Even if it is often the result of a clever marketing plan, there is a history of audiences confusing fiction with reality. Orson Welles’ epic radio play, War of the Worlds, reportedly created panic in some New York neighbourhoods so convinced were people that it was live coverage of an actual alien invasion (although many have since argued the reports of hysteria were exaggerated). The documentary style of The Blair Witch Project had many believing that the story was indeed factual and edited from ‘found’ footage.
The Coen brothers stuck to their bluff that Fargo was based on a true story during promotional interviews for the film, so the myth lived on. Certainly if you read the fine print at the end of the film it includes the usual disclaimer that the story bears “no resemblance to anyone living or dead” but that’s just fancy lawyer talk, right? Well, it was 1996 and no one had a smart phone to Google the facts. Turns out the only element of the film’s narrative that is based on real events is the woodchipper scene (you can now visit the woodchipper used in the film, so if you’re ever in North Dakota, be sure to take a selfie).
So why did the Coen’s begin their story with this claim of truth telling? It’s a stylistic choice and it sets up the audience with particular expectations. Some people felt duped when they realised it was an invented yarn, whilst others thought it was clever. It certainly generated some publicity (heck, we’re still talking about it) and inspired some new tales as well. Here are four other stories that all, in some way, originated with the Fargo film.
1. Feature film - Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter
Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is the fictional story of a young Japanese woman who becomes convinced, after watching Fargo and reading the opening text, that she will be able to find the suitcase of cash hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character in the film if she travels to Minnesota. Unlike Fargo, this film was actually inspired by a true story, which had become somewhat of an urban myth. A Japanese woman, Takako Konishi, did travel to Minnesota and tragically froze in the woods, but that might be the only similarity to the film. How her story became linked to the Coen brothers film is also the subject of a documentary, which brings us to…
2. Documentary - Based on a True Story
In 2003, filmmaker Paul Berczeller became interested in the Konishi story and interviewed the police officers who had met with her in Minnesota. Konishi didn’t speak English, but she showed the officers a hand-drawn map and mentioned “Fargo”. The myth grew from there. Check out the documentary here.
3. The, um, other TV series – Fargo
Hot on the heels of the Oscar winning film, a Fargo television pilot was produced in 1997, which more or less picked up where the film left off. Starring Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson (the role made famous by Frances McDormand), it was directed by Kathy Bates. The Coen brothers were not involved. The episode didn’t air until the 2003 series Brilliant But Cancelled featured it as part of a collection of failed TV shows.
4. TV series - Fargo
Then along came Noah Hawley with a re-versioned Fargo in 2014 and this time the Coen brothers were named as Executive Producers. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, the series scooped a whole bag of Emmy’s and Golden Globes. Just like the film, the series also begins with the text “THIS IS A TRUE STORY”. Of course now the cat is out of the bag. Fargo is Fiction (the capital ‘F’ is deliberate) and the opening text pays homage to the 1996 feature film. Presumably Fargo season two will kick off in similar fashion. Hawley has been reported as saying the upcoming season will feature a made-up story that feels "truthy". We don’t have to wait long to see what he’s talking about.
Watch Fargo season 2 Wednesdays 9.30pm on SBS or catch-up online.
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