Producers love to claim their movies and series are “based on” or “inspired by” real events because research shows calling it non-fiction, like a car accident, brings more eyeballs. Very few, however, portray things as they actually happened. And there is no government agency or Hollywood-based watchdog group that holds them accountable for adding scenes of made-up “reality.”
So how does a story consumer verify a movie/TV show, let alone individual scenes or statements, are truly lifted from real events?
— Search out a program’s character names, themes, locations, crime descriptions, or dates. If it came from a hard-news headline, TV news story, documentary or non-fiction book since 1990, it’ll be on the web. Follow threads back to original postings and TV station home pages, and try to avoid right- or left-leaning blogs and websites (or at least balance them with other POVs). Be prepared, though, to discover fake character names or a change of details (to make stories clearer, prevent suits, and to protect a victim or witness’s privacy — honor those wishes).
— If it’s a period-piece or flashback before 1990, original source materials may be missing or are copyrighted/password-protected on the Internet. That means (if you’re a research-junkie like me) you’ll have to $ubscribe to DBs for old papers, video libraries, court records, and government documents. Or call a library; realize you’re asking someone to go dig into dusty file drawers or forgotten boxes (be gracious and thankful).
— To read between the lines of these written summaries and news stories, nothing beats tracking down the original journalists and eyewitnesses. Search for them, you’d be surprised how many have emails or addresses (or relatives) online. And use my code of conduct: Always apologize for bothering them, then compliment them for their talent (writers) or for being part of the actual event (big or small headline, their lives were changed). Hint: Imagine how you’d like to hear it if a stranger called or emailed you. If you can’t, don’t bother them.