This article by Mike Powell originally appeared on Grantland on 3/18/15. While the piece focuses on two films, it certainly provides food for thought for any novelists who write fact-based fiction, or who work within a ‘this is a true story’ trope.
The new movie ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ tells the story of a Japanese woman on a quest for riches who was lured to the brutal cold of the Midwest by a Coen brothers film. The woman was real, even if the story isn’t entirely true. And it’s been told before, by a documentarian. So where is the line between fact and fiction, and just how strong is it?
n November 2001, an unemployed Japanese travel agent named Takako Konishi was found dead outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Nobody knew Konishi was a travel agent, or what she was doing in Detroit Lakes, only that she was young, pretty, and far from home.
About a week earlier, she had checked into a Holiday Inn in Bismarck, North Dakota. The morning after she arrived in Bismarck, a man had seen her wandering around a landfill and offered help. Konishi didn’t speak English, so the man took her to the police, where Konishi showed officers a crudely drawn map of a tree and a road and started repeating a word that soon everyone came to hear as “Fargo.”
Fargo: A city nearly 200 miles east of Bismarck on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, best known for a 1996 Coen brothers movie in which a car salesman hires two men to kidnap his own wife for ransom. Things go wrong (things always go wrong in Coen brothers films) and one of the men ends up killing the other with an ax after an argument about a 1987 Cutlass Ciera, but not before the ax victim buries the ransom in a briefcase in the snow.
A story about Konishi emerged: Here was a woman who had traveled a very long way under the great misunderstanding that the movie Fargo was real. Only one of the officers at the Bismarck Police Department had seen the movie, which, incidentally, opens with a title card that reads: THIS IS A TRUE STORY.