I’ve recently found myself wondering about the real truth behind stories that claim to depict actual events, and if/why it matters. Anyone who watches a lot of films and TV will have to contend with this question sooner or later, and the series Fargo is a perfect example. Every episode begins with the words This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred. This compellingly bloody series is based on the Coen brothers’ film which started with the same statement, and the brothers also had a hand in the making of the series.
For anyone who knows the Coen brothers’ films (O Brother Where Art Thou, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy and many more), you’ll know they can be playful, clever, and downright tricksy when the whim takes them, and Fargo shows just how far they’re prepared to push the boundaries.
I can never figure out if it’s a spoiler to say what I’m about to say, but heck, Malvo wouldn’t think twice (then he’d smile his gentle smile before shooting you in the head), so I’ll take a deep breath and tell you anyway, except without the shooting, probably. Here goes… Fargo is not a true story. No, really. I know they told you it was, and their opening statement is so plausible there’s every reason to believe, but they know exactly how our minds work and they know exactly how to exploit our hunger for an extraordinary truth. This, I imagine, is why the Coen brothers made the decision to begin their storytelling as soon as the poignant music begins, before the credits have even rolled, and the brilliance of this particular piece of fiction is that there’s just the right amount of detail to be believable.
I don’t know about you, but emotionally, I tend to invest more in the events if I believe they really happened, if the people really do, or did, exist (in Fargo an unfortunate number of characters are past tense). I know some people may feel cheated by this bold deception, but I can’t help but admire their willingness to defy expectations. And anyway, how much truth do we actually need?
In the digital age, writers and film makers are blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The blog, seen as a kind of online diary or journal, is dipping its toes into fiction with sites like Bad Influences and The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs (no longer running for obvious reasons). And what about all those Youtube clips of people doing astonishing things? We enjoy believing that there just happened to be someone hanging around with a camera, sheer luck that they brought it along that day. And then there’s the ‘scripted reality’ of The Only Way Is Essex, which takes the blurred lines to a whole new level of spray-tanned melodrama.
I recently watched Philomena, a wonderful film about a woman whose child was taken from her by Irish nuns, and Martin Sixsmith’s quest to find the truth. This is ‘based on a true story’, which inevitably means the director/producer/writer needed some wiggle room in order to fit everything into a two hour package. These are the times I come away wanting to know which bits were the truth and which bits were re-imagined in order to create a neater story.
It’s often difficult to separate the threads of a story based on real events, but ultimately, does it really matter? At the heart of a good story, whether it’s absolutely truth, something resembling the truth or whopping great lies (that’s you Coen bros.), we whole-heartedly want to believe. We want to place things order, understand that there are reasons for people’s good and bad behaviour and there are rewards and punishments dished out where appropriate.
Life is chaotic, so we need our fictions to make sense of this continually random falling of the dice, TV, film and books telling us the things we already know and revealing the things we don’t. That’s why I hope the brothers have many more years creating tricksy films, duping us into believing we have the ability to create order, and that really, it is possible to have a happy ever after.