Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies

Films like Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty demonstrate that we empathise much more easily with characters when we believe we are witnessing real events.

This year’s academy award nominations of Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, attest to our fascination of watching “true stories” depicted on the screen. We adopt a special set of expectations when we believe a movie is based on actual events, a sentiment the Coen Brothers parodied when they stated at the beginning of Fargo that “this is a true story,” even though it wasn’t. In the science fiction spoof, Galaxy Quest, aliens have intercepted a Star Trek-like TV show and believe the program to be a documentary of actual human warfare. As a result, they come to earth to enlist Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), star of the TV show, to help fight the evil warlord Sarris (named after the film critic, Andrew Sarris), as they believe Taggart to be a true war hero rather than merely playing one on TV.

Movies that are “based on a true story” blur the boundary between documentary and make-believe. We, much like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, expect such movies to depict an authentic portrayal of actual events. The story of Argo — about a CIA agent who helps individuals escape from Iran by having them pose as a film crew — would almost have to be based on actual events, otherwise no one would buy into such a preposterous plot! Interestingly, the climatic chase scene on the airport runway is completely fictional, though I think we forgive the filmmakers for some poetic license, particularly as the scene is so exciting. We are much less forgiving in the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, to the point where producer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow have been reprimanded by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain for suggesting that torture was effective in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet even documentaries distort the “truth” by slanting history through biased portrayals. Should movies “based on a true story” be viewed as completely accurate documents of history?

One psychological point is clear: our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real. Studies by Richard Lazarus and others have shown that physiological markers of emotion, such as skin conductance (i.e. sweaty palms), increase when subjects believe a film to depict an actual event. In one study, subjects watched a film clip depicting an industrial accident involving a power saw. Those who were told that they were watching footage of an actual accident (rather than actors re-enacting the event) exhibited heightened emotional responses. Thus, people watching the same movie may engage themselves differently depending on the degree to which they construe the events as realistic portrayals.

Even when we know we are watching a re-enactment, as with Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, I suspect we become more emotionally attached when we believe we are witnessing actual events. We more readily empathise with characters and buy into the story. Of course, the authenticity of a movie depends not only on us having prior knowledge that a movie is based on actual events but also on how realistic the characters appear in their actions and predicaments. As wonderfully realistic and engaging as Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty were, in my opinion the most “realistic” movie among this year’s Academy Award nominees is the entirely fictitious Amour, in which the elderly Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must care for his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), whose mental abilities are deteriorating from strokes. The superb acting and unusual editing (e.g. exceedingly long takes) amplify emotions and engage us as if we are watching a true and heart-wrenching story.

Arthur P Shimamura is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and faculty member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. He studies the psychological and biological underpinnings of memory and movies. He was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 to study links between art, mind, and brain. He is co-editor of Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience (Shimamura & Palmer, ed., OUP, 2012), editor of the forthcoming Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies(ed., OUP, March 2013), and author of the forthcoming book, Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder (May 2013). Further musings can be found on his blog, Psychocinematics: Cognition at the Movies.

This post first appeared on the OUP blog here, and is crossposted with their permission.

Ben Affleck in Argo, a film with such a preposterous plot it has to be based on actual events...
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The Man Booker Prize 2016: the longlist has been announced

Six women and four debut novels make the list on a year with a number of notable omissions and surprise inclusions.

The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has been announced today, with a number of surprises populating the line-up for the prestigious award.

To qualify for the prize, writers will have had a novel published in English between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2016. The Man Booker has been awarded since 1969, with writers as varied as Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood among previous winners.

“The Man Booker dozen” lists 13 novels this year chosen by a panel of five judges from 155 submissions, with six women and seven men noted. Nobel Prize winner and two-time Man Booker Prize winner JM Coetzee headlines the list with his book The Schooldays of Jesus, while Deborah Levy, shortlisted in 2012 for Swimming Home, is picked for Hot Milk, her poignant take on the challenges and extremities of motherhood. Levy will be featured in this week’s magazine.

Also making it on the list are Paul Beatty with The Sellout - described by The Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”, A.L. Kennedy, who has been selected for the first time with her eighth novel Serious Sweet and Elizabeth Strout, whose novel My Name is Lucy Barton has become a New York Times bestseller.

Included on the list are four debut novels: The Many by Wyl Menmuir, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves and Hystopia by David Means – an imagined retelling of the Cold War period which sees John F. Kennedy evading assassination while the Vietnam war rages on. Completing the list are Graeme Macrae Burnet, Ian McGuire, David Szalay and Madeline Thien.

For many, the list brings along with it a number of notable omissions. Don DeLillo’s Zero K – a story offering chilling foresight into a future of immortality enabled by cryonics - was widely touted to make it onto the list. Jonathan Safran Froer too, was expected to make it on the list with his first novel in more than a decade - Here I am.

Previous winners and nominees who were picked as potential candidates to be longlisted are also missing. Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell, set to arrive in September, experiments with narration by telling a tale through the voice of an unborn child. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time hasn’t made the list and nor has Emma Donoghue’s new book The Wonder which was thought to be a strong contender following her Man Booker nomination in 2010 for Room and its subsequent Oscar nomination for screen adaptation. In previous years, former prize winners will have been automatically submitted, making these absentees notable ones.

Meanwhile new novels from Zadie Smith and Ali Smith will be published just outside the competition’s timeframe, making them illegible for this year’s award. There are no Indian or Irish writers on this year’s list; the Man Booker Prize has nominated a number of writers from those countries in the past.

Last year’s award celebrated the work of Marlon James, the first Jamaican writer to win, with his third novel A Brief History of Seven Killingsan epic spanning the decades surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. It’s an ambitious book whose pick by the Man Booker judges in 2015 highlighted the award’s desire to bring little-known novels with experimental flair and hard-hitting narratives to the centre of the literary arena. James’s win last year may reflect on this year’s choices; 11 of the 13 writers have never been on the list before.

The 13 books will be re-read by judges over the course of the next few months, with a shortlist being announced on 13 September, and an eventual winner decided by 25 October.

The chair of the judges Amanda Foreman said: “This is a very exciting year. The range of books is broad and the quality is extremely high. Each novel provoked intense discussion and, at times, passionate debate, challenging our expectations of what a novel is and can be. From the historical to the contemporary, the satirical to the polemical, the novels in this list come from both established writers and new voices. The writing is uniformly fresh, energetic and important. It is a longlist to be relished.”