"All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster's autobiography."
A number of fine films have been based on autobiographies . .
Autobiography-based films we have known . .
- The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
- Papillon (1973)
- Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
- Raging Bull (1980)
Writing a movie script based on somebody's autobiography (or autobiographical material) presents
most of the same challenges as for creating a filmed biography: selection of compelling
life material, extraction of a cinematic story from it, staying more true to the needs of screened
entertainment than the facts, etc. One great challenge must be added, though, that being the need
to consider a counter-balance to what someone says happened in his own life. The obfuscation,
avoidance of truth, etc. in the subject's take on what occurred might doom the motion picture
project. Considering alternate views and gaining perspective on the sole author's (likely skewed)
take adds artistic dimension to the ultimate creation.
"Autobiography is probably the most respectable form of lying."
Asked to ghostwrite an autobiography of Ty Cobb, Al Stump was so disillusioned by the process, and
the lies he had to tell in My
Life in Baseball: The True Record, that he later wrote Cobb: A Biography to serve
as a counterbalance. COBB (1994) with Tommy Lee
Jones was based on the latter account.
What about telling my own story?
For better or for worse, our own experiences tend to play out in our artistic creations. For
that's why we take up screenwriting to begin with: to tell our own frightful story, to make people
see what we've been through--what victims we really are--to gain victory over those who have
made our lives difficult, or simply to work through our feelings about our life.
This was W. Somerset Maugham's express purpose in writing Of
Human Bondage. He'd known other
writers to gain release from telling their own life stories, and this indeed turned out to be the
case for him. But, being an already experienced and successful author, he knew better than to
stick hard to the facts. His own story served as the wellspring from which the story was drawn,
but it did not limit his creative license to tell the best story possible, one that would appeal to
Autobiographical experience can be very helpful in making things real, keeping things truthful,
giving the audience a palpable sense of what's going on on-screen. It gives us a useful body of
ideas to draw from; an artistic toolkit, if you will.
We tend to write what we know. We bring our life experiences to the selection of our movie
concept, to the structure of our story, to our character names, to the drawing of our scenes, to the
reality of individual incidents. In other words, we often write autobiographically, but we're not
always writing our own story.
The trouble comes in making our own life stories cinematic.
What's the problem with screenwriting my life story?
Life stories tend to be chronologically linear, rarely following good dramatic structure. But
cinema demands dramatic structure to keep people in their seats--and get them there in the first
place. The author of an autobiographical screenplay tends to be fixated on what actually happened,
almost to the exclusion of practical realities. If the only reason for writing screenplays to begin
with was to share this personal experience, the writer's not likely to be interested in changing the
story to meet the very real needs of the producer to make back his investment, or the audience to be
How do I know anyone will be interested in my life story?
Where no cinematic storyline can be extracted from a life or true story--perhaps an engaging
romance, or a universal theme--the personality of the subject needs to be fascinating enough to make
readers and audience members want to follow an episodic rendition of his life. What writer has the
proper perspective on how interesting his life really is? or on how best to tell it to garner the
interest of others?
HINT: Those who have the time to sit around learning screenplay format are not
likely living the kind of life anyone else wants to pay money to watch on screen. Pulling cinematic
material from published autobiographies of others at least assures a market indeed exists for the
story, that the person's life is at least of some interest to somebody else.
But I still have so much I want to say from my life
Given the inherent difficulties of crafting an autobiographical script, and the overwhelming
desire to do so, it might be best to channel your autobiographical experience into enhancing your
scripts. Continue to select movie concepts that appeal to you based on your life experiences. But
dedicate yourself now to becoming an experienced and capable writer before tackling your
How will I know when I'm ready to tell my life story?
When you've achieved a level of screenwriting experience you can better gauge if your life is
worth retelling on-screen, and you will know how best to retell it. In other words, after you've
already written several scripts and have tackled the genre sufficiently so you're not learning as
you go. Just as importantly, when you've mastered the many complex difficulties of writing a good
screenplay, you can then better focus on the extremely difficult challenge of telling your life on
For examples of films that drew on the author's own experiences to tell a compelling story, see HOPE AND GLORY (1987) or THIRTEEN
A cure for writers block?
His Eminence, David Trottier, posits that by treating the dread disease he's named autobiographicosis one can even recover from writers block. Who knows?
"Write about what you're interested in. Don't write about yourself—you aren't as interesting as you