In a discussion of non-fiction adaptations, screenwriters weigh fidelity to the facts against creative license.


In 2014, 17-year-old Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her boyfriend committed suicide, and texts from Carter were found on his phone, seemingly urging him to go through with the act.

Journalist Jesse Barron wrote about the “texting suicide” case for Esquire in an October 2017 article called “The Girl from Plainville.” When screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post, Long Shot) adapted Barron’s journalism into the upcoming Hulu limited series The Girl from Plainville, the journalist sat in with the writers.

“Thinking that it’s binary in terms of, ‘I’m the screenwriter, and you’re the journalist, and we operate in completely different worlds,’ is how you get yourself in trouble,” Hannah said, during a recent virtual panel discussion sponsored by the WGAW’s Genre Committee. The panel, titled “The State of the Fourth Estate,” gathered both journalists and WGA writers for a discussion of the tensions and dichotomies, real and imagined, between journalistic “truth” and “movie truth.”

In adapting so-called “non-fiction IP” to fictionalized narrative, Hannah has found that “your life is much better if you involve the journalist and reach out to the real-life subjects.”

There are practical reasons for this. In addition to being a sign of respect, “usually when you’re stuck in an adaptation of a true story, the truth ends up digging you out of it. What has gotten you stuck is, you’ve started creating, and you’ve started dramatizing, and that leads you to a dead end,” Hannah said. “Any time we wanted to create, or any time we wanted to composite or amalgamate, Jesse was a part of that conversation. So it wasn’t that we were ever presenting to him or to a subject, ‘Hey, by the way we’re going to change this.’ It was, ‘We need get from point A to point M in less than the amount of time that that takes. What are ways we can get there?’”

The other participants on the BlueJeans panel were screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty); writer Theo Travers (Billions); journalists Joshuah Bearman, whose 2007 Wired article became the movie Argo, and Azam Ahmed, of the New York Times, who has had several stories out of Mexico optioned for TV or film; and Elizabeth Haggard, Vice President of Narrative Film at Participant Media. The panel was moderated by writer Jesse Peyronel (Dig).

Speaking to the supposed tension between the “objective, journalistic truth” and “movie truth,” Boal set the tone early when he said: “I’m not so sure those differences are as stark as they seem on the face of it. There’s a lot of interpretation that goes on even in the best journalism, and no filmmaker that I know of is intentionally trying to say things that are false.”

Boal’s first experience as a journalist collaborating with a filmmaker was on 2007’s In the Valley of Elah, a crime drama directed by Paul Haggis and based on Boal’s piece for Playboy magazine (screenplay by Haggis, story by Boal & Haggis). “At a certain point he started changing the story a little bit. In small ways that drove me crazy,” Boal recalled. “We had lots of massive arguments about things that I now look back on and realize he was probably absolutely right in wanting to tell the right story for the movie, which was not necessarily the right story for Playboy magazine.”

Travers observed that he got valuable screenwriting training when he was a general assignment reporter for a local news station in Georgia, dramatizing otherwise static City Hall meetings by finding real-life characters to personalize issues. Likewise, he put on his reporter’s hat to explore the high-stakes hedge fund world before he could write a line of dialogue on Billions. “In the ten years or more that I’ve been working as a screenwriter, I would say that my approach to storytelling is very similar to the way I would approach storytelling as a journalist.”

Ahmed, until recently the New York Times’ former Mexico City bureau chief, expressed the most trepidation. He recently sold the option to his feature about the Mexican mother who methodically and stealthily tracked down those involved in the kidnapping and killing of her 20-year-old daughter, before she herself was killed by the cartel.

“If it’s a fictionalized piece, there has to be some flexibility” with the facts, Ahmed acknowledged. “But I also think there’s ways to get to the truth that go just beyond the facts, and that you can tell a more true story that isn’t necessarily beholden to every single small detail and timeline in an individual’s life. But I do think there is an important point to be made that it has to feel true.”

Bearman, the other working journalist on the panel, watched from afar as his 2007 Wired article called "The Great Escape: How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” became Argo (also based on a selection from The Master of Disguise by Antonio J. Mendez).

In reality, using a fake Hollywood movie shoot to spirit six U.S. diplomats out of Tehran worked beautifully. As a screenplay, this presented “a third act problem,” and the climax of Argo featured a chase scene that never happened. “The writer, Chris Terrio, took the emotional experience of the hostages, who knew that they could be pursued and discovered at any moment, which was true, and their anxiety at this happening—he kind of externalized it in that final sequence.”

Bearman now works as both journalist and producer through his company, Epic Magazine. What he’s learned: “Ninety-five percent of the time,” when story problems arise, “the answer is in the material or true story.” His advice: “Go back to the subjects and find out more.”

Boal compared criticism of poetic license in fact-based storytelling to looking at Picasso’s “Guernica” and arguing it wasn’t authentic to the experience of war. “Even if it’s referring back to something that’s happened in society, the whole idea that there’s an obligation of that work to somehow faithfully answer to the group of people that it’s depicting or a bunch of historians or a bunch of journalists—I know it’s a very contemporary, even faddish way of thinking about it, but if you step back for a second, it’s also kind of bonkers. We’re talking about works of art.”

Why not ask, instead: “Is this something that has quality to it?” Boal says. “How much does this work link up to the world as we know it, and whether we even care?”

Watch video of the WGAW’s “The State of the Fourth Estate” virtual panel event.

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