Snowden: Why Filmmaking Differs from Novel Writing

The Snowden movie is based on many sources, including The Snowden Files by Luke Harding, Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena, and director Oliver Stone’s own research. The two books are non-fiction accounts of Edward Snowden and the events that led to him perpetrating his smuggling and leaking of a large portion of data that demonstrated the NSA’s massive surveillance capabilities on American citizens and the world at large.

Snowden follows not only the events leading up to Snowden’s NSA leak, but also some of the aftermath of the leak as well, with Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) holed up in a Hong Kong hotel being interviewed by Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (documentary filmmaker), and Guardian Washington correspondent Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who help break the story to the world.

When I’ve seen movies based on non-fiction books (or even fiction, for that matter) in the past, I’ve often heard people complain about the details that were left out. One friend even told me that such movies should simply be 100% faithful, event for event re-tellings of the book since the books are usually perfect.

Unfortunately, movies and books are different mediums with different capabilities, audiences, and demands. Since the movie Snowden appears to be heavily based on The Snowden Files, I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at why movies based on books are not (and should not be) completely accurate to their source or reality. (Please note: I will be discussing the film in its entirety, so, spoiler warning).

1. Things the Book has the Film Doesn’t


The Snowden Files is interested in providing the reader with the largest, most accurate picture of Snowden’s whistle blowing. Both the movie and the book start in the same place (Snowden meeting reporters at the hotel in Hong Kong). However, after that, the movie’s story differs from the book in how it unfurls.

The Snowden Files is meant to be comprehensive. It includes much more detail on policy, other nations, backgrounds on people involved, and the fallout of Snowden’s revelation. For example, the book gives the history of STELLAR WIND, the NSA program that intended to collect telephone communications, telephone metadata, internet communications (email, web searches), and internet metadata. The book goes into what happened when The New York Times did a story on STELLAR WIND and how that led to the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) which permitted intercepting communications between foreigners and American citizens. The book also goes into more detail on how Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Apple are being circumvented by the NSA (according to the book, it is in the transfer of data between Europe and America that the NSA managed to hack). The book also includes 50 pages that deal with the aftermath of Snowden’s revelation and its effect on various countries, policies, and individuals. This stretch of pages covers things like the bugging of German chancellor Angela Merkel, US congressman Justin Amash’s proposed amendment to stop the NSA’s bulk collection of American phone records, and the arrest of Greenwald’s partner.

The Snowden movie doesn’t concern itself with this level of detail. The more names, policies, history, and background a movie goes into, the more confused an audience can get and the further the audience gets from the central conflict and drama. The film’s intent is to convey the important details to the audience, which is the extent of data the NSA has access to and what led Snowden to reveal this information.

Some movies have no choice but to use complicated terms. Over the years there have been a variety of ways that movies explain complex things to its audiences, each with varying success. For example, in this scene from The Big Short, the filmmakers put Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain the history and background of subprime mortgages.

I think this is somewhat successful. It probably teaches the audience enough information to get by to the next scene, but when the audience leaves the theatre do they remember Margot Robbie’s lesson about subprime mortgages or do they remember her in a bubble bath?

And therein lies the difference between what the book’s aims and the movie’s. The book wants to educate the reader on the whole world of Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing. The movie simply wants to plot a journey on the world the book attempted to create and move from A to B in dramatic fashion. Succinctly presenting the story is not only more comprehensible to movie audiences, it is also more interesting, which is the movie’s ultimate goal. If a movie does not keep an audience’s interest the audience will walk away from a film unaffected and unchanged.


2. Things the Film has the Book Doesn’t


A lot of the Snowden movie is accurate. It is clear that Oliver Stone went to great lengths to be accurate where he could, going as far as making sure Snowden’s laptop had the correct stickers on it.

There were, however, some creative liberties and inaccuracies with what the film portrayed. But instead of making a comprehensive list of all the differences (like how Snowden didn’t really smuggle data out on a Rubix cube, or that he broke his legs during a training exercise, or that Snowden was collecting the data he stole for a year, rather than amassing it all in one day) I will instead focus on the changes that were made for more dramatic purposes.

(Note: in this section what is reported to be true in real life and what is written in the book are assumed to be one and that same)

In the movie, Snowden completes a five-hour test in 40 minutes. He also creates a program called EpicShelter, which he intends to be used as a data backup for facilities that is instead used to allow drones to target terrorist’s cell phones for missile strikes. Finally, Snowden is assigned the task of thwarting Chinese cyber attacks by the deputy director of the NSA. Not only do none of these events happen in the book, some of them have been discredited by various sources. I think it’s unlikely these events happened exactly as the film portrays. However, I don’t think the film intends for these specific aspects to be interpreted as true, I think they are merely fictions created to better engage the audience and facilitate the plot. By making Snowden seem like a genius, the audience becomes enamoured with him. It also supports Snowden’s quick rise to prominent positions in the film. And these positions are likely the film’s shorthand for explaining how Snowden got access to enough systems to gather the data he stole. It is far more interesting to watch a character rise to power than it is to watch them skulk around in unimportant positions asking people for their passwords in order to steal data (which is purportedly one the of the methods Snowden used to gather data).

