“Stillwater” movie portrays the Amanda Knox case in a not-quite-true fashion

The directors did not reach out to Amanda Knox about the movie

Today's expression: Inspired by
Explore more: Lesson #395
September 2, 2021:

The new movie “Stillwater” stars Matt Damon and Camille Cottin. The movie is inspired by the real-life crime story about Amanda Knox, the American student who was convicted of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. Knox was not consulted about the new movie using her story, and she isn’t pleased. Plus, learn “inspired by.”

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The new movie “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon, was inspired by a true story. But the story the movie tells is far from true.

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and you are listening to Plain English. This is where JR and I help you upgrade your English using current events and trending topics. To get the full Plain English experience, find today’s lesson at PlainEnglish.com/395. That’s also where you’ll get all the resources that accompany this audio lesson.

Coming up today… an award-winning movie starring Matt Damon and Camille Cottin tells the story of an American student who was convicted of murder while studying in Europe. It’s inspired by a real-life story. But the person behind the story is not happy about the portrayal, and I don’t blame her. The expression we’ll review today is “inspired by,” and we have a song of the week. Here we go!

‘Stillwater’ and the perils of not-quite-true crime

In 2007, an American student named Amanda Knox was studying in Italy when her roommate, a British exchange student, was found murdered in their apartment. Amanda was arrested, tried, and convicted in an Italian court. But four years into her prison term, an appeals court completely exonerated her, meaning that she was cleared of all wrongdoing. The court said that there were serious flaws in the police investigation. So, Amanda left prison and returned home to the U.S. That was ten years ago.

The story inspired filmmaker Tom McCarthy, so much so that he created a new movie based on the story. The movie is called “Stillwater,” and it doesn’t pretend to tell the exact story of Amanda Knox. The movie reimagines the student as a character named Allison, who comes from a small town in the rural state of Oklahoma. She goes to Marseille, France, to study. Then, she becomes romantically involved with a local girl her age, who moves into her apartment. The girl is found dead, and Allison goes to jail in France, convicted of the murder.

In the movie, Allison’s father travels from Oklahoma to France to be near his daughter. The father, with very little French and even fewer ethics, investigates the crime himself. I won’t give you any spoilers, but the story centers on the father’s attempt to prove his daughter’s innocence, and the cultural differences between an oil field worker from Oklahoma and the people he encounters while in Marseille.

While telling the father’s story, however, the filmmakers had to discuss the case against Allison, the fictional daughter. There were significant differences between the way they portrayed the case in France against the character Allison and the real-life case against the American student in Italy.

There is one person who is especially unhappy with the way the movie departs from the real-life case, and that person is Amanda Knox herself. Now 34 years old, Amanda said she found out about the movie “Stillwater” the same way most people did: she saw the trailer. And when she saw the movie, she felt the story was a lot closer to the Italian investigators’ allegations against her than it was to the truth — but those allegations were discredited by an appeals court.

Amanda has a right to be angry, but that is probably all she has a right to. As a public figure, she has no legal recourse against the moviemakers. But she wishes the filmmakers or actors had at least consulted her during the production process. And it raises a question about the ethical obligation that creators have when they make a fictional movie that is inspired by a true story.

On the one hand, nobody can make a movie that totally sticks to how real events happened. Movies need dialog, costumes, scenery, action, and movement; it’s impossible to recreate that flawlessly. So, I think everyone recognizes that some creative license is necessary to make any movie entertaining.

At the same time, we have to recognize that for creative professionals, inspiration comes from everywhere. A moviemaker may be inspired by a real event but create a completely fictional story from that initial inspiration. That is what the creators of “Stillwater” say they did. They claim the movie is not pretending to tell the real Amanda Knox story. For example, in real life, she’s from Washington State, not Oklahoma and she went to Italy, not France. In real life, her father didn’t go to Italy and investigate the crime; he didn’t move in with an Italian family and befriend a small girl. The story is obviously a work of fiction.

However, here’s where the dilemma comes in. The moviemakers were not shy about sharing their inspiration for the story. Tom McCarthy, the director, said the story was directly inspired by what happened to Amanda Knox. In promoting the movie, they were trading on the public’s memory of the real case. They were using the name recognition to sell tickets and boost the movie’s profile. But the story they told departed in very important ways from what really happened, ways that made the Allison character look a lot worse in the movie than Amanda appeared during the real investigation and trial.

Knowing what I know about the movie and about the real case, I think the movie producers should have done one of two things. Either they should have kept quiet about their inspiration, or they should have been much more forthcoming about the differences and worked with the person whose story they used as inspiration to ensure the differences were clear. The least they could have done, I think, is to place a phone call to Amanda Knox before using her ordeal in a foreign prison as a means to sell tickets.

See the movie, but know that it’s fiction

I could have made this point a lot stronger if I were willing to give you spoilers, but when I talk about movies, I don’t want to give away the ending. I would recommend that you see the movie because it’s a great film. And the actress Camille Cottin is just amazing in this movie; she plays a theater actress from Marseille that helps the father from Oklahoma. She is really, really good; I just loved her performance.

But as you see this movie, you have to realize that big, big parts of the way Allison is portrayed are just not true about Amanda Knox. And I must admit, I fell victim to the exact thing I talked about in this lesson. Before I went to see the movie, the one thing that stuck in my mind was “This is about Amanda Knox.” And it wasn’t! Okay, it was inspired by her case, but here I am, an American consumer, a moviegoer, and what is the one thing in my mind? The name Amanda Knox! The producers wanted that name in my head as I was deciding whether to see the movie.

So, after I saw the movie, I started seeing these articles about how the real-life Amanda Knox is upset about how the student character was portrayed. And I almost felt it was my responsibility to research the differences so that I don’t go through life thinking that what I saw on screen was what happened…and let me tell you, there are big differences. So go see the movie. It’s a great movie, and Camille Cottin is amazing. But it’s not about Amanda Knox. It’s a made-up story.

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Expression: Inspired by