Stranger Than Fiction

It’s probably safe to say we’ve all come across the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” at sometime in our lives, or possibly its related (and cruder) cousin, “you couldn’t make this shit up”. The principle being that, no matter what crazy scenarios we might dream up in our wildest imaginings, there are documented, eyewitnessed events that have occurred, are occurring, and ever will occur, that if we read them in a book or saw them in a show would seem so implausible as to kill our suspension of disbelief.

There’s a flipside to this, though, and its our ability to be presented with details outside of our immediate expertise/experience and swallow them up without question as truths. It’s not unique to works of fiction–politicians and salesmen have been relying on the phenomenon for centuries–but these days nothing puts an itch up my spine faster than seeing the words “Based On A True Story”, or even better, “Inspired By True Events”.

For instance, the latter phrase is on the trailer for Unstoppable, as you can see courtesy of Youtube at about 37 seconds in:

I haven’t seen the movie, though it’s been getting above average reviews as an exciting thriller. But none of these reviews are claiming that it represents anything close to reality, and no doubt rightly so. It’s like saying Rambo: First Blood Part 2 depicted realistic hostage rescue, but Rambo at least didn’t have that goddamn phrase in its advertising.

We see “Based On A True Story” or “Inspired By True Events” flash before our eyes, and what registers in our brains? True. This is true. No matter how cliche or outrageous it gets, it must all be true, because that’s what the sign said. All these movies about demonically possessed little girls? Oh yeah. It totally went down exactly like you’re seeing on the screen. But usually its even more subtle and insidious than that… in the name of dramatic license, good friends become enemies, weaknesses of character are downplayed and exaggerated, speeches are made that were never uttered, and history is rewritten on a regular basis. In fact, historians themselves are often called into question, since sensationalism was hardly invented in the modern era. We find out some dude we were relying on for the events of a war that happened centuries ago had a political bug up his ass and an agenda that renders his viewpoint suspect, at best. Oftentimes, the historical record is just a matter of scrounging up as many different authors on the subject as possible and trying to find some middle ground where the bias theoretically cancels each other out.

I’m not intending to get too terribly long-winded on the topic, what with this being a holiday weekend and all, but the most insidious thing of all to me are the movies and TV shows that purport to be based on real-life cases and situations and then, in a completely somber fashion, take so many liberties with facts, people, and procedure that they become more ludicrous than the most mind-bending episode of Farscape or Dr. Who ever did. Dr. Who is being honest in its way when it waves a TARDIS or Sonic Screwdriver at you and tells you it can do whatever-the-fuck-the-screenwriter-needs-it-to. Even Star Trek with its “Tech the tech tech so we can increase the tech until it techity techs” scripts is still advertising itself as nothing more than science fiction. No boss is going to come into work the next day, call up his head of IT and ask him to reverse the polarity on the server.

But oh. “Law and Order”? “CSI: <insert city here>”? Chock full of straight-faced, gravely served bullshit. This, I believe, is the feature that most fascinates several Satellite Show colleagues and keeps them watching. The infamous “enhance” video has already made the rounds here and is enough to make anyone with any knowledge of digital imaging (such as my wife) scream.

Why does she scream? It’s not because of the clips of it happening in Battlestar: Galactica or Blade Runner, it’s because of the shows set in gritty modern day America, those police procedurals which have fuck all to do with actual police procedure. The ones that don’t necessarily have “Based On A True Story” tacked on to them, but might as well. They’re set in the real world, with those very serious actors tackling very serious, real world issues (I’m remembering some of Erik’s Special Review Unit posts and trying to type that with a straight face). Therefore everything they do must be possible, and so your boss comes in the next day, sends you a blurry postage stamp resolution image and wants it “enhanced” to be his six foot presentation banner. If those somber detectives can identify a perp by their reflection in someone’s eyeball, surely you can manage that?

Bah. All I ask is that if you’re going to present crazy science fiction, stop dressing it up as reality. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but most of the time, truth and dramatic storytelling just don’t mix.

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
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