A docudrama (or documentary drama) is a genre of radio and television programming, feature film, and staged theatre, which features dramatized re-enactments of actual events. On stage, it is sometimes known as documentary theatre.
In the core elements of its story a docudrama strives to adhere to known historical facts, while allowing a greater or lesser degree of dramatic license in peripheral details, and where there are gaps in the historical record. Dialogue may include the actual words of real-life people, as recorded in historical documents. Docudrama producers sometimes choose to film their reconstructed events in the actual locations in which the historical events occurred.
A docudrama, in which historical fidelity is the keynote, is generally distinguished from a film merely "based on true events", a term which implies a greater degree of dramatic license; and from the concept of "historical drama", a broader category which may also encompass entirely fictionalized action taking place in historical settings or against the backdrop of historical events.
As a portmanteau, docudrama is sometimes confused with docufiction. However, unlike docufiction—which is essentially a documentary filmed in real time, incorporating some fictional elements—docudrama is filmed at a time subsequent to the events portrayed.
Docudramas tend to demonstrate some or most of several major characteristics.
This genre represents actual historical events and the story is based on what actually happened. Docudramas producers use of literary and narrative techniques to flesh out the bare facts of an event in history to tell a story. Some degree of license is often taken with minor historical facts for the sake of enhancing the drama.
Docudramas are distinct from historical fiction, in which the historical setting is a mere backdrop for a plot involving fictional characters.
The impulse to incorporate historical material into literary texts has been an intermittent feature of literature in the west since its earliest days. Aristotle's theory of art is based on the use of putatively historical events and characters. Especially after the development of modern mass-produced literature, there have been genres that relied on history or then-current events for material. English Renaissance drama, for example, developed subgenres specifically devoted to dramatizing recent murders and notorious cases of witchcraft.
However, docudrama as a separate category belongs to the second half of the twentieth century. After World War II, Louis de Rochemont, creator of The March of Time, became a producer at 20th Century Fox. There he brought the newsreel aesthetic to films, producing a series of movies based upon real events using a realistic style that became known as semidocumentary. The films (The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang, 13 Rue Madeleine) were widely imitated, and the style soon became used even for completely-fictional stories, such as The Naked City. Perhaps the most significant of the semidocumentary films was He Walked by Night, based upon serial killer Erwin Walker. Jack Webb had a supporting role in the movie and struck up a friendship with the LAPD consultant, Sergeant Marty Wynn. The film and his relationship with Wynn inspired Webb to create what became one of the most famous docudramas in history: Dragnet.
The influence of New Journalism tended to create a license for authors to treat with literary techniques material that might in an earlier age have been approached in a purely journalistic way. Both Truman Capote and Norman Mailer were influenced by this movement, and Capote's In Cold Blood is arguably the most famous example of the genre.
Some docudrama examples for American television include Brian's Song (1971), and Roots (1977). Brian's Song is the biography of Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears football player who died at a young age after battling cancer. Roots depicts the life of a slave and his family.
This list is ordered by release date.