Another example of where the movie differed from the book was the scene where Greenwald and the other reporters were talking with Janine Gibson, former online editor of In the movie, Gibson is hesitant about publishing the story. Greenwald has to yell at her and threaten that they’ll publish the story on their own. In reality, Gibson she did not budge or hesitate in dealing with the White House or getting the story published. But changing this slight detail creates more tension for the story because it makes Snowden’s path to getting the information out more tumultuous.


Another detail the Snowden film fudges is the relationship with Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). While Snowden definitely had an ongoing relationship with Mills, she seems far more involved in Snowden’s experience with the NSA than she supposedly was in real life. The relationship is extremely important to the film because it is one of the chief methods used to obtain audience empathy. Most of the audience has a significant other, so by focusing largely on Snowden’s relationship with Lindsay it humanizes him in a way that being a lone wolf would not. We see a lot of the problems Snowden has in the film with NSA spying through his relationship with Mills, whether it is concern over a laptop webcam being able to see him and his girlfriend have sex, or the deputy director investigating Lindsay’s life looking for infidelity. It says to the audience, “I wouldn’t want the government watching me have sex either,” and we immediately empathize with Snowden (whether the relationship in the movie is effective or not).


3. Movietelling


Movies are different from other mediums. Whether it is a movie based on a comic book, a fictional novel, or a non-fiction novel that is based on real events, each medium employs its own specific methods to tell a story. And the way the Snowden movie conveys ideas or feelings are wholly different than the way The Snowden Files does.

Mostly, The Snowden Files wants to provide us information. The movie Snowden wants to be more succinct with that information and deliver it with images that not only inform but also make us feel something.


For example, when Snowden is getting his first glimpse into the NSA’s snooping abilities he sees a woman wearing a burka starting to undress. The tech working beside him jokes, “I always wondered what they looked like under there,” but the camera then leaves the woman zooms into Snowden’s face to show he is shocked and somewhat horrified. Using an image of a woman wearing a burka is clever commentary because it instinctively conveys two betrayals of privacy to the audience; not only are we seeing what is under this woman’s clothes, we are also circumventing her religious beliefs. The tech brags, “with this software the light on the webcam doesn’t even show. People have no idea it’s on.”

We then move to a scene where an exhausted Snowden comes home to his girlfriend, Lindsay. As they begin to have sex, Snowden looks over and sees Lindsay’s laptop open on her desk, aimed at them. We move from a show showing Snowden’s face making a realization, to a shot of the tiny webcam on the top of the laptop, open and unlit. We then get a shot further away, that shows Lindsay and Snowden having sex reflected in multiple mirrors. This imagery helps the audience not only understand how exposed Snowden is, but the mirrors suggest how many different eyes can see them as well.

The movie also has the capacity to convey information in a way the book simply can’t. There is a sequence in the movie that attempts to explain (visually) how the NSA can justify snooping on American based cell phones. The idea is that NSA isn’t just looking at terrorists, but three degrees away from every person that terrorist contacts and three degrees away from all those people as well (like a terrorist’s florist who has and American penpal, would also let the NSA access to all the people that penpal knows as well). The scene shows a digital map of the world with large profile pictures of terrorist faces, then lines connected to smaller profile pictures, and then more lines moving from those smaller profile pictures to even smaller ones, spinning an endless web of connected lines around the world. Finally, these images swirl together into a mix of colours, and as they do, we zoom out of a close-up on Snowden’s eye where those colours fade and we can see his eye clearly. This scene indicates to the audience (visually) that he (and any NSA agent with clearance) is able to see all this information.

Books simply can’t convey information like this.

People look to movies based on books to be faithful, but movies will never be 100% faithful — it’s not their job. A movie’s job is to tell a compelling story, even when those movies are based on real-life events.

Snowden is first and foremost a drama (though not a particularly good one). Would you watch a movie that tried to be a compelling drama and faithful to real life events at the same time? Imagine a Snowden movie where Snowden walks around to twenty colleagues and convinces each of them to give him their login and password (which is supposedly something he did) while getting descriptive montages on FISA court hearings, PRIMISM, the GCHQ, the FSB, TEMPORA, MUSCULAR, and BULLRUN.

You wouldn’t watch a movie like this; it would bore you. It wouldn’t keep your attention long enough to inform you. And then you’d go pick up the book.

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