When is it inappropriate to make a “true story” movie?

It is Hollywood gold and at awards season it becomes the fashion to make true stories into movies. A movie not part of awards season but based on elements that are true made me question the suitability of some film’s source material. Horror movie The Forest is based on an actual location in Japan called the Aokigahara Forest where over a hundred people commit suicide every year.

It is undoubtedly an interesting place and full of tales and background that would make a very good movie. I would welcome a documentary investigating the rich history behind the area and why so many people, mainly Japanese men, feel it appropriate to take their lives there. I’m not sure a horror movie is suitable though.

A suicide helpline at the real-life Aokigahara Forest

The Forest uses a lot of the true elements of Aokigahara Forest to help tell it’s story but then adds a supernatural element. The supernatural element almost explains why people commit suicide and although people in Japan are afraid of the location because of the lore and supernatural elements that are truthfully associated with it, I still can’t help but feel that it cheapens the tragedy of the area.

Aokigaraha is still being used for these terrible deaths and a movie like The Forest seems to throw away the desperation of these people and maybe the cultural impact behind their suicides, rather than take a more broad and ultimately interesting approach to the real life story. It also feels crass to make a movie based in a location still so associated with loss, especially when people directly affected by this tragedy are still alive today.

There are people alive today who are still linked to The Zodiac killer case

This was something I felt very keenly when watching David Fincher’s Zodiac. The Zodiac killer that the movie focuses upon could still be alive today. The true story only happened in the late 70s and although that would mean he reached a grand age, the fact the killer was never found means we are glamorising a man who could still be around. Even if the Zodiac killer is dead, people connected to his victims are not. To place these in a movie seems crass and unsuitable, even if it only affects a few people in society.

Of course this wouldn’t stop Hollywood. As much as a movie may be trying to commemorate an event, particularly a tragic one, rather than glorify it, some films still seem too close to the event they a depicting. The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 came only five years before Oliver Stone would release his version based on the attack starring Nicholas Cage. Whether you think the film is any good or not is irrelevant, people are still alive who are deeply affected by this huge event and making a product for entertainment based on this seems very inappropriate.

Quality aside, was 2006 too close to the events of 9/11?

This does leave an issue then; when is it too soon to create a film based on a controversial or tragic source material. For serial killers it could be when they have been captured and the lasting impact of their actions is no longer felt: You could say the same for disasters too. The question is who would get to decide that impact and whether it had been long enough? One hundred years, two hundred years or in some cases never?

Maybe it is just the sort of film. Nobody is going to make a comedy based on the events of 9/11 but a horror film making the causes of people’s real life suicides supernatural? Is there ever a time when Aokigaraha Forest is an appropriate subject or is it already, and I’m in the minority for finding it in poor taste?

Overall, I think this is one issue that will be tricky to argue and solve. Whether a true story is appropriate for a film, not because of quality but because of the subject matter, is a wholly subjective decision. I do think that Hollywood get it wrong sometimes though and rush a movie through, particularly if either money or recognition can be up for grabs.

Will a location like Aokigaraha Forest ever be suitable for a horror movie?

6 thoughts on “When is it inappropriate to make a “true story” movie?

  1. I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t have a good answer.

    Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of my favorite movies. While it’s not based on a true story, it does allude quite heavily to the Manson murders (which were only a year or so old at the time).

    Sharon Tate was in the original Valley and one of the leads in this one wears the dress that she wore in promotional material. From a story standpoint, I rationalized this by the fact that, at one point, this was a direct sequel and Aunt Susan was previously written as the Anne Welles character. She tells Kelly (the BVD lead) to look through her things for a dress. Kelly picks this out. It could have been Jennifer’s dress.

    I know I’m rambling, but it comes off in poor taste, but the whole movie is satire. I think satire is a valid way of dealing with and processing tragedy. Where it gets tricky is how silly the tone is for most of the movie. Is this fair game for a joke at that point?

    Don’t mean to run off on a tangent. Your post reminded me of a 1/2 written post I have saved at my blog.

    1. There are so many examples of movies I didn’t include (United 93 almost made the post but was missed off because the subject was so similar to WTC).

      Your example is a good one though and more about taking advantage of a situation in the conscious than just straight retelling the story, which can often be worse!

  2. Very well written post which has been somewhat thought provoking! It’s certainly made me think about the movies you’ve mentioned and others from a different perspective that I’d never considered previously.

  3. I think the Stone film, following an officer (even a fictional character) into the events of 9-11 is okay if done with some respect. I haven’t seen the film myself. I do think that some stories that are tragic have to be handled a certain way and adding a supernatural element to this story seems to cheapen the fact that there are a lot of suicides in Japan and perhaps the underlying problem has not been dealt with.

    1. I think the Stone movie is done with respect (if slightly melodramatic) but it is the timing of the film? I also considered including United 93 for the same reasons and along the same lines.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head for my unease about The Forest.

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