When Real Tragedy Impacts Fictional Movies

Movies, like other art forms, are grounded in real life. Characters and settings, and even entire plots can be inspired by real-world events. Movies are frequently released with tag lines like “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events.”

Some movies though develop a fictional story around an event that actually happened. But then there are those movies that in no way relate to the real world other than in a hey-that-could-possibly-happen sort of way. A lot of times, there’s a line at the end of the credits that will claim that any characters or events in the movie are entirely made up and that any connection with real life is coincidental.

Twice in the past few months studios have made changes to movies in response to horrific real-life events. But other movies center their entire stories on real tragedies. Where should the line be drawn? Or should there be a line at all?

In response to the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado during the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. removed a key scene in their upcoming movie Gangster Squad. The scene, which is now nearly impossible to find online, involves a group of gangsters walking behind the projection screen of a movie theater and shooting into the audience.

The shooting in the movie is entirely different than the real-life shooting—the only similarity is that they both take place in movie theaters.

On top of that, Ben Stiller’s new comedy The Watch was revised in response to the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a local neighborhood watch member. The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch, and had a scene in which the watch harasses an African American who isn’t doing anything wrong.

The studios made changes in their movies as a direct response to real events. But did they have to make the changes? No, they didn’t. But should they have?

It’s not difficult to imagine that the studios were just as blown away as the rest of the world was at these tragedies. And, in some ways, the changes can be viewed as sympathetic towards the victims and their families. However, Landon Palmer makes a pretty compelling argument (here) that behind all of these niceties, it really comes down to profits. At the end of the day, I do think it’s all about the bottom line.

Barring money, the question remains: Should movies be altered in the material is too sensitive?

The answer, I think, is an obvious “no.”

Art needs to be free from censorship, and movies are a form of art. Plus, there are plenty of movies, like I said before, that revolve entirely around real tragic events.

There are countless non-documentary movies that take place during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are movies that take place in the midst of wars and bloody battles that will not be won.

These movies deal frankly with the subject matter and don’t exploit it.

Movies like Titanic, however, focus on a story while the real tragedy is sort of on the back burner. The sinking of the Titanic isn’t what the movie is about—it’s about the relationship that develops between Jack and Rose. But the sinking doesn’t come as a surprise; we all know it’s coming. The use of the tragedy isn’t in poor taste. If anything, it makes it more tragic because it causes audiences to become invested in characters directly affected by the tragedy. Whereas most of us aren’t closely connected to anyone who was actually a victim of the tragedy.

Movies aren’t always so tasteful though. Robert Pattinson stars in Remember Me. His character struggles to lead a good life in the midst of misfortune and the relentlessness of real life. In the end, he does find redemption. You’ll notice throughout the movie a sort of countdown. The movie makes sure the audience knows what the date is throughout the movie. In the end—SPOILER ALERT—September 11, 2001 rolls around, and Pattinson, who waits for his father in his father’s World Trade Center office, is hit with an airplane.

Not only does the audience not really see 9/11 coming (even with the dates), but Pattinson’s character is so difficult to empathize with sometimes that the movie has to lean on a real tragic event to affect an emotional response from the audience. I didn’t care that Pattinson’s character died. But the scene brought back memories of the 9/11 attacks, and that’s what made me emote.

The movie shouldn’t have to rely on the tragedy to touch the audience. This is where Titanic succeeds and Remember Me fails. In Titanic we know what’s going to happen the entire time, but in Remember Me, the ending is completely unexpected. It cheapens the movie, the feelings, and the real tragedy itself.

But as for Gangster Squad or The Watch, none of this applies. The sensitive scenes aren’t based on anything that really happened; they’re just coincidentally similar. I understand why they would change the movies either out of respect or to bring in a bigger profit, but beyond that, there’s no reason for them to make the changes.


If studios cared that much, awful things wouldn’t happen in movies.


  1. Azenomei August 21, 2012
  2. Chelsea August 21, 2012
  3. beckett929 August 21, 2012
  4. nick August 21, 2012
  5. Pepper August 21, 2012
  6. Charlie Ward August 22, 2012
  7. TOm August 1, 2013

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