The film and the show begin with the claim that what is about to unfold is a "true story" - but is it?
By
Gavin Scott

23 May 2017 - 3:34 PM  UPDATED 17 Sep 2020 - 8:55 AM

NEW SEASON FARGO: FROM 8 OCTOBER ON SBS AND ON DEMAND

In 1996, we were led to believe the Coen brothers’ breakthrough film, Fargo, was “a true story”. Furthermore, the title card that preceded the action declared, “The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

And we bought it. Rather than asking Jeeves (this was 1996 after all) whether the film about a bungled kidnap/extortion attempt was actually based on real events, the assertion went mostly unchallenged. Each season of the spin-off TV adaptation has made the same declaration – that the action depicted is a true story. Fact or falsehood?

During the promotion for Fargo, Joel Coen told Premiere, “We wanted to try something based on a real story, and tell it in a way that was very pared down." He even went so far as to say that the events depicted onscreen were “pretty close” to what had actually happened.

Turns out, it was all press tour spin. In the introduction to the published screenplay, brother Ethan gave the game away when he wrote that the film “pretends to be true”. Just last year, he commented, "We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don't have to have a true story to make a true story movie."

Even so, Fargo did take inspiration from two real-life events. One, a General Motors Finance Corporation employee who committed fraud by playing around with serial numbers, as we see Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) do. The other was the murder of Helle Crafts, a Connecticut woman whose husband killed her and disposed of her body by putting it in a wood chipper. “Beyond that, the story is made up,” Joel told the Huffington Post.

 

Back in 2001, the story of Japanese woman Takako Konishi spread around the world. The suggestion was that she’d died while trying to locate the suitcase of cash seen buried by Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo. Her body was found in a snowy field near Detroit Lakes, Minnesotan and locals – who could only understand one word she said: “Fargo” – assumed she’d taken the “true story” claim literally. Two filmmakers even made a movie about it: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (above).

Documentary This Is a True Story gave a different account. Realising there’d been a miscommunication, filmmaker Paul Berczeller dug a little deeper and discovered Konishi had fallen into depression after being fired from her job in Tokyo and had returned to the Midwest, a place she’d visited with her American lover, a married businessman. Her death was ruled a suicide.

 

All three seasons of the TV version of Fargo have come with a similar “true story” assertion, but like many aspects of the series, its use is purely to maintain the feel of the original movie. Series creator Noah Hawley has revealed, “It's all just made up. The whole cloth. I didn't go looking for true crime. It started from a character standpoint and everything grew organically out of that.”

Instead, he has relied on “stranger than fiction” details to flesh out the images that have inspired each season – images that, according to Hawley, have come to him while he’s taken naps. The third season was inspired by a dream he had during production for season two. "I fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and I saw this image of two brothers, both played by the same actor,” he says. “They were arguing over a stamp. I woke up thinking: OK… what happens next?"

 

Fargo  seasons 1 - 3 are available to watch at SBS On Demand until 16 December 2020:

 

All-new Fargo starts 8 October  

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
You don't have to watch the past 3 seasons of 'Fargo' (but you really should)
The stories are separate but with one crucial thing in common: the outstanding, award-winning talent of the Coen brothers.
The new 'Fargo' examines 'what it means to be an American,' says creator
"It’s never been more relevant," says Noah Hawley of season four, which sees two rival gangs battling for control in Kansas City.
Who’s who in the all-new ‘Fargo’
This franchise has never been short on talent and its fourth season firmly continues that trend.
Everything you need to know before you watch the all-new ‘Fargo’
It all began with the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning crime comedy – but plenty has happened in this franchise over the past 24 years.
Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman lead a star-studded cast in all new ‘Fargo’
From acclaimed creator and executive producer Noah Hawley, the fourth season of Emmy® and Golden Globe® award-winning ‘Fargo’ premieres with a double episode at 8:30pm, Thursday 8 October on SBS and at SBS On Demand.

If it's small town intrigue you're after, check out Fortitude at SBS On Demand.

First episode available here:

 

More on the Guide
Hoo-ee – season three of 'Fargo' is a hit with critics
Noah Hawley’s third visit to the Coen Brothers-inspired universe is getting rave reviews.
The best casting decisions in 'Fargo'
A pre-wood chipper Steve Buscemi, sketch comedy favourites and scene-stealing wild cards: 'Fargo' has them all.
10 times 'Fargo' went beyond black comedy
The sense of humour in 'Fargo' isn’t so much dark as pitch-black. With season three on the horizon, we look back at the points where the series pushed its comedy to the limit.