Roman à Clef
The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent.A fictional account of Real Life events, loaded with Captain Ersatzes of real people. These are often autobiographical or Ripped from the Headlines. These differ from Inspired By and Very Loosely Based on a True Story in that the story is not dramatized, merely retold with different proper nouns. Historically, many of these have been great success merely from people in high society buying them to figure out if they are one of the characters. The name is pronounced "Ro-mahn ah clay." It's French for, roughly, "novel with a key" (read: decoder ring). As seen here on The Other Wiki, sometimes the key to who the names were supposed to be would be published and in circulation. It has nothing at all to do with unusual Italian musical notation or Dr. Alto Clef. This literary technique also runs the risk of provoking the Streisand Effect. Compare Very Loosely Based on a True Story, Biopic, Docudrama, Anonymous Ringer, Historical-Domain Character. See also Spell My Name with a Blank.
open/close all folders
Anime & Manga
- The Film of the Book Z, mentioned below. During the opening credits, the text "Toute ressemblance avec des évènements réels, des personnes mortes ou vivantes n'est pas le fait du hasard" appears on the screen. The English translation: "Any similarity to actual events or persons, living or dead, is NOT accidental."
- Citizen Kane blends the line between mockumentary and this trope, as the character of Charles Foster Kane is loosely based on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst did not take to the similarities kindly. Probably to keep Hearst from suing him, there is a line in the beginning of the film where one of the men who is making the documentary about the late Mr. Kane asks what makes him different from other famous newspaper magnates like Pulitzer, or Hearst. Mentioning Hearst as someone other than Kane meant lawyers could plausibly argue the character wasn't the real person. Legalities might also be part of the reason Kane buys his ingenue an opera house, as opposed to the movie studio Hearst purchased for Marion Davies. In Real Life, millionaire Samuel Insull built the Chicago Civic Opera House in order to feature his less-than-talented wife; if Hearst had sued Welles, RKO or Herman Mankiewicz, they could have claimed that the film was based on Insull as much as anyone else.
- The intro of The Great Dictator references this.
- The Three Stooges shorts that knock at Nazi Germany. "Any resemblance to real persons or events is a crying shame."
- Primary Colors was a famous one. The novel it was based on was a thinly disguised portrait of the 1992 Democratic nomination race.
- Velvet Goldmine. Interesting in that it is two Roman a clef put together: that of David Bowie/the emergent glam rock scene as well as Citizen Kane (a Roman a clef itself), with bits of Oscar Wilde thrown in.
- Fargo pretends to be this, with text at the beginning of the film announcing that everything portrayed in the film really happened, with only the names of characters changed, out of respect for the dead. This is, of course, completely false; the film is entirely fictional. Apparently, the Coen Brothers added this to the film to make audiences suspend disbelief.
- Almost Famous is a fictionalized autobiography of writer-director Cameron Crowe's teenage years as a writer for Rolling Stone, with the sort-of Fake Band Stillwater as expy of numerous bands he had encounters with in The '70s. (The band Stillwater existed IRL, just not with the songs played during the movie.)
- Dog Day Afternoon was based off of a real 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery and keeps many details true to Real Life.
- The plane crash at the start of Final Destination is obviously based on TWA 800. It's same plane, same route, same cause, same group of students going to Paris; Roger Ebert criticized this as being a bit tasteless.
- David Fincher's 2007 film Zodiac, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graysmith. The movie uses the real names of all the people involved, and is thus actually truer to real life than the book, which used pseudonyms at the time.
- My Favorite Year: Alan Swann is loosely based on Errol Flynn.
- Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz; which also functions as an exercise in Self-Deprecation.
- The Red Shoes (1948) overlays the Faust legend on the life of the infamous ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, despite claiming that "any similarity to real-life persons or events is completely accidental." The movie turns one of Diaghilev's real-life lovers into a woman but removes the sexual tension, so Boris Lermontov (the film's version of the impresario) still comes across as a diabolical homosexual.
