What Do Fiction Writers Owe Their IRL Inspiration?

PG note: IRL = In Real Life

From Vulture:

Contemporary entertainment is a hall of mirrors, an endless flow of simulacra: reality shows, biopics, documentaries, Instagram posts, Youtube vlogs. Podcasts and docuseries and movies process the same real-life events (Tonya Harding, the O.J. trial, Theranos), responding to one another, building on one another, until the metanarrative is part of the entertainment. I guess it is no surprise, then, that our fictionalized characters have starting launching protests about how we’ve used them. A woman named Alexis Nowicki recently wrote a Slate essay outing herself as the inspiration for the viral short story “Cat Person,” and Amanda Knox, who was falsely accused of murder by Italian authorities, wrote an Atlantic article about a movie that (very) loosely transposes her story. Tom McCarthy, the director of Stillwater, did acknowledge in a Vanity Fair interview that his movie was “directly inspired” by Knox’s case. I still can’t decide if this was all marketing — McCarthy trying to stir up the true-crime audience and situate his film amid the flow of Amanda Knox content — or naiveté, an artist assuming that people will understand that inspiration is about the spark of an idea, not the act of appropriation.

It must first be noted that Stillwater bears little resemblance to Knox’s nightmarish story. She was a 20-year-old American exchange student in Italy when her roommate, a British student named Meredith Kercher, was gruesomely murdered. The police immediately focused on Amanda and her Italian boyfriend, despite virtually no evidence pointing to them. Another man was eventually arrested and convicted of the crime, but Knox was still churned through the Italian legal system for eight years. She was definitively cleared of murder charges in 2015, but not before she spent four years in an Italian prison, where she was sexually harassed and subject to psychological abuse. Her diary was stolen and pored over by the rabid press, which portrayed her as a nymphomaniac femme fatale who had convinced two men to murder Kercher as part of a demented sex game.

Stillwater takes place not in Italy but in France, and the American exchange student, Allison Baker (played by Abigail Breslin), is not from a nice, working-class family in Seattle, like Knox, but a poor and chaotic home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where she was raised by her grandmother because her father was a drug addict and her mother died by suicide. Allison is convicted of murdering her ex-girlfriend, a French Muslim girl, but insists that a mysterious man named Hakim committed the crime. The film takes place five years after her conviction, as her father, Bill (played by Matt Damon), who has cleaned up and is trying, belatedly and disastrously, to be in his daughter’s life, takes on the task of tracking down Hakim.

Knox was understandably angry that McCarthy used her case as shorthand to sell a movie that has little to do with her. She wrote a series of tweets that she spun into an essay for The Atlantic, venting her frustration at the way her name is used without her consent: the “Amanda Knox saga” or, worse, “the sordid Amanda Knox saga.” “I never asked to become a public person,” Knox writes, but she acknowledges, “My name, my face, my story have effectively entered the public imagination. I am legally considered a public figure, and that leaves me little recourse to combat depictions of me that are harmful and untrue.” After years of Italian authorities and the tabloid media creating fanciful and grotesque stories about her, Knox is weary of being made a subject of fiction.

Knox’s public vendetta against Stillwater may also be a matter of practical survival. As a best-selling author and true-crime podcaster, she is eager to maintain her hold on her story for both her dignity and her brand, which is her only source of income. The Vanity Fair article in which McCarthy discusses Stillwater ends, for some reason, with a rundown of the personal and legal debts that Knox and her family incurred during her trials, which reportedly ate up all of her nearly $4 million book deal. In a vast and lucrative true-crime media landscape on podcasts and streaming TV, big cases may appear like proprietary brands, but they are in fact public property. The “Amanda Knox case” does not belong to Amanda Knox, which seems to be the major source of her frustration: that she has neither the sole right to tell her story nor the exclusive right to profit off of it.

Link to the rest at Vulture

PG will spare long-suffering visitors to TPV yet another rant, but he doesn’t agree with the whole “appropriation” argument as it is used in a variety of settings.

He takes a very legal approach to his thinking. If something newsworthy happens that the newspapers and other news outlets can write and feature, its in the public sphere. At that point, anybody can pretty much do whatever they want with the story, particularly if they create a work of fiction that doesn’ t use a victim’s or key participant’s real name.

For PG, the key sentence in the OP (if it is correct), encapsulates the legal justification, “It must first be noted that Stillwater bears little resemblance to Knox’s nightmarish story.”

16 thoughts on “What Do Fiction Writers Owe Their IRL Inspiration?”

    • Might want to wait for it to be streamed, with that handy pause button. That is not a long time, these days.

      The plot – well, it sounds rather tired to me. Unjustly accused and photogenic person caught up in the web of a corrupt “justice” system; one that is not seeking truth, but rather a lurid “crime” that will get their names splashed across all of the papers (internet, these days). Tired in both fiction and in real life.

      I have the feeling that the “connection” to the Amanda Knox travesty is only there as hype, that being the most recent example of the trope.

      Myself, I don’t think that I will ever watch it – but I am not a fan of Matt Damon’s work, so he would not save it, in my opinion.

        • Well, now, I wouldn’t take that as a rule. A movie, like a novel, needs to be long enough to tell the story – no more, and no less. “The Ten Commandments,” for instance, is a whopping three hours and forty minutes. It still lopped out a huge chunk of Exodus.

