We’ve all heard movies described as “based on a true story” but what does that actually mean? I’m always surprised by the fact that some people seem to equate this to watching a documentary. Sure, some movies stick close to the source material but even the most faithful adaptations make changes to the story. And of course there are some movies that alter so much that any similarities to the actual events seem to be accidental.
Movie vs Reality: 127 Hours
By Felix Quinonez Jr.
May 22, 2012
In each entry of this column I’m going to be looking at a different movie “based on a true story” or whatever phrasing is attached to it and compare it to the actual story. Hopefully I’ll be able to separate fact from Hollywood. But I’m also going to be talking about what those changes mean and why they were made. Do the changes have some artistic merit or are they just attempts to make the story fit into a neat Hollywood package?
With this column, I will be looking at 127 Hours (2010), directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco. The movie is based on Aron Ralston’s infamous 2003 accident. While hiking through Blue John Canyon, on April 26, 2003, Ralston became trapped in a slot canyon. He was stuck there for five days before he had to cut off his own right hand to escape.
127 Hours was released on November 5, 2010 and was nominated for six Oscars. The movie also received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It sits at 93% at Rotten Tomatoes. 127 Hours is one of those movies that is actually very faithful to the story it’s based on. But let’s move on.
What the Movie Got Right
Before the Accident:
This is understandably the shortest part of the movie, since the story doesn’t really begin until Aron gets trapped. The film begins with Aron planning a trip to Utah for the weekend. Because he is a loner, Aron doesn’t tell anybody about where he is heading. As we all know; this is a decision that will come back to haunt him.
While exploring the mountains, Aron spots a couple of girls who seem to be lost. He approaches them and helps them find what they are looking for.
Aron was descending into a slot canyon when a suspended boulder was dislodged. The rock fell and landed on his arm, crushing his right hand. He was pinned against the canyon wall. At first he’s stunned by the situation he is suddenly in. But Aron’s amusement is short lived as he quickly realizes the seriousness of his predicament and begins cursing very angrily as he tries to force the boulder to budge.
After screaming for awhile, he hurriedly drinks his water but even in this moment, Aron is able to think logically and realizes that the water is the only thing he has that will keep him alive. Because of this, he decides to drink it very sparingly.
When he regains his composure, Aron takes a quick inventory of everything he has in his possession. Unfortunately, he has left his phone in the car. His next step of action is to try to chip away at the rock with a knife. He does this for about two days but slowly realizes the futility of his efforts. His hand actually had been supporting the boulder, so the more he chips away, the more the rock settles.
On the third day, Aron devises a plan to try to pull the boulder off his arm. He cleverly rigs a system of pulleys with climbing clips and his ropes. Unfortunately, this plan fails because climbing rope is stretchy, preventing him from obtaining enough tension to move the rock. In between attempts to free himself, Aron also uses his video camera to document his ordeal.
Aside from the fact that he was stuck, Aron also had to deal with the extreme temperatures. At night it would get very cold and during the day, because of his location, he would only get a very short amount of sunlight.
Eventually Aron had to face the possibility that the only way out would be to cut off his trapped hand. He devises a tourniquet and makes some superficial cuts, but realizes the blade he has is too dull to cut through his flesh.
The longer Aron is trapped, the more we see him rubbing his heart. His blood had thickened a lot because the boulder prevented it from fully circulating. Aron was actually on the verge of a heart attack.
It was on the fourth day that he finally accepted that he wasn’t going to be found and he realizes that the only way to get out would be to cut off his right hand. He began by stabbing his arm with the knife. Unfortunately, to cut off his hand, Aron would have to cut through bone and his dull blade would not be able to do this. Having run out of water, the next day he had to drink his own urine which he had saved in his camelback hydration pack.
Certain that he will die there Aron records a final message for his family with his video camera. He also etches his name, birth date, what he thought would be the date of his death and RIP on the side of the mountain. But in the morning he has a vision of himself with a young boy. He took this to be a vision of him and his future son. This gave Aron the determination to finally free himself.
Although he still couldn’t cut through his bone, he worked around this by forcing his arm against the boulder. This broke his bones and allowed him to cut through the tissue. After enduring through the grueling experience of cutting his own arm off, Aron is finally free. Once the initial shock wears off, Aron wraps his arm in a plastic bag and uses his backpack to cover his arm. He snaps a picture of where he was trapped and goes on his way.