- The members of Monty Python had to invoke this when critics of their Biblical satire Monty Pythons Life Of Brian accused them of making fun of Jesus, even though Jesus and Brian are two separate characters.
- Parodied in the faux disclaimer at the start of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
"The following is based on actual events. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed."
- Bombshell features Jean Harlow as Lola Burns, in a satirical take on the life of Clara Bow. Lola wants to get married and retire to the desert, which Bow did in Real Life.
- The original Scarface is largely inspired by the life of Al Capone, but with plenty of fictional elements put in as well.
- Badlands is a fictionalized version of the Charles Starkweather murders. Most of the changes serve to make Kit and Holly less monstrous than their Real Life counterparts. The real Starkweather didn't just kill Fugate's father, he killed her mother, stepfather, and two-year-old baby sister. The real Starkweather didn't let that rich guy in the fancy house live, but instead killed him, his wife, and the maid. Fugate mutilated the corpse of the young woman who died with her boyfriend in the storm cellar. At his trial, Starkweather claimed that Fugate killed two of the victims attributed to him (the young woman in the storm cellar, and the rich man's wife).
- The Vassilis Vassilikos novel Z writes about the assassination of a left-wing politician. That it is a Roman A Clef is made particularly clear in The Film of the Book, above.
- Several of Melville's first novels - Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket, for example - are essentially factual accounts of his experiences.
- Many Hunter S. Thompson books - for example, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - are novelizations for events in his life, with the names of he and his lawyer friend changed to aliases. This almost certainly helped avoid implicating himself in several felonies he somehow got away with.
- Some notable examples from Dutch literature:
- Max Havelaar, Eduard Douwes Dekker's famous account of his (failed) struggle to improve the lot of the Javanese under Dutch colonial rule.
- Onder professoren ('Among Professors') by Willem Frederik Hermans. It mocks some of the many enemies Hermans made while he was a lecturer at the University of Groningen.
- Het Bureau ('The Office', 'The Department') by J.J. Voskuil. Essentially a Sitcom in printed form, based on Voskuil's own experiences at the Department of Dialectology, Ethnology and Onomastics, a research institute funded by the Dutch government. The series consists of seven volumes and has five thousand pages in total.
- H.D.'s novel Asphodel contains a depiction of the literary world she moved in, with thinly-veiled portraits of such writers as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and D.H. Lawrence.
- News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez is a novelized version of the kidnappings of reporters and other media personnel by Colombia's Medellin Cartel.
- There is also evidence that Chronicle of a Death Foretold was very inspired in a real case from the fifties, with enough similarities left under the name and circumstances changes that one of the surviving characters sued the writer for benefits. García Marquez used to be a journalist for trade, so several of his novels have some degree of this in the guise of Historical In Jokes.
- Heart of Darkness is a stab at Henry Morton Stanley.
- The Chilean book King Acab's Party.
- Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point
- Joyce Carol Oates is very fond of fictionalizing real cases of murder and violent death, sometimes sticking very close to actual events but going inside the minds of the people involved, sometimes departing much farther. Some examples (there are more) include My Sister My Love (Jon Benet Ramsey), Zombie (Jeffrey Dahmer), Black Water (the Chapaquiddick scandal), "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (Charles Schmid), "Dear Husband" (Andrea Yates), and "Landfill" (John Fiocco).
- The Dear America series, which is in diary format. Usually it will recreate things that happened in history, only on a smaller scale and before the actual event happens.
- Although Proust denied it, In Search Of Lost Time is rife with barely hidden Captain Ersatzes of his contemporaries, such as Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac.
- Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is based off of her childhood as well as the Scottsboro Trials.
- Elie Weisel's Night is generally labeled a novel, although it is an account of his experiences
- Grave of the Fireflies, which was based on the author's childhood during and after World War II, except in this case, his Author Avatar, Seita, dies with his sister, Setsuko. The author had blamed himself for the death of his sister from malnutrition and had written the novel as a way to make amends to her.
