Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Based on a true story’: Netflix’s Baby Reindeer and the blurry lines between fact and fiction

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“Based on a true story …”

Five little words.

When they appear on a television screen, viewers know they’re in for a treat. 

Limited series and movies based on sporting underdogs, horrific crimes and tales of endurance usually translate to success for streaming giants like Netflix. 

But the leap from real life to the screen can be messy and content creators can find themselves in hot water in pursuit of ‘real-life’ storytelling. 

This week, a Scottish woman who says she is the real-life ‘Martha’ filed a $255 million lawsuit against Netflix over her alleged portrayal in the hit limited TV series Baby Reindeer. 

But how often does this actually happen? And in what ways? 

Baby Reindeer

The case of Fiona Harvey, the woman who says she is the real-life inspiration behind a character in Richard Gadd’s Netflix limited series, is complex, says David Rolph, professor at the University of Sydney Law School, because it leans into the legality of both ‘self-identification’ and the consequences of internet sleuths. 

Fiona Harvey told Piers Morgan the character of Martha in Baby Reindeer must be based on her, but she took issue with the portrayal.(Supplied: Piers Morgan Uncensored / Talk TV/ YouTube)

Ms Harvey is seeking $US170 million ($225 million) in damages from Netflix, claiming she has been harassed by people from all over the world because of the portrayal of her as Martha on the show.

Professor Rolph, one of the leading academic experts in Australia on defamation law, says Mr Gadd is in a unique position because he sought to anonymise the character yet Ms Harvey came forward — more than likely due to detective work of the chronically online. 

“There is an interesting question of causation there: if you self-identify as the inspiration of the story, can you actually blame the other person for the damage to your reputation?” Mr Rolph said. 

In a statement issued to ABC News, Netflix says it “intends to defend this matter vigorously and to stand by Richard Gadd’s right to tell his story”. 

Inventing Anna

Audiences across the world were glued to their screens as they watched the bizarre true story of con artist Anna Delvey, aka Anna Sorokin, unfold in Netflix’s limited series Inventing Anna.

One person was not so impressed. 

Former Vanity Fair staffer Rachel DeLoache Williams, who was shown on screen abandoning Ms Sorokin before betraying her to authorities, sued Netflix claiming she was falsely depicted as “unethical” and “greedy” in 16 different statements on the show. 

Movie still from Inventing Anna. Glamorous women in private jet looks out areophane window

Inventing Anna told the true story of a German fraudster who charmed and swindled some of New York’s elite.(Supplied: Netflix)

Ms Williams’ attorney Alexander Rufus-Isaacsm said the case stood ground on the basis the show had used Ms Williams’ real name. 

“If they [creatives] want to make an unpleasant character, they can’t use a real person’s name unless everything they say is absolutely gospel,” he said in an interview on the Law&Crime Network Podcast. 

Professor Rolph said that in order to produce a limited series or a feature film, there has to be some artistic license. 

“But, people might approach the level of truth that they expect from something that is based on ‘real life’ to vary from person to person, and that of course can create difficulties, for content creators and also for the people who are represented in what they produce,” he said. 

When They See Us 

The wrongful conviction of a group of teenage boys over the rape of a jogger was turned into Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which ran into legal trouble over its alleged portrayal of the one of the main characters. 

Former Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein sued Netflix and film director Ava DuVernay over her portrayal in the true story of the ‘Central Park Five’ case, alleging they portrayed her as a “racist, unethical villain.”

However, Ms DuVernay remained firm in her stance in her portrayal of Ms Fairstein, issuing a statement that sparked conversations far and wide.

“I believe that Linda Fairstein was responsible for the investigation and prosecution of the Central Park Jogger case that resulted in the wrongful conviction of five innocent Black and Brown boys,” Ms DuVernay said in the statement. 

The case settled outside of court, with Netflix donating $US1 million to a social justice organisation advocating for those wrongly incarcerated, and Ms Fairstein not receiving any money. 

Queen’s Gambit

A woman with orange hair wearing a black high neck sweater sitting at a table with chess board and chess pieces

The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit had an instant impact on the world of chess. (Supplied: Netflix / Phil Bray )

The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s limited series about chess prodigy Beth Harmon, was unique in the way that is was marketed as fictional but still ran into legal trouble — just from one singular line. 

In 2022, Georgian chess master Nona Gaprindashvili sued Netflix over a line in the show’s finale that incorrectly stated that she “never faced men”.

According to the suit, Ms Gaprindashvili, the first woman to be named a chess grandmaster, played against and beat “the best male chess players in the world”, Forbes wrote. 

She alleged in the suit the singular line was a “grossly sexist and belittling” representation of her and sought US$5 million in damages. 

Netflix told Forbes that Ms Gaprindashvili’s case “has no merit”, yet agreed to settle a few months later. 

Professor Rolph said that is was very clear that people like to consume stories that are true or based on truth, but will continue to raise a range of ethical questions and legal questions. 

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if a creator says their show is based on a true story or not, he said.

“The question will always be, looking at what has been published, broadcasted, or streamed, whether a reasonable person could identify the person suing with what’s been depicted”. 

ABC

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