After the Accident:
After making it out of the canyon, Aron begins his trek back to his car. On his way back, he spots a Dutch couple with their son. Aron calls out to them and explains his situation. They give Aron water and walk with him, but Aron asks the wife and the son to run ahead as the husband stays with him. When the Dutch man suggests that they rest Aron declines and states that he has to keep going. He only rests when the sand in his eyes becomes too annoying and he sits on the ground. At this point a rescue helicopter arrives and Aron is rescued.
Afterwards, Aron makes a full recovery and meets his wife three years later. Eventually, his premonition about his son comes true as they have a kid in 2010.
What the Movie Got Wrong
Before the Accident:
Like I mentioned before, 127 Hours was very faithful to Ralston’s story but even so, there are a few discrepancies. It is true that Aron did run into a couple of lost girls before his accident. But Boyle decides to enliven their encounter a bit. In the movie, Aron and the girls have themselves a mini adventure. The three of them go hiking and take a dip in a beautiful blue water hole located in the canyon. They have a great time and both of the girls seem to be interested in Aron. When they are about to go their separate ways, they even invite Aron to a party.
But their real encounter was not nearly as exciting and basically involved Aron showing the girls their destination on a map. The blue lagoon they take a dip in is not even located in the Blue John Canyon.
Once Aron is stuck in the canyon, the movie is tasked with the chore of keeping things exciting for the viewer even though the protagonist - and only person present - can’t even move. Because of this, Boyle tried to focus on the conflict and emotions going on in Aron’s head.
As mentioned before, Aron’s encounter with the girls was not nearly as captivating as what 127 Hours depicts. But the movie decides to come back to the fabricated adventure Aron and the girls shared. At one point in the movie Aron has a very detailed hallucination about the party the girls invited him to. Later on when he is feeling particularly lonely, Aron views the tape they made in the lagoon. But since he didn’t actually go for a dip in the lagoon with the girls, he certainly didn’t have any footage of it to watch. And he wouldn’t have had such a vivid hallucination about a party he didn’t know about.
One of the most entertaining scenes in the movie happens as Aron is becoming more unhinged. He hallucinates that he is on a game show documenting his situation. He plays the host, guest, and callers. Unfortunately, as Boyle himself admitted, this was completely fabricated.
Then there is the ex-girlfriend that the movie frames as “the one that got away.” Throughout his ordeal, Aron keeps flashing back to various stages of their relationship, realizing what a mistake he had made. At one point Aron actually imagines that he not only escapes but is reunited with his ex girlfriend. The fact is that Aron said he didn’t actually think about her while he was trapped in canyon.
After The Accident:
Although it’s not made explicitly clear, the movie seems to suggest that the rescue helicopter spotted Ralston by chance. In reality, Aron’s coworker became worried when Aron didn’t show up for work and notified the authorities. Aron’s mom found out that her son was missing when his boss called her. One of Aron’s friends helped her hack into Aron’s email account to look for clues regarding his whereabouts. Unfortunately this was unsuccessful and it was because Aron had used a credit card to buy groceries in Utah that the authorities began searching for him there.
The helicopter pilot eventually saw the Dutch woman and her son who had gone ahead while the husband stayed back with Aron. When Aron was finally rescued he was within a mile of his truck.
When the person the movie is based on describes it as “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama,” it’s safe to say the director has done a good job. And Danny Boyle certainly did a great job not only telling Aron’s story but immersing the viewer in the canyon with Aron. Everything from his attention to detail to the way it is shot helps make 127 Hours a great film.
But as I mentioned before, there are some fabricated moments in the movie. And as great as the movie is, it almost feels like Boyle was too worried about losing the interest of his audience. In fact, the adventure that Aron has with the girls in the movie almost seems apologetic. It’s as if Boyle admits that not much will happen in the movie, so he threw in that bit to keeps audiences excited. In the movie, Aron’s flashbacks to his ex-girlfriend seem like an attempt to add a bit of a romantic element that audiences love.
In the end, those alterations do very little to alter the story and they do actually make the movie more entertaining. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t let these very small details discourage you from checking it out. 127 Hours is a very powerful and moving film. It might be one person's tale of survival but thanks to the powerful direction of Danny Boyle and the Oscar worthy performance of James Franco it feels like we are going through this ordeal alongside Aron. When He is finally found by other climbers a rush of relief and euphoria rushes over the viewer as if we are being rescued, too.
Next Time: Rudy