Yesterday I had the privilege to read Dan Dollar’s biopic of Bill Watterson, The Boy and His Tiger. The project was picked up by Leonardo DiCaprio last year to produce, but faces some hurdles in the fact that Bill Watterson is notoriously prickly about adaptations of his work. Not only does the script utilize Calvin and Hobbes in creative ways, but something tells me Watterson would be less than enthused to allow this particular version of his life play out on screen.
That background borders on irrelevant for what I’d like to discuss, however, which is why I typically dislike biopics. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t think biopics can’t be enjoyable flicks. Most are very good movies. The Boy and His Tiger would be no different, especially considering the strengths of the script.
What I don’t like about biopics is their inherent dishonesty. Many times this is unavoidable as films have to be kept to a certain length, which means that biopics have to gloss over large parts of their subjects lives in order to tell a coherent story. This is a limitation that feeds directly into why I think biopics, with few exceptions, are dishonest. When trying to understand a person through the lens of only one or two times of their lives, you oversimplify a person’s personality, their motivations, and their feelings. People are complicated. People who have led unusually interesting lives are more complicated. They struggle with larger issues, bear witness to larger events, and it is difficult to do justice to these things in a 2-3 hour film.
Mostly, though, there is always a certain Hollywoodization of famous figures that, on top of the oversimplification of their persons and the glossing over of large chunks of their lives, can mislead a viewer into the wrong idea. To Dan’s credit, The Boy and His Tiger don’t really skirt around the main issues in Bill Watterson’ life – his irrational hatred of marketing and his unwillingness to interact with anyone including his fans. Of course, that would be a difficult issue to skirt around considering it is core to his character. What it does do, however, is create a fictional story on the basis of someone’s life using unverifiable sources and secondhand stories. That, to me, is a disservice to a person and all of their complexities. I digress, many biopics, whether for fear of legal action or that the person the movie is about is involved with the production, minimize the bad habits or negative personality traits in their stories. A script on last years Black List, Seuss, briefly touches on Dr. Seuss’ wife’s jealousy of him and a mutual friend. There is some flirting between Dr. Seuss and this woman, but hardly more than that over the course of the script. In reality, he carried on an affair with her that ultimately contributed to his wife’s death. But it’s Dr. Seuss! We couldn’t possible portray him in any sort of negative light.
A more widely-viewed example is the recent film Saving Mr. Banks. It’s a wonderful movie, entertaining and heartwarming. But it’s dishonest. Walt Disney’s worst habits are marginalized or neglected, and the movie ends in a place that gives it a happy ending when there was none. There’s a reason Disney never made any Mary Poppins sequels. There is even a character in the film, Ralph, that was invented to service the story. At that point it feels more like an alternate history than anything else.
People might argue that these films and stories are merely “Based on a True Story,” and that somehow absolves them of their responsibility to not mislead their audience. I disagree. Most audiences see “Based on a True Story” or “Based on True Events” and consider it to be mostly truthful. Not Gospel, of course, but more than the events gave the writer license to create an entirely fictional world around them. Why even bother at that point? Why not say, “Inspired by…” and go from there?
Because that doesn’t sell tickets like misleading the audience.
Audiences go to movies to be misled, that’s why they’re movies someone might say. Sure. But there is misleading someone over the course of a story using plots twists and character reveals, and then there’s misleading someone on the very nature of the story you’re purporting to tell. I’m sorry, I’m just not behind that. It feels cheap.
There are some biopics that are relatively honest and tell compelling stories. Maybe one day I’ll even write one myself. But I’ll tell you, if I can’t pull the drama and personality of a person who’s lived a uniquely satisfying life without making things up, then I’m not sure I’ll feel like I deserve to write one.