When you think of the cinematic cliché of films “based on a true story,” you probably go straight to the usual suspects: biopics, and historical dramas starring worthy heroes accomplishing great deeds, not unlike Netflix's new Obama movie Barry.
But actually, many of the most famous movies that were based on true stories are ones you’d have overlooked for being far too WTF-inducing to possibly have been based on reality.
Think: horror movies, B-movies and, well, the most famous film about cannibalism ever made. These movies serve as singularly entertaining proof that real life is far stranger than fiction.
What's often weighed up as one of Martin Scorsese's best movies was too good to be made up. New Yorker Henry Hill's life and times between 1955 and 1970 as a mobster had already been documented in Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family and the non-fiction book's writer Nicholas Pileggi was on-board to co-write the screenplay with Scorsese. That's right, the Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy airport, in which Hill stole $6 million, actually happened.
And it wasn’t just the big scenes that were true: according to Men's Journal even the way Jimmy Conway pours out his ketchup in the dinner scene with Joe Pesci's mother "spinning it rather than pounding" is based on a conversation De Niro and Henry Hill had about Conway's condiment habits.
The Exorcist (1973)
Director: William Friedkin
The notorious 1973 horror film was adapted from a novel based on a true event. The novel of the same name took inspiration from the 1949 exorcism case of a boy (not a girl, as in the film) who the Church diagnosed as being possessed by the devil and had assigned multiple priests to try and solve this. Roland Doe (the pseudonym the Church assigned him) was an only child who lived in Maryland and who was particularly close to his Aunt Harriet, who taught him how to use a ouija board. After Aunt Harriet passed away from "natural causes," Doe began to try and use the ouija board to attempt to contact her. Things got pretty weird shortly after: the family reported strange squeaking noises, moving furniture in their house and as the days passed, these noises grew in intensity.
Doe's bed would shake with him in it and he was covered with cuts and bruises without being able to cite any reason for where he got them. The priests who treated Doe kept a detailed diary about this time which was later collected and published by Thomas B. Allen as Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Based on the real-life exploits of confidence-man Frank Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can, like Goodfellas, is based on a non-fiction book about the trickster, who famously assumed multiple identities when he was still a teenager to dupe his victims out of millions of dollars. However, we should take the narration with a pinch of salt. Abagnale himself says of the book: "I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story.”
The Blob (1958)
Director: Irvin Yeaworth
The 1958 B-movie has an unlikely source of inspiration: a 1950 Philadelphia police report. According to newspapers at the time, on September 26 two officers saw a parachute descending from the sky. When they went to investigate, they found...something difficult to put into words. Different accounts give us different details: "The four officers stood a few feet from the object, turned on their flashlights and it gave off a purplish glow, almost a mist that looked like it contained crystals." When the officer went to touch it "the mass on which he laid his hands dissolved, leaving nothing but a slight, odorless sticky residue." Further police and FBI were called but after 25 minutes the blob had dissolved.
War Dogs (2016)
Director: Todd Phillips
In this 2016 film, two Miami-based, twenty-something stoners find themselves with an exciting new career: international arms trafficking, specifically supplying the US army based in Afghanistan with weapons. The beauty of this unlikely scenario is that it's based on fact: Efraim Diveroli (played by Jonah Hill in the film) and David Packouz (played by Miles Teller) used a government loophole which allowed for bidding on US Military contracts online to get what constituted a lottery win for a first time arms dealer: a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to equip American allies in Afghanistan. The fact that the US government would award such a lucrative contract to a 22-year-old with a criminal record (Efraim Diveroli) seems the stuff unlikely Hollywood films are made of. But no, this was actually true.
Director: Steven Spielberg
It's widely believed the film was based on the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks in which four people were killed and one injured, partially thanks to a 2001 New York Times article that made the claim. However, the author of the novel which Jaws was based on, Peter Benchley, has denied this (though it's worth noting the 1916 attacks are mentioned in his novel). No, according to Benchley, his novel was based on an incident he had read about in a newspaper: a 4,500 pound great white shark which was captured by shark hunter Frank Mundus in 1964.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
DiCaprio played the charismatic, amoral stockbroker Jordan Belfort who set up the Stratton Oakmont brokerage and penny stock boiler room in Long Island as part of a stock market scam and was involved in over $1 billion in stock issues. Belfort's story was so colorful that it had already inspired the 2000 film Boiler Room.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he emphasised that if anything, the film had understated his life's excess rather than exaggerated it: "The drug use and the stuff with the hookers and the sales assistants and the sex in the office and the stuff with my wife: that stuff is really, really accurate. In some respects, my life was even worse than that. Although I'd say I did more quaaludes than cocaine."
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
If you're thinking there’s no way a film about a psychopathic killer who murders teens in their sleep could be true, think again. Wes Craven told Vulture in an in-depth interview he came up with the idea for Nightmare On Elm Street after reading "an article in the L.A. Times about a family whose young son was having very disturbing nightmares. He told his parents he was afraid that if he slept, the thing chasing him would get him, so he tried to stay awake for days at a time. When he finally fell asleep, his parents thought this crisis was over. Then they heard screams in the middle of the night. By the time they got to him, he was dead. He died in the middle of a nightmare. Here was a youngster having a vision of a horror that everyone older was denying. That became the central line of Nightmare on Elm Street." Terrifying. Never sleeping again.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Director: Wes Craven
But Nightmare wasn't the only time Wes Craven took inspiration from life for his horror movies. In 1977, he made city-dwellers afraid to hit the desert in The Hills Have Eyes, which centered on a family doing a road trip from Ohio to L.A. who crash off a desert road. They find themselves being pursued by a family of psychotic cannibals.
