Is Out of Africa a True Story?

Directed by Sydney Pollack (‘Tootsie’), ‘Out of Africa’ (1985) is an epic period romance drama film that deals with themes like the search for self, loss, cultural differences, love, and individual freedom. Predominantly set in British East Africa (roughly present-day Kenya) in the early part of the 20th century, the film follows Baroness Karen von Blixen (Meryl Streep), who comes to the eponymous continent after her engagement of convenience to Baron Bror von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and finds her self-worth and purpose there.

She falls in love with big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), but his fiercely independent and self-sustaining approach to life ultimately leads to their separation. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, the film won 7. Pollack won two of them, for Best Picture and Best Director. If the film’s detailed depiction of life in colonial Africa has made you wonder whether it is based on actual events, we got you covered.

Is Out of Africa Based on a True Story?

Yes, ‘Out of Africa’ is based on a true story. The 1937 autobiographical work of the same name by Isak Dinesen (Karen’s penname) serves as the primary source of inspiration for the film. It also borrows materials from ‘Shadows on the Grass’ — another book written by Dinesen that was published in 1960 — and her other writings, Judith Thurman’s 1992 book ‘Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Story Teller;’ and Errol Trzebinski’s 1977 book ‘Silence Will Speak.’

‘Out of Africa’ is not a completely faithful cinematic adaptation of the original book. Several parts of Karen’s story didn’t make it to the film, including an incident with a swarm of locusts. The filmmakers also omitted much of what she wrote about the German Army. Furthermore, Karen’s property in the film is quite smaller than what it was in real life.

Karen von Blixen was born Karen Dinesen in a Danish noble family on April 17, 1885, the daughter of Wilhelm Dinesen, a writer and army officer. She became engaged to Blixen in 1912 and relocated to British East Africa in December 1913. Their wedding took place on January 14, 1914, in Mombasa. As the film correctly depicts, Karen’s relationship with Blixen was less than perfect. Blixen was terrible with money and often cheated on his wife. The film shows that he even gave her syphilis. The real-life Karen seemed to have believed this as well and wrote about it to her brother Thomas. However, evidence found later reportedly showed heavy metal poisoning as the likely reason for her issues. As the film depicts, they ultimately divorced. The coffee plantation they set up also eventually turned out to be an unsuccessful venture.

Image Credit: Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler

While depicting the romance between Karen and Denys, the filmmakers employed certain creative liberties. For instance, their first meeting took place at the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi and not in the plains as the film depicts. The film also doesn’t show that Karen and Denys’ intimacy resulted in her pregnancy at least once and that she had miscarriages, if certain reports are to be believed.

During production, Pollack told Redford to use his natural American accent rather than a British one, even though when the latter joined the cast, he fully intended to use a British accent. ‘Out of Africa’ had several members of the Kikuyu tribe as part of the cast. Some of them, including the grandson of chief Kinyanjui, portrayed their direct ancestors in the film.

Image Credit: Karen Blixen Museum

The film correctly depicts that Denys adamantly refused to be tied down. Following Karen’s separation from Blixen, she began a passionate relationship with Denys. In one of her letters to her brother, she describes herself to be “bound” to Denys and loving “the ground he walks upon.” However, their relationship was ultimately unbalanced. While she became more and more dependant on him, he began asserting his independence.

A few months after Denys’ death in the biplane accident on May 14, 1931, Karen went back to Denmark and spent the rest of her life in her family’s manor house of Rungstedlund. She became a celebrated author, publishing books, including ‘Out of Africa,’ under the penname Isak Dinesen. Karen Blixen passed away on September 7, 1962. She was 77 years old at the time. She was one of the contenders for the Nobel Prize for Literature at least once in her career. Evidently, ‘Out of Africa’ is based on a true story and depicts what happened about 100 years ago.

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