January 27, 2015 by Editor

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