More often than not, true stories can be infinitely more compelling than anything made up from our minds. Our own history is riddled with twists and turns that would make the likes of Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro’s heads rattle. We, as human beings, are capable of both extraordinary and appalling things, along with everything in between. We, as human beings, are the primary source of inspiration for all the characters you’ve seen on every screen and every page, so far, in both fiction and non-fiction.

The only problem with the latter is that, in order for a story based on true events to work in a film or in a television series, it needs to be compressed, chopped up, and sometimes reassembled into a smaller, digestible package for all viewers to understand and enjoy. Adapting reality to the screen requires adjustments, some more drastic than others, especially if the facts depicted have taken place over the course of months, years, and even decades, or if they involve too many protagonists.

We end up leaving substantial chunks of these true stories on the writers’ room floor as we seek to deliver a compelling but not overly long or confusing account of what happened. Sometimes, such cuts will hurt the narrative, causing great disservice to otherwise extraordinary projects. However, we will not be addressing failures today, but rather successful attempts of bringing realism onto the screen without crippling the events at its foundation.

In certain instances, the screenwriters are blessed with a plethora of real people whom they can then transform into enthralling characters. One noticeable trick is to blend multiple people into one character who represents them and their collective actions which, in turn, gives us the jaw-dropping realism devoid of unnecessary, plot-muddling scenes.


‘The Wire’ and Avon Barksdale

A first example that springs to mind is the notorious drug dealer from ‘The Wire’, which gave us exquisite performances from Dominic West, Idris Elba, Lance Reddick, a very young Michael B. Jordan, and many others. While it is, technically speaking, a fictional drama, it draws its characters and scenes from the real world, and therefore worth discussing.

Created by former Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon, the HBO series ran from 2002 until 2008 with much critical acclaim. ‘The Wire’ offers an in-depth look at the Baltimore drug scene, through the eyes of dealers and law enforcement officials alike, and it sheds a sometimes-shameful light on the so-called war on drugs.

Needless to say, it is one of the best television series produced to this day, and almost all of its main and secondary characters are based on real people, among which is also Martin O’Malley—former Governor of Maryland and the inspiration for Aidan Gillen’s Tommy Carcetti. But while most of these characters were each designed along a specific true profile, Avon Barksdale is one of the few who stands apart by being a composite of multiple individuals. 

According to David Simon, who built most of his journalistic career by forging collaborative ties with informants, dealers, police officers and various other Baltimore officials, he drew his inspiration for Avon Barksdale from several known drug kingpins, the most notable two of which being Melvin Williams and Nathan Barksdale. His last name is an obvious reference to the latter.

Michael Kostroff as Maurice “Maury” Levi, Idris Elba as Stringer Bell & Wood Harris as Avon Barksdale in ‘The Wire’. CREDIT: HBO/HOME BOX OFFICE

Skilfully played by Wood Harris, Avon Barksdale is a key element of the plot in ‘The Wire’. His original sources have turned him into a fearsome but genuinely human character, with faults and fears and weaknesses that resonate with many of us. In the end, we cannot look at this show and simply point our fingers to single out the heroes and the villains. 

It’s hard to imagine what the story would’ve been like, had it been without Avon Barksdale at the helm of his criminal empire, jerking the strings which, in turn, pulled the triggers.

The uncomfortable truth of the Baltimore drug scene, along with its business model, violence, and the struggles of law enforcement due to a clearly faulty legal system—it all shines through. It puts us there with Avon Barksdale, with Stringer Bell, with Detective McNulty and with the peculiarly charming Omar Little, in the midst of it all. We experience all their emotions and challenges with them.


‘I Am the Night’ and Jay Singletary

Another great example of cramming an entire collective into a single person on-screen is Chris Pine’s portrayal of the down-on-his luck journalist who helps Fauna Hodel get closer to the truth about her grandfather, George Hodel, a respected gynaecologist and the prime suspect in the notorious Black Dahlia case.

Directed by Patty Jenkins of ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Monster’ fame, the 2019 TNT miniseries tells a slightly aestheticized but chillingly true story of Fauna Hodel, beautifully portrayed by the arresting India Eisley. ‘I Am the Night’ offers a peek into 1940s Los Angeles, tackling the Black Dahlia murder and the racial turmoil predating the Civil Rights Movement.

