Hollywood ran out of stories to tell after approximately the third one, leaving us so thirsty for originality that we'll praise movies starring Colin Farrell as a lobster. Luckily, our world is full of amazing real people whose incredible lives are just waiting to be turned into equally amazing motion pictures.
Hahaha, no. You see, real lives, no matter how interesting, rarely fit into the kind of neat three-act structure with clear heroes, villains, and wacky sidekicks that movies require. So Hollywood adds that shit in there, along with whatever other shit they think a movie needs, regardless of how badly it may distort history or ruin the lives of the real people involved.
7Biopics Are, By Design, Extremely Formulaic
All movies are formulaic, but most of the time, that formula (the classic three-act structure) can be used to tell a wide range of stories, from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to "rich guy with an affinity for bats." When you are making a film which spans a real person's entire life, however, that range suddenly closes. That's because most people's lives are shockingly similar. They're born, they grow up, they become geniuses in their field, they get old, and they die. Some of us skip the "become genius" step, but to be fair, being a baby is really exhausting.
20th Century Fox
The Weinstein Company
If you don't have tragic memories from your childhood in a plantation, you probably won't amount to much.
That's why every biopic about an artistic or academic genius is the same. They start out unknown and at the bottom, work their way up, and usually have a single moment of inspirational genius -- which probably didn't happen, but accurately portraying the terrifying, personal-relationship-destroying grind of real genius would be boring. As they start getting recognition for their work, there's some kind of personal struggle they'll have to deal with, such as being gay (The Imitation Game), having an addiction (Walk The Line), having AIDS (Straight Outta Compton), dealing with mental illness (A Beautiful Mind), being disabled (The Theory Of Everything), or simply being a dick (The Social Network).
The Weinstein Company
Or having a bunch of words floating in front of their faces at all times.
Almost always, there will be a love story stuck somewhere in there, whether it happened or not. If the person is still alive or has living family, then the movie will probably leave out any inconveniently complicated bits that might make them unsympathetic, like a habit of sleeping next to naked teenagers.
That's formula one. Formula two is when the protagonist is a criminal, like in American Gangster, Wolf Of Wall Street, Black Mass, or Goodfellas. Then we once again start them at the bottom, have them earn their way into crime, fly too close to the sun, end up caught, and usually hit rock bottom. It is at this point that they almost always end up betraying and snitching on their friends and go to jail or into protective custody, where they are forced into the humility of multi-million-dollar motivational speaking careers.
Between these two movies, the lesson is "commit a nonviolent, rouge-ish crime and you could be Leonardo DiCaprio."
And that's how, due to the limitations of the genre, biopics always end up making the most interesting lives in history look as predictable and boring as ... well, our lives.
6Hollywood Regularly Turns Innocent People Into Villains
Because life is not a comic book, there are rarely clear-cut good guys and bad guys. That's the whole reason we watch movies: so we can pretend for two hours that every conflict is simple, instead of both parties usually being sort of assholes. When a real life is the movie, however, those messy conflicts need to be simplified ... generally in favor of whoever's being turned into a main character. This apparently results in screenwriters sticking group photos on a wall, throwing a dart, and declaring "That guy's the shithead."
We've covered various examples before, but Hollywood keeps giving us more and more. Remember Art Howe, Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Moneyball? His grudge against poor maverick Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) leads him to cockblock Beane's revolutionary techniques at every turn -- which never happened, according to the real Howe. They got along pretty OK, it seems. But it would have been a really boring movie if everyone kinda sat around telling Pitt's character what a genius he was.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images, Columbia Pictures
"We meant another Art Howe, who had the same job and knew the same guy and wore those exact clothes."
Same with Tom Hanks' Sully, which runs out of things to do after that whole "landing a plane in a river" thing wraps up, so they threw in a phony conflict with the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the crash (which they are required to do). NWA manager Jerry Heller and TLC manager Perri "Pebbles" Reid both filed lawsuits over their portrayals in their respective groups' biopics. They didn't take kindly to being shown knowingly signing their impoverished clients to exploitative contracts while fine dining on their dime. In Straight Outta Compton, Heller is seen eating lobster and drinking champagne while screwing Ice Cube out of money, like a cartoon villain. None of that happened.
We're sorry to tell you that the Are We There Yet? saga is mostly fiction, too.
Sometimes, though, the alterations are designed to make a story less black and white. It's hard to make an audience sympathetic to the kind of shithead who uses the corpses of dead servicemen to smuggle heroin, like Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas in American Gangster, but luckily, it was easy to enough to fudge the details to take the shine off Washington's nemesis, Russell Crowe (who played prosecutor Richie Roberts), including by inventing children for him to abandon (the real-life Richie Roberts doesn't have children, but whatever).