- Island of the Blue Dolphins, which tells the story of the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island."
- Primary Colors, which used Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign as inspiration.
- Edgar Allan Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" was in fact an account of the real-life murder of Mary Rogers, written and published while the crime was still in the newspapers and unsolved. In it Poe's detective Dupin learns of the crime solely from newspaper reports and presents his theory of how it was committed - which in fact is exactly what Poe himself did in writing the story.
- In 1962, Kerry Wendell Thornley wrote a novel called The Idle Warriors about a strange young man he had met while in the United States Marine Corps. That young man's name? Lee Harvey Oswald.
- The vast majority of Jack Kerouac's novels are simply retellings of things that happened to him and the other Beat writers, with the names changed (and some parts taken out, as the first draft of On The Road reveals). On The Road and Visions of Cody focus on his best friend Neal Cassady, The Dharma Bums is about his adventures with Gary Snyder, And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks (written with William S. Burroughs) was about a mutual friend who murdered a lover, and so forth. It became so well-known that the publisher insisted he use different character names in each book to prevent legal trouble for anyone involved, but they can still be decoded easily.
- Compulsion, based on the Leopold & Loeb murder case, investigation, and trial. Told partially in first person - author Meyer Levin was a fraternity brother of Loeb's, though Leopold didn't remember him when Levin visited him in prison.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is often called a roman à clef. However, in this case the "key" is not that it's based on specific people, but that it's about homosexuality.
- Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks which is, for all intents and purposes, the history of his family (with the author himself being Thomas Buddenbrook's son Hanno).
- The first novel of Chilean writer Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits, is essentially a name-and-some-details-changed version of the history of her country and her family. This isn't the only novel of hers where she did that: The Infinite Plan is in the middle between this trope and Very Loosely Based on a True Story on regards the life of her second husband; and while the plot and characters of Eva Luna are original, the setting and backgrounds events are so heavily inspired by the then-recent history of Venezuela (the country Allende was living when writing the book) isn't even funny.
- This trope is also played in a very meta way in Eva Luna: the soap opera Eva ends writing turns out to be the very book we're reading (which, by the way, is mostly her autobiography and the biography of her love interests), and her transsexual actress friend ends interpreting herself and her transition to great success and acclaim.
- Dave Peltzer's autiobiographical trilogy did this.
- Les Liaisons dangereuses was popularly thought to be one of these. Several keys circulated around ancien regime France. Since several of the characters aren't very nice people, part of that was simple slander (though for what it's worth, the novelist Stendhal claimed that he had met the woman who inspired Mme de Merteuil when he was a child and she was an old, old lady.)
- The Hamiltons in East of Eden are based on John Steinbeck's own relatives, without even changing their names. Events drawn from Steinbeck's own boyhood are interspersed among main plot points concerning between the Trasks and Hamiltons.
- Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here is a weird mix of reportage and total madness. The stuff about a family of Canadian Jewish bootleggers who got rich during Prohibition and then became philanthropists? Based very, very closely on the real-life Bronfman family. The stuff with the Franklin expedition's secretly Jewish doctor and sole survivor, the faked death in a plane crash, the mystic ravens? Not so much.
- The Making Of The Goodies Disaster Movie inverted this, revolving around a totally fake story but starring real people without names changed. The back of the book did a Dragnet-parodying disclaimer: "The story you're about to hear is true. Only the facts have been changed, to make it more interesting."
- University don Dr Malcolm Bradbury was also a literary novelist. The only one of his books that got anywhere near "best seller" status was The History Man, a thinly autobiographical account where a Marty Stu character stalks the campus of what in the 1970's would have been a "new" university. Marty Stu is young, hip, intellectual, loved by the students - reciprocated more often than is wise in the case of his female undergrads, a man who communicates History and English Lit in an exciting and fresh and unstuffy way. Naturally his less intellectually gifted, stuffier and priggish colleagues grow jealous and attempt to stifle the new and exciting talent in their midst, but Professor Marty Stu thwarts them at every turn. The book is a VERY thin disguise of the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and some of its teaching staff - characters who can so easily be identified by anyone who was around UEA in the time period 1970-86. In fact, the BBC got to film part of their TV adaptation at UEA....