Fauna Hodel, daughter of Tamar Hodel, was given up for adoption as a baby. Her father was listed as an ‘unknown Negro’ on the birth certificate, which landed Fauna in an African American family from Reno, Nevada, where she was raised as Patricia Ann Greenwade. The series follows Fauna’s quest for the truth, which eventually leads her to Los Angeles, crossing paths with a disgraced journalist named Jay Singletary. Together, they try to untangle the twisted web of disturbing secrets surrounding Fauna’s grandfather, George Hodel, whose powerful connections lead to tense and often dangerous situations.

India Eisley as Fauna Hodel & Chris Pine as Jay Singletary in ‘I Am the Night’

The dramatization itself is beautiful, grim, and gut-wrenching, as it addresses the murder of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia; the rot festering inside the Hodel family—ripe even with allegations of incest, from which Fauna was said to have been born; the corruption of LAPD officials, and the racism that plagued the United States back in the ‘40s. Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack here.

While most of the story bears truth, Jay Singletary never existed. He’s a combination of all the men at the periphery of Fauna’s account, mainly reporters and detectives who tried to solve the Black Dahlia murder. Patty Jenkins had wanted to tell this story since she’d first heard it from Fauna herself. But her husband, Sam Sheridan and the screenwriter behind the show, struggled with bridging all the disparate pieces of the true events together.

Jay Singletary emerged as the connecting character, and boy, does he deliver! In an interview with GQ, Chris Pine said that he what drew him to this role ‘was playing a character at the highest stakes possible, at 150 miles per hour, for six episodes. No nuance. Just Jay being an absolutely effing maniac.’

Fauna Hodel’s story would not have been the same without Jay Singletary, at least as far as ‘I Am the Night’ is concerned. So far, and despite its creative liberties, it is one of the most in-depth views we’ve had at a vicious murder that rocked America to its core, though mostly through the wide eyes of a confused girl who simply wanted to know where she belonged.


‘Chernobyl’ and Ulana Khomyuk

One of the most highly anticipated dramas of the year is, without a doubt, ‘Chernobyl’. The HBO series offers a complete and astonishing narrative of the events that unfolded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. Shrouded in mystery and coverups for more than three decades, the true story of the manmade disaster is finally told.

Today, Pripyat is an abandoned place where nature has been resuming its course, though still highly radioactive. It is quiet and weirdly charming, though few dare to venture there. In a sense, the ghost of what happened still dwells in its streets and empty buildings, weighing heavily on the shoulders of those who do visit—not to mention the thousands of people who were evacuated in the aftermath of the reactor’s explosion, the families of those who died, and the millions who were affected in the long term.

As a character, Ulana Khomiuk successfully speaks for all the women scientists of that era as a superb merger of different people designed solely for the purpose of bringing the story together.

Craig Mazin, better known for comedies like ‘The Hangover II & III’ and ‘Identity Thief’, wrote the miniseries, and Johan Renck of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Bloodline’ directed it. ‘Chernobyl’ features an immensely talented cast, including Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris, and Emily Watson, and it is Mrs Watson’s character that stands out… because it isn’t real.

Much like with Avon Barksdale and Jay Singletary, Ulana Khomyuk is a patchwork of numerous female scientists and doctors who battled the male-dominated system of the Soviet Union during that era. As it is clearly depicted in the show, women did not have much of a say—not to mention access to scientific fields such as nuclear physics.

Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk in ‘Chernobyl’

Craig Mazin wanted to give a voice to the many women who fought their way through, putting their lives at risk for the sake of truth and knowledge, especially in circumstances such as those of Chernobyl. By creating Ulana Khomiuk, the writer thus offered Emily Watson the opportunity to stun us with her performance. 

Fighting the secrecy, Ulana struggles to find out exactly what caused the nuclear reactor’s explosion and to hold Valery Legasov accountable. In a sense, Watson’s character is going against the entire system of the Soviet Union—’not just the system of government, but also the system of science, which in and of itself, had a certain patriarchy to it and was very interested in protecting itself from its own mistakes’, Mr Mazin once said to TV Talk.

As a character, Ulana Khomiuk successfully speaks for all the women scientists of that era as a superb merger of different people designed solely for the purpose of bringing the story together.

The pattern is quite fascinating to observe, and the examples above are not the only ones, nor will they be, for that matter. There are many stories out there, true stories of darkness and suffering, of danger and heroism, of truth-searching and deceit, just waiting to be told. 

Some of them might be in need of a screenwriter to connect the right dots, to blend different key people into single yet elemental characters that will help drive the film or TV series forward, giving it a complete and marketable form for the screen. If it’s been done so well already with ‘The Wire’, ‘I Am the Night’, and ‘Chernobyl’, it will be done again.