Here's The Difference Between 'Based On' And 'True Story' In TV Shows And Films

It can get pretty complicated.
Jesica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer
Jesica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer
-Ed Miller/Netflix

If (like me) you’re obsessed with Netflix’s Baby Reindeer, you might be wondering how much of it is based on real life.

But what does “based on real life” really mean, and is it different from something being a “true story“?

On the podcast The Rest Is Entertainment, Richard Osman read a listener-submitted question that asked: “Can you explain the difference between ‘based on’ and ‘this is a true story’?”

Co-host Marina Hyde responded: “There are many different variations of this.”

She pointed out that when watching Wicked Little Letters recently, it began with a message which read: “More of this is true than you’d think.”

But what does that – and other disclaimers like it – actually mean?

It’s partly a matter of legality

Marina explained that the Wicked Little Letters intro line was allowed because the story is “something that happened in the 1920s” and everyone depicted in the film is now dead, so it’s therefore not considered possible to libel them.

She also pointed out that legally speaking, “no individual holds the legal right to the story of their own life”.

“As as long as you’ve obtained the information legally and without any sort of subterfuge, then you are free to make a story about anything,” she explained.

However, you have competing rights, she said ― chief among them being the right of people not to be defamed.

People can, and do, sue

Marina pointed to the real-life case of a professional chess player name-checked in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, who sued the streaming platform for misrepresenting parts of her career.

So, Richard says that “that thing at the beginning, ‘based on a true story’ or ‘this is a true story,’ it’s sort of a legal disclaimer... and the more stark it is, like ‘this is a true story,’ the more either a) it’s about dead people, or b) it’s a very accurate reflection of what happened”.

“Based on” gives you a bit more leeway, he suggests.


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