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Secretariat – Fiction within Non-Fiction

January 30, 2011

Loved this movie.  Stand up and cheer kind of stuff.  This is one of those “based on a true story” movies that had to be based in fact or it wouldn’t be believable.  Superhorse, indeed.

And yet…

While everything about the horse was accurate to reality, little else was.  As any screenwriter knows, it is imperative to prune the wild bush of truth into a powerful story; to know what has to stay and what has to go, and what has to be fabricated.

One of the oldest tricks is to take several characters and combine them into one.  So goodbye Lucien’s son, and the Chenery’s first triple-crown hopeful, Riva Ridge (he won the first two races and lost the third; still made a passel of money, though). Penny’s recruitment for a trainer becomes Lucien, instead of his son, who took that first horse to the races, and who implemented the cost-savings initiatives that really saved the family stables.  That would confuse the story, however, and the father was far more colorful than the hardworking son.

Equally important is to realign loyalties and timelines for maximum impact, thus Eddie Sweat becomes the Chenery groom and not Lucien’s.  Ron was approached to ride Riva Ridge, not Secretariat, though, of course, he rode both.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of story is to pare away even good story elements that detract from the story’s spine. Sweat was legendary in his own right, but his placement in this movie had to be downplayed.  The movie was not about Secretariat’s training, despite Lucien’s and Sweat’s presence.  It was about the horse’s dynamic on Penny’s family and “housewife” made hero.  To that end, the shady trainer at the beginning of the movie did not exist, but the scene demonstrated Penny’s bravery at the outset.

Dozens of valid story-lines could be derived from the lives at Meadow Stables; for each, such shaping would be required.  It is always important that movies, even those based on real life, are recognized as stories, not history.

An interesting, and unnecessary, change was Penny’s father.  Confined to a hospital after his wife’s death, he never again set foot on the stable lawns.  In the movie, he haunted the house (figuratively), but nothing in father and daughter’s interactions couldn’t have taken place in the hospital.

Other small changes helped quicken the pace.  Big Red’s first loss was covered, the disqualification in a later race was not.

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