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Will Netflix Back Off From Real-Life Stories?

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Will Netflix Back Off From Real-Life Stories?

By Movieguide® Contributor

Netflix is facing another defamation lawsuit as it continues to grapple with the intricacies of creating content based on true stories. 

“As Netflix confronts a torrent of defamation lawsuits, a steadily growing body of case law is chipping away at legal protections once thought to provide sweeping cover for dramatizations,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote, pointing to suits brought against shows like WHEN THEY SEE US, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT and BABY REINDEER. 

The latest lawsuit concerns a character in BABY REINDEER, a show about a man who is being stalked by a woman named Martha. The series, penned by comedian Richard Gadd, is based on events that happened in his real life. 

After combing through social media posts, fans of the show soon found who they believe the character of Martha was based on, a woman named Fiona Harvey. She is now suing Netflix and Gadd.

“The lies that Defendants told about Harvey to over 50 million people worldwide include that Harvey is a twice-convicted stalker who was sentenced to five years in prison, and that Harvey sexually assaulted Gadd,” her suit reads. “Defendants told these lies, and never stopped, because it was a better story than the truth, and better stories made money.”

The lawsuit continues, “As a result of Defendants’ lies, malfeasance and utterly reckless misconduct, Harvey’s life had been ruined. Simply, Netflix and Gadd destroyed her reputation, her character and her life.”

Movieguide® previously reported on a lawsuit concerning THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT:

Netflix’s critically acclaimed series about chess, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, became a surprise hit nationwide. It took home two Golden Globes and earned 18 Emmy nominations.

However, Soviet-era chess grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili sued Netflix over some of the show’s dialogue. While the series is fictional, it makes many references to real-life chess players. Gaprindashvili made a defamation claim due to a line in the series finale that she called “grossly sexist and belittling.”

“The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex, and even that’s not unique in Russia,” an announcer tells the audience of the show’s titular character, Beth Harmon. “There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”

Gaprindashvili, who is now 80, was the first female to earn the Grandmaster title and competed against many men throughout her career.

The lawsuit said that Gaprindashvili had “competed against at least 59 male chess players (28 of them simultaneously in one game), including at least ten Grandmasters of that time,” and that the comment was a “devastating falsehood, undermining and degrading her accomplishments before an audience of many millions.”

“Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of ‘heightening the drama’ by making it appear that its fictional hero had managed to do what no other woman, including Gaprindashvili, had done,” the suit continues. “Thus, in a story that was supposed to inspire women by showing a young woman competing with men at the highest levels of world chess, Netflix humiliated the one real woman trail blazer who had actually faced and defeated men on the world stage in the same era.”

Lisa Callif, a lawyer who handles financing, production and legal clearance for productions, explained that there is a “difficult dynamic” between creatives and their real-life subjects and warned against “embellishing things, like adding negative attributes or enhancing negative depictions.”

Zelda Perkins, a producer on THE CROWN, is familiar with walking the line between fact and fiction when making content about real people and events. THE CROWN came under fire for the way they portrayed certain events that featured real members of the British royal family. 

Perkins stressed that these are “work[s] of fiction based on facts” but admitted that the process of fact-checking scripts based on historical events is “clearly inadequate” in the “slight Wild West-type attitude that there is in the creative industry.”

A concession the streamer made towards unhappy parties? Adding a disclaimer to episodes of THE CROWN and WHEN THEY SEE US that emphasize that they are works of fiction. 

THE CROWN’s disclaimer reads, “Inspired by real events, this fictional dramatization tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II and the political and personal events that shaped her reign.”

Netflix typically fights lawsuits brought against them, but The Hollywood Reporter hypothesized that that practice might come to an end due to increased insurance premiums. 

“Not only have premiums on such projects shot up — in some instances by as much as 250 percent in the past decade — but deductibles for some high-risk showrunners and writers can reach $250,000, according to lawyers at legal clearance houses for productions,” the outlet reported


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