It’s A True Story, I Swear

A true war story

This is a true story. There aren’t there any good—or bad—movies about the Peloponnesian War. If the battle of Thermopylae warrants a film adaptation, certainly an entire war should have one. What makes me ask? A book I’m reading, Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. It was assigned for class, so I expected it to be as dry as assigned reading about something that happened almost 2,500 years ago usually is. However, I discovered Thucydides’ first-hand account to be filled with tales of treachery, bravery, debauchery, daring, and greed. There’s even a pandemic. Oh, and oiled bodies and naked wrestling. Ancient true-crime-meets-memoir. Perfect Netflix fodder.

BOATS–Based on a True Story

There’s an acronym for a fictional adaptation based on real-life events—BOATS, for “based on a true story.” My failed search for a fictionalized account of the two-decade long showdown between Athens and Sparta made me wonder, what other real-life events would make great BOATS? The Netflix documentary, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, got me thinking that the true scandal that brought down the 165-year-old Knoedler Gallery could be turned into a fascinating, fictional, noir con artist caper.

A Netflix series, Murder Among the Mormons, sent me to my mental list of Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes. The true story of the man who turned to bombing to cover up his forgery inspired the 2004 episode, “The Saint,” starring a young Stephen Colbert as the criminal genius. (Law & Order episodes always start with the disclaimer about the episodes being purely fictional, but, come on, who believes that?) I asked my fellow Missdemeanors, what true story would you like to see fictionalized? Here’s what they said:

Keenan:

Alaska has no dearth of mass murder and serial killings for inspiration but I’m in the mood for something a little lighter. I would like to try my hand at a light-hearted caper based upon the true story of USA v Gerardo Casarez-Valenzuela. He almost got away with it.

Casarez-Valenzuela hatched his plan when he was the cash vault services manager at Key Bank in Anchorage. The day before the heist, he stole $30,000 from the vault to pay for a chartered jet for his getaway. Then on July 29, 2011, he told his boss that he wanted to stay late, alone in the bank, to plan an ice cream social for the customers. Yeah, ok, no problem!

When he knew he had the bank to himself, he went into the vault and loaded $4.3 million cash into three boxes and put them on a cart. He set the vault so it wouldn’t open for six days and then calmy rolled the cartful of booty to the parking lot, where he loaded into his car. Then he drove directly to the airport where the chartered jet was waiting for him. The pilot flew him to Seattle where he met his girlfriend and bought a Ford Fusion, an AK-47, a handgun and ammunition.

From there, they drove to Mexico, planning to hide out at his uncle’s place. They crossed the border in Tijuana, abandoned the Fusion, and bought bus tickets for Sonora. That’s where the plan went astray. The next day, the bus was stopped by Mexican authorities at a checkpoint. The Mexican authorities searched Casarez-Valenzuela’s bag and discovered the stolen loot – all but $500,000.

He served seven years in a Mexican prison and in 2019, was sentenced in Alaska to another ten years.

Me:

That would be the best caper comedy or dramedy (and such a nice change from Israel Keyes and Robert Hansen). Seriously, the boss fell for the ice cream social story? *Insert eye roll*

Emilya:

I’m drawing a blank on a fresh BOATS that hasn’t already been turned into a novel or movie, but my favorite existing one is Mutiny on the Bounty–the Mel Gibson version. I watch it every time it’s on or get it from the library when it’s not. I became so fascinated with the story that I downloaded Captain Bligh’s actual diary (which in itself is a marvel of modern technology) and gulped it down, read everything I could get my hands on about the story–Bligh’s biography, Christian Fletcher’s biography, historical accounts, fictionalized accounts. And then I kept researching Pitcairn Island until I found out that out of the 34 people who live there, one is a novelist named Nadine Christian who writes romance set on, what else, Pitcairn.

The Bounty story is endlessly fascinating to me, not least because the very brilliant, but obviously socially challenged Captain Bligh inspired not one, not two, but three separate rebellions. He wasn’t even that mean or sadistic but, actually, a deeply decent person incapable of understanding human behavior, as you can see if you read his diary.

Okay… I’ll crawl back out of that rabbit hole. Thanks for playing…

Tracee:

I’ve contemplated writing a novel based on a real person, although more accurately, persons. So . . . it really becomes fiction with some real people woven in.

Now, for something truly based on real events . . . I recommend The 12th Man, which I saw on Netflix this winter. It is based on the true story of Norwegian resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud who is the lone survivor when the Nazis blow up the boat he is on. If you read the description of the story it sounds like most war thrillers: escapes by hiding and swimming a fjord, receiving assistance from locals, and undergoing severe physical trials. This is a case of seriously underselling the reality. My husband and I had to watch it in short segments because the hardships are hard, and it was the middle of a pandemic and we could only take so much. (I recognize the irony of this.)

It is clear from the opening of the film, which is told in flashback, that Baalsrud survives and continues to train resistance workers for the war effort. Guaranteed happy ending, right? When you are in the middle of his ordeal it doesn’t seem possible (and I confess to googling him to make sure). The movie also focuses on the efforts of the locals to assist him, and which are in line with Baalsrud’s own statements. The details of cat and mouse game with the Nazis veers toward fiction as a necessary film device, but the reality of the threat from them is true.

