Based On or Inspired By… Who Cares!
The terms “based on” and “inspired by” suggest very different standards of adherence to the facts providing the ideas for a film and the degree of fictionalization used to enhance the story, change the narrative, or make the film more marketable.
A film that was “inspired by” actual events is primarily fictional, but the writer owes his or her idea for the film to something that took place in reality. Perhaps the writer read a news story or a historical account or has been fascinated by a particular person, group, or event. The resulting film takes its inspiration from those events without claiming to represent anything that may have actually happened. The characters are generally original to the screenplay or only vaguely resemble the real life individuals.
An example of a real life figure who has provided inspiration for multiple well known films is serial killer Ed Gein, who performed his murders in 1950s Wisconsin. The figure of Gein inspired, to greater or lesser degrees, such varied figures of horror as Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs).
None of these characters or the films they appear in come near to depicting what is known of Gein, but certain of his more striking tendencies—transvestism, a domineering mother, and the wearing of his victims’ skin—provided a starting point for developing the original characters with personalities, scenarios, and victims of their own.
The Exorcist provides another classic example. An exorcism was performed in the 1940s, but there is much more speculation than there are known facts about the incident. The film is a fictionalized narrative developed predominantly on that speculation. Basically, “inspired by a true story” means that something made someone think, “That would make a good movie.”
When a film is “based on” actual events, the balance between fact and fiction is shifted in the other direction. In many cases, the names of people and places are retained. Unlike in documentary filmmaking, where some degree of accuracy is usually expected, in a story based on reality, liberties will generally be taken with details: several minor or tangential figures pressed into an amalgamation, passage of time being compressed or extended, and so on. Nonetheless, the core elements, such as the events, the themes, and the main personae, serve as representations of themselves.
Whereas a film inspired by Ed Gein has little to do with the actual person, a film based on his story would attempt to depict the real serial killer and his murders. Several have done so, including cult film Deranged and, most recently, Ed Gein: The Butcher of Plainfield. In contrast to those noted earlier, these are interpretations of the known events.
These are not intended to serve as a retelling of the actual moment-to-moment occurrences and are in fact significantly fictionalized (in Deranged, the names and places have been thinly disguised, and in The Butcher of Plainfield, a fictional subplot was inserted involving a deputy’s girlfriend). However, their resemblance to actual events is central to the films themselves and the story they set out to tell. A higher profile film that is based on a true story is The Social Network. By no means a biography of Mark Zuckerberg yet taking the early Facebook empire as its central factual basis, the film is a partially fictionalized interpretation of reality.
What both “inspired by” and “based on” have in common is that each adds an element of intrigue that invites the audience to relate the film to reality and speculate about where the truth ends and the storytelling begins.