Movies · TV

When ‘Based on a True Story’ Becomes a Lawsuit

Dramatizing real people can come at a hefty price.
By  · Published on August 31st, 2017

Dramatizing real people can come at a hefty price.

A judge has greenlit a trial for author Gerald Brittle against Warner Bros. for the rights to paranormal specialists Ed and Lorraine Warren’s story, specifically the events featured in his book “The Demonologist” and The Conjuring movie franchise. Claiming the rights to a true event seems like a bold move, but this case is a convoluted one. However, Warner Bros. could have avoided this huge lawsuit.

Before writing his book in 1978, Brittle made an agreement with the Warrens that for the rights to their story, there cannot be any “competing work,” which included movies. This provision in their book deal is still in effect today but Brittle was never asked for permission to use the events in his book in The Conjuring. Instead, the producers went directly to Lorraine Warren, who gave her okay.

Warner Bros. explanation for their disregard for Brittle’s book deal is that one person cannot have “a monopoly to tell stories about true-life figures and events.” The Conjuring claims what happens in the film is based on real events of the Warren files, but Brittle begs to differ.

There is no historical evidence of the witch, Satanic child sacrifices, and even possession that is featured in the movie. Those events take place in Brittle’s book, which he says the Warrens fabricated (unbeknownst to Brittle at the time of writing the book). So Brittle argues that the movie is based on his book instead of facts. He even goes into arguing that the production company told screenwriters not to read his book because they didn’t have the rights to it. How Brittle would know that is unclear.

This will be a tough case to decide on, especially since the subject matter is paranormal activities that can’t be truly proven. With that in mind, it might have been smarter on Warner Bros.’ part to cut the “based on historical events” claim, fictionalizing the story altogether. What makes the film interesting was apparently fiction anyway.

Without connecting itself to the Warrens’ case, The Conjuring is a movie filled with horror tropes and stories that have been told before. Horror films have been dealing with demonic possession, haunted families, and exorcisms long before The Conjuring franchise. Those things aren’t unique to the Warrens. Therefore without the Warrens’ name and the claim that the events are based on truth, The Conjuring could have been just as scary and successful as a regular fictional horror film without all this legal trouble.

Real events inspire horror movies all the time, but filmmakers can get away with making movies about them by not claiming any connection to them. Stating that a movie based on possession and ghosts is a true story should be taken with a grain of salt anyway, considering it’s very hard to prove those things are even real. Using the fact that something is based on real people and real events isn’t always worth it in film and TV as well.

FX is also under fire for the use of an actual person’s identity for its portrayal of Dame Olivia de Havilland in Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Bette & Joan. A sensational look at the supposed feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford,  Feud‘s allure relies on the star power of the real characters in the show. The problem with their approach was to include a supporting character that is still alive, de Havilland.

De Havilland has not been afraid to take major studios to court in the past, and even at 101 years old, she has a reputation to uphold. Despite being a public figure, de Havilland is suing FX for unauthorized use of her identity. She claims the scenes and conversations in the show are false depictions of her and tarnish her image. Murphy admittedly chose not to reach out to de Havilland before including her in the show because he “didn’t want to be disrespectful” and bother her over the show.

Most people know that it’s impossible to write the situations from the past completely as they were, especially since the two most important people are no longer alive. Based on the perceptions of other witnesses, screenwriters have to compile a script that portrays a coherent a TV show. Sometimes that means stretching the truth for the story’s sake. In a dramatic show like Feud, most viewers are looking to be entertained rather than learn an objective history of the people the show is written about.

The argument de Havilland makes against Feud insinuates that what FX was trying to produce was a completely factual, reenactment of the events it covers. It never explicitly says that these events are interpretations of what happened between Bette and Joan and it’s designed to look like reality. Viewers who don’t know the extent of how nonfiction writing works could assume that it is entirely truthful, especially since some of the events actually were.

Yesterday, FX announced a new strategy to fight against this argument. They will argue that the scenes that de Havilland’s persona is in are situations she was actually present for, like the 1963 Oscars. As for the interview in the show that she claims to be fake, FX argues it was written to be similar to those in which she did speak about her life in Hollywood.

Since Feud is built around the fact that the show is compiled from the rumors and tabloids of Hollywood, this buzz surrounding the legitimacy of the story is somewhat beneficial. It’s a controversial subject that is debated to be true anyway, but now that one of the people depicted in the show is talking about it, so will others.

The problem with depicting real people and real events in entertainment is that when it is not done with the utmost respect for those in the story and the viewer, the integrity of the story on screen is ruined when the truth does come out. Under the guise of reality, viewers trust that what they see on screen is the truth, unless told otherwise. When that trust is broken between writer and viewer, the interest in what happens in the movie or TV show is lost.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_