Baalsrud’s story reinforces my belief that no one knows how they will react when faced with circumstances of true hardship. Sure, he could have drowned or frozen, but ultimately his survival was due to sheer will power. And like the depths of the mind, we cannot know the strength of our desire to live unless tested. If you watch the film, and then compare it to the reality of the events, you will realize that only so much can be conveyed on screen. The climax of the film is literally amazing (in reality and cinematographically, truly a filmmaker’s dream) and the entire story is worth watching. After all, if he lived it, I can surely pay tribute by watching from the comfort of my living room.

As an aside, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays a particularly evil Nazi. My husband is a fluent German speaker and I had to listen to a bit of a lecture on authentic accents . . . but Rhys-Meyers does convey the unhinged evil the character required.

Connie:

Tracee, I love this idea. I have a Norwegian great-uncle who died in the Norwegian Resistance. They were very brave and even today many Norwegians have never quite forgiven the Swedes for not coming to their rescue or joining in the fight. Have you read We Die Alone by David Howarth? About that time.

Tracee:

That is the book (or one of them) that The 12th Man is based on!

Emilya:

You had me at Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. That should have been in the first sentence ;-). Definitely putting this on my list.

Susan:

I’m fascinated by the Romanov family and the Russian revolution. There’s been a lot written about it, but my favorite book on that topic is Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. Reading that book staggered me. Made me realize how exciting history could be. But I can imagine a novel about someone who was a minor figure in that court, who somehow survived the Revolution and wound up in Paris. Or Brooklyn. With a secret letter that tells where some of the lost jewels are.

Connie:

I’m fascinated by Sissi, Empress Elizabeth of Austria. She was born into the Wittelsbach family of Austria and married Emperor Franz Josef I at the age of sixteen. She was known for her beauty, especially her hair which was so long (thigh-length) and thick that she complained of headaches associated with the braids and pins she had to wear. Hairdressing took two hours daily, accomplished by her hairdresser who was required to wear white gloves and present to her every fallen hair for inspection. She slept wrapped in cloths soaked in violet-vinegar to preserve her famously tiny waist. At 5’ 8” she weighed no more than 110 pounds her whole life. She was so vain, after reaching the age of 32, she forbids photographs and portraits. She died at the age of 60 after being stabbed with a thin stiletto. Because of her tight corsets, she didn’t know she’d been stabbed until it was too late to save her. What I’m fascinated by is the focus on the outside of a person without thought for the inside. She was intelligent, well educated, but she seemed trapped by the public image she presented.

The psychology of Sissi’s life would make a fabulous story. There was an Austrian film about her starring Romy Schneider. Thinking about this makes me want to see it.

Michele:

I’d actually write a story about the most difficult case I encountered as a domestic relations lawyer. It’s the story of a father I represented whose child was born to a woman married to another man. He had to face two trials in a different state, fight a formidable and corrupt adoption agency, and battle lawyers who cared more about their fees than the child at stake. When he was finally allowed to “visit” his child, he had to do so anonymously as a “friend.” The connection between them was so strong, the child, unsolicited, asked him if he was her father. The judge on the case had more compassion and courage than any other I ever appeared before. In the end, the child was placed with her father. I hope they lived happily ever after.

Tracee:

That’s a very compelling story, and one that perhaps often doesn’t end as happily.

Me:

Did he run up against laws dating from the pre-DNA era that hold the husband to be the presumptive father? Science and technology have revolutionized family relations. (Forensic genealogy, anyone?) I guess it takes a (long) while for the legal system to recalibrate.

Michele:

 He did. There was a presumption that a child born of a marriage is the issue of the husband and wife. Fortunately, by then it was a rebuttable presumption. Hence the two trials.

Tracee:

I’m reminded of the disclaimer (warning) affixed to “ancestry” based DNA testing. The “don’t blame us if you aren’t related to who you think you are” warning.

Me:

Apparently, a lot of white supremacists were furious to find out that they weren’t as lily-white as they thought they were. They directed their anger at the DNA testing companies.

Michele:

My husband learned his mother had claimed to be of German heritage rather than disclose she came from a Polish family. They lived in a city where the Polish were the most recent immigrants and looked down upon. Fortunately, he could laugh about it.

Keenan:

I did a putative father case once a long time ago before DNA. Mother had told two separate men they were the father and was taking money from both of them. She ended up marrying one. My guy was the one she didn’t pick. The judge denied his claim.

With DNA, I think that would change everything, but I quit doing domestics a long time ago. Frankly, I’d go to work at Lowe’s before I took another domestic case.

Me:

Hmm, the tale of a former domestic relations lawyer who gave up law for the less-stressful life of an associate at a big-box DIY store only to be drawn back into the legal arena when she comes across a distressed man in the doorknob aisle, looking for the best lock to keep his former domestic partner from breaking in and planting evidence to make him look like an unfit parent. It has possibilities…

Your turn

What about you, readers? What real-life story would you like to see fictionalized on page or screen? Maybe a story inspired by a weird fact? History? The odd guy who lives down the street? The woman three doors down who only leaves the house on Thursdays? Let us know here, or join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

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