- George Mac Donald Fraser's McAuslan series of books, thinly disguised slices of the author's service in the Gordon Highlanders between 1946 - 48. Real people, including "Colonel J.F.G. Gordon" have been identified in the books, as have some of the events described.
- Darkness at Noon borders on this: Rubashov is obviously a fictional character, though the author's note explains that his life is "a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials." The novel bears the stamp of this genre most definitely in its refusal to name countries, though their identities are utterly obvious.
- HHHH (Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich) is this in spades, and the novelist Laurent Binet does interrupt the novel in between for a small paragraph where he states he is not sure how exactly things went he's just trying to paint a pretty picture of how it could've gone. He doesn't know what train someone took or if anybody else was in the coupé, but he does know he took a train. Several Urban Legends are invoked when he literally states he's using something based on Word of Mouth.
- Many Harold Robbins novels qualify, most notably The Carpetbaggers (inspired, in part, by Howard Hughes) and Where Love Has Gone (based on the Lana Turner/Joey Stompanato scandal).
- La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils is based on the tragically short life of the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis, whom Dumas had an affair with. The Author Avatar is the transparently named Armand Duval.
- The Fixer by Bernard Malamud is based on the blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis, going so far as to lift a good number of passages from Beilis's memoir The Story of My Sufferings.
- Junky, or depending on the version Junkie, by William S. Burroughs is essentially an account of his life as a drug addict and dealer, but with the names changed, though he didn't much bother with his own, changing it to William Lee, which he also used as an author pseudonym for this book.
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an account of James Joyce's life up to the point where he left Ireland in self-imposed exile. Joyce changed the names, using some of those of real people for characters that don't stand in for them, and shuffled around some of the scenes, but reading My Brother's Keeper, a memoir by Stanislaus Joyce about how it had been like to grow up with James Joyce is like reading A Portrait all over again.
- Browns Pine Ridge Stories: The names of individuals who were still alive at the time of its publishing in May 2014 were changed or omitted altogether.
- The Sun Also Rises is a classic example, with Ernest Hemingway basing all the characters on people in his literary circle.
- Many police procedurals, starting with the archetypal Dragnet. Other examples include some of Jack Webb's other series, such as Adam-12, although that often drifts into Very Loosely Based territory.
- Modern-day procedurals often keep the criminal's real name (if convicted). Which makes for a crappy protection as simply googling the murderer's name will reveal the real name of his victims.
- Hilariously enough, TV Guide once quoted (during the run of the short-lived reboot series) a producer from Dragnet as saying that he told the writers to just make a story up, and chances were that something like it happened somewhere.
- Something similar happened on one of Webb's own productions, Project UFO (with cases drawn from the U.S. Air Force's "Project Blue Book" reports), according to series star Edward Winter:
Winter: As I understand the story, the Air Force finally got tired of looking at us, because they said "Anything your writers can dream up, we can find...There are over 12,000 cases in the Blue Book report." So instead of finding it first and then writing about it, they let the writers write it and then they go find one like it!
- McGee in NCIS writes books falling into this trope.
- It's widely implied that Temperance Brennan in Bones does this, too.
- On Barney Miller, Harris's book Blood on the Badge was based on his experiences as a NY cop. He got all his colleagues to sign waivers (or whatever it's called, to allow their likenesses in the book), but he didn't bother with an Ambulance Chaser that he had occasional dealings with and who was in the book. When the lawyer found out about the book he sued Harris for defamation (or something) and bankrupted him.
- Absolutely Fabulous
- The Voyager episode "Author Author" deconstructs this by having the Doctor create a Roman à Clef holo-novel with himself as the hero and thinly-disguised versions of his shipmates as the villains.