So far, so far out, but according to writer/director Craven, the story was inspired by that of Alexander "Sawney" Bean, who according to legend, left his home in Scotland and took his wife to live in a cave where he raised a family of multiple children and grandchildren, all the product of incest. His family would attack travellers under the cover of darkness and eat them. Craven took this story and transported it to modern day America.
Director: Rob Marshall
The Prohibition-era musical was based on the play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins about actual crimes she reported on. According to the book The Girls Of Murder City: Fame, Lust and The Beautiful Killers That Inspire Chicago, Dallas Watkins reported on the 1924 trials of two women who were being charged with murder: bookkeeper at a laundromat Beulah Annan (who became Roxie Hart in the musical) and cabaret singer Belva Gaertner (the real life counterpart for Velma Kelly). Gaertner was accused of shooting Walter Law while “prettiest woman slayer” Annan was accused of the murder of her lover Harry Kalstedt. As you can imagine, Dallas Watkins' columns on the subject were wildly popular — but not quite as popular as their subjects, who both went on to be acquitted.
50 First Dates (2004)
Director: Peter Segal
50 First Dates has a classically Adam Sander-movie wacky premise: after a car accident, Lucy Whitmore (Drew Barrymore) wakes up every day with no recollection of recent memories, instead thinking it's the day of the accident, leading to no end of contrived comedy fun.
However, this is actually based on a true story: Michelle Philpots is a real woman with anterograde amnesia which, like Whitmore, she contracted following a car accident. Like Whitmore, she wakes up every day thinking it's the day of the accident in 1994. Philpott uses a system of Post Its to get through daily life
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski was formerly a journalist, which explains how, according to NPR, he first heard about single mother Christine Collins (played by Angelina Jolie) from one of his old contacts at City Hall who directed him to her story in the archives.
Changeling tells the story of a mother whose 9-year-old son disappears in 1928. Roughly five months later, the LAPD announce they've found someone matching the description of her son in Illinois and to great press fanfare they attempt to reunite mother and son, but there's just one problem: he's not the right boy. When Collins tells the police this, the LAPD suggest she's just being hysterical and tell her to bring him home and “try him out for a couple of weeks.” She returned to the police station three weeks later with dental records in hand but they refused to believe her. The police captain Capt. Jones was afraid that Collins would expose the police as liars and as a result had her committed to an insane asylum.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Director: Rob Reiner
Because who needs fiction when you've got the brutal reality of military life? This Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson-fronted 1992 legal drama was inspired by the screenwriter's sister's experiences. Aaron Sorkin's sister was a JAG corps officer who had defended a group of marines who had almost murdered a fellow marine. When a hazing got out of hand, PFC William Alvarado almost died as a consequence and had to be rushed to a hospital.
One of the men involved in the hazing was PFC David Cox, whose experiences were broadly similar to those of the film's character PFC Louden Downey. When Cox went to see the movie, he took offence and together with the other soldiers involved in the case, brought a legal case against the production company. In January 1994, Cox disappeared. A few months later his body was found on the banks of a river in Massachusetts and he had been shot execution style, while wearing his Marine Corps jacket which he never wore.
Almost Famous (2000)
Director: Cameron Crowe
They say write what you know, so he did. Cameron Crowe's 2000 comedy/drama was loosely based on the experiences of none other than Cameron Crowe. The story of a teenage journalist working for Rolling Stone in the 1970s was inspired by Crowe's own experiences. He was bright, so, like William in the film, skipped two grades in elementary school and was much younger than other students in his class. Like William, Crowe got hired when he was just in his teens to write for Rolling Stone.
In the film, William goes on tour with a band called Stillwater, who are a combination of the various musicians and bands he met while working for Rolling Stone. According to Cameron Crowe's official website, "For the film, Crowe drew on his experiences touring with such legends as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, The Who, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Director: Jonathon Demme
The novel of the same name that the grisly movie was based on was inspired by author Thomas Harris’ meeting with FBI agent and criminal profiling expert John E. Douglas. Through Douglas, Harris learnt about the serial killers who would go on to provide inspiration for the character of Buffalo Bill, two of which were Ted Bundy and Ed Gein.
Harris would take aspects of each killer's personality to create Buffalo Bill: for example, Ted Bundy's habit of pretending to be injured to lure his victim in (Bundy often wore an arm brace and asked victims for help). But Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein's influence was even darker. He was very close to his mother and when she passed away decided he wanted to become a woman himself. He attempted this not in the medically sanctioned way, but by killing women or stealing middle-aged female corpses (that he believed resembled his mother) from the local graveyard and trying to fashion himself a "woman suit.” When he was finally caught, he (unsurprisingly) spent the rest of his life in various psychiatric institutions.
So forget only indulging in a backstory deep-dive after watching a biopic. If this list is anything to go by, often the weirder and darker the content, perhaps the more likely it is that the people behind the movie took inspiration from real life. This gets interesting when you apply this rule more loosely — obviously Star Wars isn’t a blow by blow factual reenactment of Nazi Germany, but there are clear parallels between the Empire and Hitler’s government, and while presumably nobody during the Persian Wars fought clad in metal masks and using martial arts as the Immortals do in 300, the Immortals did exist — they were the Imperial Guard that protected the Persian rulers.
All of this just goes to show that categorizing films as “true” or “fictional” just prevents us from enjoying a richer viewing experience. So next time you hit the cinema, keep an open mind: because nothing’s weirder than real life.
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