The journey of translating real-life events and stories into cinematic art is both a challenging and fulfilling process. Whether these are things you lived through, your relatives, or even just stories about people in history, they matter.

Bringing authenticity, dramatic tension, and relatability to the screen, while being sensitive to real people and their experiences is no small task.

Today, I'll guide you through the basics of adapting real-life stories for the silver screen.

Sound good?

Let's get started.

Truth About Writing Real Life Stories - Jill

10 Ways to Adapt Real-Life Stories to the Screen

Elvis, played by Austin Bulter, preforming as women reach out to touch him in 'Elvis''Elvis'

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

1. Research and Immersion

Before you begin writing, immerse yourself in your subject matter.

  • Primary Sources: Conduct interviews, read diaries, letters, news articles, and other firsthand accounts to understand the core of the story.
  • Secondary Sources: Dive into biographies, documentaries, and expert interviews to get multiple perspectives.

2. Find the Central Theme

Behind every life story is a universal theme: love, redemption, perseverance, etc. Identify that theme early on and use it as your guidepost for the adaptation.

3. Choose a Narrative Focus

A person's life or an event can span years, so decide on the portion of the story you want to tell. This could be a specific event, a period, or an aspect of the person's life.

4. Character Development

Real-life characters can be as complex as fictional ones.

  • Distill the Essence: Focus on key character traits, desires, and arcs.
  • Composite Characters: For the sake of simplicity, sometimes multiple real-life figures can be combined into one character on screen.

5. Dramatization vs. Accuracy

It's essential to strike a balance between staying true to real events and creating a captivating narrative.

  • Dramatic License: While it’s okay to take some liberties for the sake of the story, ensure that the essence remains true.
  • Avoid Exploitation: Be sensitive and avoid sensationalizing real events or people.

6. Visual Representation

Remember that film is a visual medium.

  • Visual Storytelling: Use locations, costumes, and props that mirror the time and place of the real-life story.
  • Symbolism: Utilize symbols to convey deeper meanings and emotions, especially when dialogue may fall short.

7. Legal Considerations

When adapting a real-life story, especially if it's recent or involves living individuals, it's crucial to:

  • Get the Rights: Secure the necessary rights to someone's story or any source material you're basing your script on.
  • Consider Libel: Ensure your portrayal doesn’t defame or inaccurately depict someone in a harmful way.

8. Collaboration

Work closely with those who were directly involved or affected by the events, if possible. Their insights can offer depth and authenticity.

9. Stay Respectful and Empathetic

When adapting a real-life story, you're handling someone's lived experience. It's essential to approach the task with respect and empathy, understanding the weight of the responsibility.

10. Seek Feedback

Before finalizing your adaptation, share your work with trusted peers or those close to the real story. Their feedback can guide you in ensuring accuracy and sensitivity.

Why Do Filmmakers Like Adapting Real-Life Stories?

Elton John, played by Taron Egerton, sitting with Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell, in 'Rocketman''Rocketman'

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Hollywood is always looking for intellectual property to adapt, and real-life stories fall into that category. Trailers that say 'based on a true story' or 'inspired by a true story' can help draw in viewers.

Filmmakers are drawn to these stories because of their marketability and also for many other reasons listed below.

  1. Human Connection: Real-life stories resonate deeply with audiences because they showcase genuine human experiences. They remind us of our own vulnerabilities, strengths, dreams, and challenges.
  2. Built-In Drama: Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Many real-life stories are inherently dramatic or inspirational, providing a rich source of material that doesn't need to be invented.
  3. Credibility and Authenticity: Stories grounded in reality often carry an aura of authenticity, lending them credibility and making them compelling to viewers.
  4. Cultural Commentary: Real-life adaptations allow filmmakers to comment on social, political, and cultural issues. These stories can be a mirror to society, highlighting its strengths and critiquing its flaws.
  5. Legacy and Preservation: Filmmakers often adapt real-life stories to honor and immortalize individuals or events. This not only pays tribute to the subjects but also educates future generations.
  6. Challenge and Fulfillment: Adapting a real-life narrative can be a unique challenge for writers and directors. Staying true to the essence while making it cinematically appealing requires skill and creativity, and achieving this balance can be deeply satisfying.
  7. Commercial Appeal: Real-life adaptations, especially those based on well-known events or personalities, come with a built-in audience. They can be more marketable and have the potential to draw larger crowds.
  8. Relatability: Real stories often contain universal themes and emotions that viewers can relate to, regardless of their background. This relatability can foster a deeper emotional connection with the audience.
  9. Research-Driven Process: For filmmakers who enjoy the process of discovery, adapting a real-life story provides an opportunity to delve deep into research, interviews, and exploration.
  10. Moral and Ethical Discussions: Real-life adaptations often present complex moral and ethical dilemmas, which can spark discussions and debates among audiences, enriching the cinematic experience.

In essence, the allure of real-life stories lies in their power to connect, inspire, and challenge both the filmmaker and the audience.

They bridge the gap between reality and fiction, offering a unique cinematic experience that's grounded in truth.

What Are Some Cliches to Avoid When Adapting Real-Life Stories?

A group of Black Panther activist walking in 'Judas and the Black Messiah''Judas and the Black Messiah'

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

there are so many real-life stories

Adapting real-life stories into film can sometimes fall into the trap of clichés, which can diminish the authenticity and impact of the narrative. Here are some clichés to be wary of:

  1. Over-Dramatization: While some dramatic license is acceptable, excessively dramatizing events or emotions can betray the authenticity of the story.
  2. White Savior Narrative: This cliché occurs when a white character "rescues" or "saves" individuals from marginalized backgrounds, often overshadowing their own agency and capabilities.
  3. Tidy Endings: Real life is messy, and not every story has a clear conclusion. Wrapping everything up neatly can feel artificial.
  4. Excessive Flashbacks: While flashbacks can provide context, over-relying on them can disrupt narrative flow and become predictable.
  5. Voiceover: Overusing voice-over to explain events or emotions can be a crutch, preventing the visual storytelling from shining.
  6. Stereotyping: Avoid reducing real people to mere stereotypes, especially when dealing with diverse cultures, professions, or backgrounds.
  7. The "Chosen One" Trope: This cliché suggests that the protagonist was always destined for greatness or to overcome specific challenges, which can diminish the complexity of real-life choices and circumstances.
  8. Love Conquers All: While love is a powerful emotion, suggesting it can solve all problems, especially in complex real-life scenarios, can be overly simplistic.
  9. Over-emphasizing One Emotion: Real-life stories are multifaceted. Focusing solely on tragedy or inspiration without showcasing a range of emotions can feel one-dimensional.
  10. Ignoring Controversies: While it's essential to be respectful, glossing over controversies or flaws of real-life characters can lead to a sanitized and less believable portrayal.
  11. Instant Expertise: Characters suddenly becoming experts in fields they've just been introduced to can strain believability.
  12. Montages: While montages can be effective in showing passage of time or progression, they can become clichéd if overused or if they replace important narrative development.
  13. Ignoring Secondary Characters: Real-life stories often involve a myriad of people. Focusing only on the protagonist without fleshing out secondary characters can make the story feel shallow.
  14. The "Golden Age" Nostalgia: Idealizing or romanticizing the past can make the story feel distant and less relatable.

Adapting real-life stories for the screen is a journey that requires thorough research, creativity, and respect.

With the right approach, you can create a film that resonates with audiences and honors the real-life events and individuals it depicts.

Remember, every life story offers a unique perspective, and as a storyteller, it's your privilege to bring that story to a wider audience.

Now go get writing.