          (That being said, there are multitudinous movies, and novels, that should have been edited more thoroughly – preferably with a chainsaw.)

          • “… (That being said, there are multitudinous movies, and novels, that should have been edited more thoroughly – preferably with a chainsaw.)”

            Well, I can’t resist… back in the day, I was editing a little educational film in Austin, TX, in an editing suite next door to… wait for it… Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Can’t remember how long it was.

            • Thanks for my afternoon LOL, Harald!

              I’m quite sure that I would much rather sit through the entirety of your little film, no matter how long, than a single minute of TCM. I misremember which movie I had gone to see way back then, but I do remember being subjected to the TCM trailer – and wondering how many of the audience around me were the type that would enjoy such a film…

              • I can tell you this: I was so concerned that something terrible was going on next door that I knocked and asked if they needed any help. “Naw,” they said. “It’s just a little movie we hope ya’ll see some day.”

                I did.

        • I agree about a lot of badly-edited long movies, A., but reaching back into ancient history, Dr. Zhivago was 3 hours, 20 minutes long. I liked that one.

            • We used to have intermissions – usually not, these days. (“The Ten Commandments” was one of those. “Gone With the Wind” was another. Oh, my… I just looked up that run time – just two minutes shy of four hours.)

        • Some have, some haven’t. Any “Director’s Cut” of Apocalypse Now! demonstrates that any award for directing that film should have gone to the editor. Conversely, the butchery of Brazil is worthy of a film of its own; and the “edited for pay-cable-TV” version of Once Upon a Time in America is a different film that’s still over two hours but only half as long. I am carefully not treading on the fannish controversies over Peter Jackson’s… editorial… idiosyncracies… with Tolkein’s two best-known works.

          My point is that there isn’t, and can’t be, a defensible per se rule here, just like any rule that a novel more than 209 printed pages long has not been properly edited (no, Tolstoy’s Ghost, you’re just going to have to wait).

          And I won’t be seeing Stillwater for entirely different reasons: I have too much experience dealing with inquisitorial justice systems (France, Italy, take your pick) and their treatment of outsiders; with closed-minded exceptionalists confronted by different perspectives; and with the various egos and foibles of both voluntary and involuntary celebrities.

  1. The Matt Damon movie is neither GWTW (4 hours, IIRC) nor Dr. Zhivago.

    The movie editors need to kill some of their darlings, too – especially the long loving shots on actors’ faces. Many movies feel too long, especially now that they’re streamed (though we watch them, take breaks whenever we want, AND fast-forward through big chunks on some).

    Goes for TV series as well – sometimes they need PLOT to fill those spaces – or are obviously editing to fill a number of minutes.

    • NETFLIX learned their lesson after “NETFLIX BLOAT” became a meme.
      The Marvel TV shows were an example of a story good for 4-6 hoyrs bloated into 13 boring ones.
      Since then, most of their TV projects run 10 episodes of 45 minutes each.

      Other streaming services have learned the new rules and their “seasons” run only as long as the material requires. A bit of bloat might creep in to maintain a more or less common episode length but even that requirement is fading.

      There is hope, at least on the streaming side.

      Movies, they have a ways to go; most are too long but a few otherwise good stories get butchered in the name of getting as many showings a day. The poster child being JUSTICE LEAGUE which would have been a great movie at around 3 hours but lost its heart (literally) in getting cut down to 2 hours. At 4 hours, the “restored” version is much better but now has about 15 to 30 minures of indulgence and fan service bloat. At least it comes with a programmed intermission breakpoint. 🙂

      • Happens in anime, too, Felix. “Dragonball Z,” which I watched with the children when they were little, is infamous for it.

        For some reason, my rather hyperactive children could sit through ten or more episodes getting around to the actual fighting. I got fidgety even before the first one ended.

        Not a diss on Japanese anime, by any means. Any of the Miyazaki films, I’m left with wanting more.

        • I’m not watching much Anime these days but when I did I stuck with focused material like WITCHHUNTER ROBIN, GUNDAM Z, and of course DEATHNOTE.
          (The first japanes live action movies were great. The NETFLIX abomination less so.)
          I generally avoid the endless ongoings regardless of popularity. So no Dragonballs or One Piece for me. I did watch some of the really old stuff in latin american translation reruns while my younger siblings watched. Can’t vouch for tbe americanized or original versions but ASTRO BOY, MAZINGER, and above all PRINCESS KNIGHT (really obscure, I’ve found out)–which got surprisingly metaphysical–were pretty good.

          I was the wrong age for the imported STARBLAZERS (YAMATO) or MACROSS but I did catch the americanized CARDCAPTOR SAKURA and it was amusing enough I dug up some of the CLAMP manga. Really liked xxxHOLIC. I’ve also sampled some translated japanese prose fantasies. Not much lately. Time is finite.

          (I even tried a few JRPGs but they leave me cold. I prefer WRPGs because tbey give the player a measure of agency, even if the alternatives eventually converge into just a few endings).

          Its an interesting culture built on entirely different expectations and formalisms. But I’m nowhere near familiar withe real world side to even considering taking inspiration from that world.

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