Here’s a movie ethics question: If you’re a screenwriter creating a script based on a real person’s personal tragedy, how much responsibility do you have to accurately tell their story? Is it insulting to completely reshape the events that transpired in order to tell a “better story” than what actually happened to this person? And what if the thing you’re erasing is the death of someone’s fiance?
That’s what the new film Adrift is doing to the story of two real people, Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Richard Sharp. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the film casts itself as a combination of romantic drama and survival story—basically Robert Redford’s All is Lost, if his wife was also present in the same boat. Watch the trailer below, and then we’ll get into how this film is diverging from the reality of what actually happened.
Here’s how the studio describes this story:
Starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin, ADRIFT is based on the inspiring true story of two free spirits whose chance encounter leads them first to love, and then to the adventure of a lifetime. As the two avid sailors set out on a journey across the ocean, Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) couldn’t anticipate they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins. With no hope for rescue, Tami must find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved. ADRIFT is the unforgettable story about the resilience of the human spirit and the transcendent power of love.
Here’s the only problem: In the REAL version of this supposedly “inspiring true story,” Richard Sharp was killed in the hurricane. As detailed in this Chicago Tribune story that interviews sole survivor Tami Oldham, Sharp sent Oldham below decks to rest as the couple battled with a massive hurricane. While below, the ship capsized and Oldham was knocked unconscious. When she woke up, Sharp was nowhere to be found, having been ripped off the surface of the deck by waves and wind so strong that they broke his safety harness. The real Tami Oldham had to mourn the death of her fiance without ever saying goodbye, then had to survive for another 41 days aboard a damaged ship, navigating manually by sextant and eating peanut butter, until she landed in Hilo, Hawaii, some 1,500 miles away.
In the film, meanwhile, Richard Sharp is clearly not lost during the hurricane—instead he’s merely injured and immobilized, forcing Oldham (played by Woodley) to take control of their journey back to civilization. Thus, a real-world tale of persistence in the face of grief is turned into … a Hollywood-friendly romance about a woman working hard to bring her man back to safety. Nice and sanitized, thank you very much.
Of course, Oldham presumably signed off on this project, given that it’s an adaptation of her book about the ordeal—large checks have a way of making people say “sure, whatever” about such things. But look at this response from her Chicago Tribune interview, and the idea of changing the story in such a way doesn’t exactly seem like an intellectually honest idea.
Q. What was the hardest part of your ordeal?
A. Definitely the hardest part was dealing with Richard being gone. There were times I didn’t even want to live anymore because I didn’t know how I was going to go on. I was never going to fall in love again.
But sure, whatever, make it a love story about this couple finding their way home. We didn’t want the real story anyway. Looking forward to the ending where they’re both sipping mai tais on the beach.
Unless of course … the early mention in the trailer of “hallucinations” means that Woodley spends 41 days talking to a phantom fiance with broken legs and ribs. Is that better or worse than the other option?
Either way, Adrift is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on June 1, 2018.