I see in the news that reparations have been paid to the relatives of the Maids Moreton murder victims. This is the case recently dramatised on TV as The Sixth Commandment. That’s right. A real crime with legal proceedings still ongoing following the killer’s conviction has already been turned into entertainment. This makes me very uneasy, and no, I didn’t watch the series.
Of course, a major source of inspiration for writers has always been the daily news, in print, on the radio, on the TV or now the Internet. In the 1950s, the cop drama Dragnet on radio and TV promised “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The TV show Law & Order began ripping ideas from the headlines in 1990. Regular watchers would pay close attention to episodes carrying the disclaimer that “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” That would be entirely true. It would also often be possible to identify the real-life case raising key issues which this week’s story would address. The same can be true for crime and mystery novels going back decades. I’ve often heard authors talk about the specific case that stirred their imagination.
These days though, direct dramatisations of real crimes are everywhere. Actors play killers and victims who were real people. Some of these killers and victims are still alive. Their families and friends often still live in the areas where very real horrors occurred. They’re seldom considered or consulted. Occasionally an article highlights the distress some docudrama has caused these blameless people. However those affected can expect little sympathy. Consider the often aggressively hostile response online and in the media when Amanda Knox highlighted the way her life and trials have become common property for writers and film makers. They can reinterpret and rewrite some thinly veiled version of events as they see fit, without any reference to her.
Some of these dramas carry a second disclaimer at the start, to the effect that events and individuals may have been altered for dramatic effect. This doesn’t only apply to crime dramas. Biopics can offer a version of someone’s life that doesn’t tie up with events as remembered by those who were around at the time. As a decades-long Queen fan, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody leaps to mind. Why do screen writers do this? Because real life almost never offers up a coherent, well-constructed plot with the characters required to make it truly effective. One reason I rarely watch these true crime dramatisations is because far too many sink into a morass of second-rate drama that’s also factually incorrect. That’s not only bad television. Where criminal convictions and prison sentences might still be appealed, some fudge that creates misleading impressions for the sake of ratings is callously irresponsible.
The line between exploitation and exploration is extremely narrow. As writers, we must tread very carefully. Our stories must reflect real life, if readers are to relate to our work. However I remain convinced that the most effective way to explore emotional truths is to stay firmly in the realm of fiction.