James Franco in 127 Hours (l) and Aron Ralston (r)

It’s been said many times before — heck, I’ve said it more times than I could count — that truth is stranger than fiction. But that doesn’t mean that fiction can’t sometimes trump truth.

Take, for example, the retelling of Aron Ralston’s (pictured, far right) true-life story of falling in a canyon in Utah and getting his arm stuck under a boulder and then cutting off the offending arm. As you probably know, it is the basis for the Oscar nominated 127 Hours.

I wrote a story for The Hollywood Reporter (sorry, it’s behind a pay wall) about the making of the film, and I was intrigued to find out that behind the highly produced, expertly directed (by Danny Boyle) Oscar contender, there is a documentary that never was.

You see, it was Ralston’s intention to make a documentary of his experience from the get-go. Even when he was in his hospital bed in 2003, he received a note from producer of hybrid-doc, Touching the Void, John Smithson. He wasn’t quite ready to give a greenlight then, but after seeing Void, Ralston became fixated in creating a documentary that could retell his experience as factually accurate as possible.

A couple years passed, and Boyle approached him with his idea of making a fictional retelling, but Ralston rejected the idea: “There was a gulf,” Ralston told me. “I was wanting something very specific and it was not what Danny wanted.”

But, as the years passed, Ralston and Smithson were unable to get their doc off the ground. They went to several “Oscar caliber” doc directors, but “we were falling short,” Ralston said.

Realizing that his vision might not make it to screen, and having recently seen Boyle’s success with Slumdog Millionaire, Ralston changed his mind.

Now that it’s done and a success, Ralston says he doesn’t regret letting go of his vision of a documentary. He says that Boyle’s movie, which stars James Franco as Ralston, “was 98 per cent accurate,” and that it “captures the essence” of his experience.

I loved this movie. 127 Hours may not be a documentary, but it’s not your standard by-the-numbers puffery either. It’s a visceral ride, a creative spin on a harrowing experience. It uses the best of artifice (acting, lighting, writing, music and the rest of it) to draw the best out of a real world event. As Ralston said, “It’s as close to virtual reality as is technologically possible. It’s as close to a documentary as a drama film could be.”

Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen