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November 12, 2021

How To Write A Biopic

If you're getting bogged down thinking about what to write, you might consider a biopic. The biopic - or biographical motion picture - is one of the most straightforward films to plot in terms and structure. It's often a clear as the hero's journey.

But you need to make many other practical considerations, from securing the rights to any book on which the film is based to historical research and moral questions about balancing truth and accuracy with an exciting and dramatic plot.

What is a Biopic?

What is a biopic? A biopic is a film that tells the story of someone's life, a character study. The film can be an accurate, embellished or partially fictionalized account.

Biopics of famous people are standard, but biopics can also depict the lives of ordinary people whose achievements are not widely known.

They are often based on a property - a bestselling biography or autobiography. But this is not a requirement.

Since biopics are based partly on real-life, they require some historical research and knowledge of the subject. Savvy viewers or those familiar with the subject and biopic genre conventions will feel cheated if too many vital details are missing or the film feels sloppy.

Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom - The Political Biopic

One of the best biopic examples is Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, based on the former South African President's own 1994 autobiography. This is a political biopic.

Political biopics dramatize the real-life struggles of political or heroic figures and thus humanize their achievements. They help educate as well as entertain.

Biopics based on autobiographies don't attempt to give us a rounded view of what happened; they aim to convey the point of view of the person whose story we are telling.

This is a criticism that historian Dr. Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer in world history at King's College London, leveled at Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, in an interview with BBC History magazine:

"...the film was mainly based on Nelson Mandela's autobiography. So, yes, it clearly depicted Mandela's understanding of the apartheid years. Or, at least, what he wanted to let us know. As the film is not based on Mandela's life but on Mandela's own words, criticism leveled at Mandela's autobiography can also be directed at the film."

Key scenes rouse us and help us see Mandela as a hero who risked his life for the struggle against apartheid, including his "prepared to die" speech. He stated his willingness to face the death penalty at his trial for sabotage and organizing against the Apartheid regime.

We also see the triumphs of Mandela. He is released from prison, and we also see him sworn in as president.  

The key to writing a good biopic is not necessarily to write a balanced script but one that conveys the point of view of the subject; we must understand their motives and how events played out for them.

The Personal As Political - Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is another political film that takes us into the heart of a character who changed the course of history, Winston Churchill.

Once again, we see his point of view from his accession to power in 1940 until the start of the Blitz, which helps us understand the history of Britain in World War II through his lens. The conflict of the film is both internal and external.

Darkest Hour tells the story of British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He faced some tough decisions in the face of overwhelming parliamentary consensus for Britain to make peace with Hitler in 1940.
Winston Churchill.


Churchill, faced with Germany's continuing invasion of Europe and no assistance from the United States, is conflicted about whether to fight on even in the face of seemingly impossible odds or to negotiate a peace with Germany as parliament and his rival Lord Halifax prefers, to prevent extensive loss of life.

We, as viewers, know how Churchill's plans will turn out if we decide to continue fighting because we have the benefit of hindsight. The mark of an excellent historical film is that it places us at that moment and makes us realize that the decisions he took - which might seem obvious to us - were not as straightforward at the time.

If you are writing a biopic of a historical figure, consider the relationship between history and your character. What does this character say about contemporary opinions? Think also about what it says about the time in which you are writing.

Top tip: Try not to research too heavily before you've put pen to paper. You may feel tempted to try and squeeze in every last detail you can. This can be jarring to the reader. If you're not sure of a particular historical fact, write a note for yourself, and you can always research this yourself later.

Adaptations of Memoirs - Lion

Biopics don't necessarily have to be based on heroic or political figures. These might be harder to write since so much has already been written about these characters before.

Instead, you can find a person who has an extraordinary story that would interest a broad audience. How do you determine what makes an exceptional story?

Like stories, a biopic must have a strong enough conflict and enough twists and turns for it to be interesting to the reader. With the rise of self-publishing and social media, many people now promote their own stories, but there might not be enough commercial interest in such biographies. They might think they are interesting, but they aren't. How do you get around this?

First of all, you can choose a story to adapt with a gripping enough conflict and hook. Lion, starring Dev Patel, and based on the autobiography of Saroo Brinkley, A Long Way Home is a great example. It tells the story of five-year-old Saroo from an impoverished village in rural India who is separated from his mother at age 5, getting lost on a random train.

 Lion tells the life story of Australian-raised Saroo Brinkley, who goes in search of his lost birth mother after being separated from her as a child.


Unable to correctly remember the name of his village, he is finally taken into care in India before being adopted by an Australian family. Years later, by the power of the internet, he manages to track down his long-lost family.

The story has a gripping hook, a likable main character, and a great climax and resolution.

Alternatively, you can choose the life story of someone and embellish it, adding in extra twists and turns and, if necessary, changing some of the names. Remember, though, simply changing the names of characters in an existing book doesn't give you license to use it purchasing the rights.

Property and Copyright Issues

If you are basing your biopic on a book - either self-published or published - then you must enter into negotiations for the book's rights before you start writing your script. Otherwise, it could be a wasted effort, and another writer or company could turn the book into a script before you.

Traditionally published authors usually grant their book's film and TV rights to their agent, not their publisher, who can negotiate a deal on their behalf. Self-published authors generally retain these rights themselves.

If the book has been successful - a New York Times bestseller, for instance - these rights could be valuable, and you could face stiff competition to secure them. It would be unlikely to succeed if you have no previous background in scriptwriting and no established relationship with the author or agent.

With a less successful book, you may struggle to find a TV or film executive willing to take on your script when you pitch it. This is because the book - and therefore the story - has not been proven to be commercially viable. There's a greater risk for them there.

Remember that agents and writers don't usually sell the rights to their works to a screenwriter or production company. Instead, they give the production company or the writer an 'option' for a fixed period.

This is where the writer or agency rents out the rights for a fixed non-refundable fee. Production goals and financing goals are usually attached as a condition of the lease period continuing. If the production company, for instance, doesn't get the green light for the film or doesn't reach the production stage within a year, then the rights revert to the agent or the writer.

Consider these issues carefully before you embark on turning a book into a biopic. Make sure turning the biography into a film is a viable option before you part with your cash or your time.

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How To Write A Biopic
Harry Cunningham

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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