- Entourage is based on Mark Walberg's metoric rise to fame and notoriety.
- Generation Kill uses this on occasion; while most of the protagonist Marines are known by their actual names, a couple of the less-competent officers are referred to only by their nicknames. Captain America, Kasey Kasem, and Encino Man are probably the best examples (they were never named in the original book either, in a specific attempt by the author to avoid having them be targets later).
- The characters of Ron and Mark on Parks and Recreation are loosely based on real people whom the creators met while researching the show. Notably, the person who inspired Ron was a woman, if you can imagine (like Ron, she was a Libertarian who didn't believe in the mission of her own job).
- The 50's sci-fi show One Step Beyond was allegedly this. In many cases the veracity of the strange plots of the episodes can actually be confirmed.
- The BBC adaptation of novelist/university lecturer Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man (see above).
- Again, Dragnet.
- The Goon Show had an episode, "The Whistling Spy Enigma" with Peter Sellers, that did a Dragnet-parodying intro:
"The crimes you are about to hear have all been specially committed for this program."
- The popular character of Bluebottle note began with a really eccentric and physically odd-looking Scoutmaster who Michael Bentine encountered in London. Discovering the scoutmaster had a truly unique voice, Bentine grabbed his friend Peter Sellers by the arm and said "You have got to meet this man!" After the encounter, Bentine said to Sellers "Look. I can't do that voice. You can. There's your Bluebottle!" The rest became radio history. Even when invited to a Goon Show recording, the life-model for the character still did not twig who Bluebottle was based on, and complimented Sellers on creating such a funny character who could not possibly exist in real life.
- The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is widely believed to be essentially autobiographical.
- The Musical Louisiana Purchase opens with a lawyer writing to the producer and writers of the show, telling them their story is too close to Real Life, and people will know whom they're alluding to even though they've changed the names. But there is an easy way out: change the setting to a mythical state which can even "still be Louisiana," and it will then be OK as fiction.
- Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui tells of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler up to the Night of the Long Knives, but tells it through the setting of a Mob War in 1930s Chicago. Quoting from The Other Wiki: "All the characters and groups in the play had direct counterparts in real life, with Ui representing Hitler, his henchman Ernesto Roma representing Ernst Röhm, Dogsborough representing Paul von Hindenburg (a pun on the German Hund and Burg), Emanuele Giri representing Göring, the Cauliflower Trust representing the Prussian Junkers, the fate of the town of Cicero standing for the Anschluss in Austria and so on."
- Cyrano de Bergerac: A strange case of a subverted Roman à Clef where the names did not change combined with a Very Loosely Based on a True Story: According to this wiki about the play:
"Everything that happens in the play actually occurred in Cyrano’s life except what many now remember about the story: his unrequited love for Roxane."
- Max Frisch's play Andorra is quite obviously not set in Andorra, but rather in another small mountainous country, namely Frisch's homeland Switzerland.
- Kanadehon Chūshingura is a puppet show (later adapted to Kabuki) that tells the tale of The Forty Seven Ronin. Due to the Shogunate's censorship laws, however, the names are changed and it is nominally set in the Sengoku Jidai, instead of the Edo period.
- Inherit the Wind, a dramatization of the Scopes Monkey Trial with names changed and some dramatic liberties taken (in particular, Matthew Brady dying at the end of the trial, whereas William Jennings Bryan didn't die until five days after).
- Discussed in The Moon Is Blue: Patty once had an affair with a writer, and months after breaking up with him was shocked to read a short story in The New Yorker written by him telling what was identical to the story of their break-up except for the names.
- Long Days Journey Into Night is based more or less on episodes from Eugene O'Neill's own youth. O'Neill deliberately refused to allow the play to be published or produced until after his death, probably out of worry that he would be too closely identified with the play's protagonist, Edmund Tyrone. (O'Neill had a brother named Edmund who died in infancy, like Edmund Tyrone's brother Eugene.)