Movies You Had No Idea Were Based On Real Events

The Woman King

The Woman King is based on an all-female military regiment called the Dahomey Amazons, who were an elite fighting force in West Africa from the 1700s to the early 1900s.

However, despite the historical accuracy of its subject matter, The Woman King does take some liberties. Nanisca (played by Viola Davis), the main character and leader of the group, is entirely fictionalized.

The Sound of Music

Sure, you’ve probably seen The Sound of Music a couple dozen times. But what you may not know is that the film version of the musical is actually based on real events!

The movie is based on a play, which was originally based on a memoir by Maria von Trapp, the real-life Maria of the movie.

Jaws

Jaws, the classic movie about a gigantic shark wreaking havoc on the summer beach community of Amity Island, was inspired by an unsettling true story.

In 1916, four people were killed by a shark in the town of Matawan. A ten-year-old boy was among the first victims, attacked while swimming in Matawan Creek in New Jersey.

The Notebook

Although The Notebook is a well-known, modern romance that has long swept moviegoers off their feet, the true story behind Nicholas Sparks’ most beloved work is just as heartwarming.

Sparks based his tale on the real-life love story of his wife’s grandparents, who were together for over 60 years.

50 First Dates

The film 50 First Dates seems like it’s the stuff of comedy, with Adam Sandler pining over Drew Barrymore by day and courting her again every night – however, this is a real-life story!

Michelle Philpots suffered from memory loss after two head injuries. As a result, she forgot the fact that she was married to her husband Neil. Every morning, Neil would have to remind Michelle of their relationship.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

While the premise of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is hilarious to think about, it’s actually based on a true story. Mike and Dave Stangle are two brothers who posted a Craigslist ad in 2013 to search for dates for their sister’s wedding.

However, despite going on a series of crazy dates, the girls they brought to the wedding were much saner than their movie counterparts.

The Shining

The staff at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado have had to deal with many guests who claim to have experienced strange paranormal activity. Writer Stephen King stayed at the Stanley Hotel in 1974 and claims to have heard things he couldn’t explain.

Whether it was really paranormal activity or just the effects of the old hotel messing with his mind, King’s experience helped inspire the novel turned film The Shining.

The Terminal

The Terminal is a critically acclaimed dramedy starring Tom Hanks. What many don’t know is that the movie is based on the true story of an Iranian refugee named Mehran Karimi Nasseri.

In real life, Nasseri lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One at Charles de Gaulle Airport for nearly two decades.

Footloose

The movie Footloose is actually based on a true story about a town that really did ban dancing. The movie was set in the fictional town of Bomont, while the real-life story took place in Elmore City, Oklahoma.

In 1979, high school students there wanted to plan their senior prom but were told that it would be illegal – because of a law from the 1800s that forbade dancing within city limits.

It Could Happen to You

In the 1994 movie It Could Happen to You, a New York waitress agrees to split a lottery ticket with a customer instead of a tip, and it ends up winning $4 million.

Their story is loosely based on 1984 news reports about waitress Phyllis Penzo, who had a similar pact with an NYPD officer named Robert Cunningham. Cunningham won $6 million in the lottery and honoured his agreement with Penzo, dividing the money with her.

Zola

As unbelievable as 2020’s Zola is, it’s also based on a true story, and the screenplay by director and co-writer Janicza Bravo does its job of finding the humour in an otherwise chaotic situation.

The movie is based on a viral Twitter thread from 2015, when Aziah ‘Zola’ King, a dancer from Detroit, tweeted about an ill-fated road trip she took to Florida with her friend Jessica.

Catch Me If You Can

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the biopic Catch Me If You Can is based on Frank Abagnale Jr., a man who lived a life that sounds too amazing to be true.

Abagnale’s story has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster movie: a teenager who posed as a pilot, doctor and lawyer whilst forging millions of dollars worth of cheques. His claims have been called into question recently, however.

Cheaper by the Dozen

The classic comedy Cheaper by the Dozen was released in 1950, and it was followed up in 2003 with a remake starring Steve Martin, which later spawned a sequel.

Both films were based on the semi-autobiographical novel by siblings Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, which detail their parents’ efforts to keep a large family of 12 children under control.

The Conjuring

Even if you’re not big into horror films, you’ve probably heard of the Conjuring movies. But what you might not know is that they were based on actual paranormal investigation cases.

Husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were real people, working from the 50s until the 90s. Their most famous cases include the Amityville house, the possessed doll Annabelle, and the Enfield Poltergeist.

Schindler’s List

1993's Schindler’s List is based on the novel by Thomas Keneally, and proved to be the first film to earn Steven Spielberg the Best Director Oscar, as well as winning Best Picture.

However, many don’t know that the book was actually based on real events that happened in Nazi Germany. Oskar Schindler really did save the lives of hundreds of Jewish people during the Holocaust.

The Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happiness, a movie that tells the tale of entrepreneur Chris Gardner, is based on his true story. The drama depicts Gardner’s one-year struggle with homelessness as he worked to take care of his son, and finally, the success he achieved.

The film shows how in spite of being homeless, Gardner doesn’t give up his dream to become an entrepreneur and eventually becomes a stockbroker.

Girl, Interrupted

Starring Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder, this film is based on the real-life story of Susanna Kaysen, whose struggle with depression forced her into a psychiatric ward in the late 60s.

The film is inspired by her memoir of the same name and shares many parallels to her experience, like the other patients she meets and befriends.

Chicago

The women portrayed in Chicago are actually based on real people: Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner were both accused of killing their lovers in 1924. However, in reality, neither woman actually met or performed with each other while they were imprisoned.

They both lived fairly glamorous lives though – Annan was a laundry worker who was big on drinking whiskey and jazz, and Gaertner was a cabaret singer.

The Blob

The Blob is one of the most iconic sci-fi movies of the 1950s (later remade in 1988). While some have suggested that it was based on a myth, it was actually inspired - somewhat loosely - by a real life incident.

The filmmakers were inspired by a police report from a Philadelphia police officer who reported finding “a big glob of gelatinous material” that later dissolved into nothingness.

Captain Phillips

The story of 2013 Tom Hanks drama Captain Phillips is based on the true story of an incident that happened in 2009.

The movie focuses on the story of Richard Phillips, who was the captain of the container ship MV Maersk Alabama, and his encounter with Somali pirates when they hijacked the ship and took Phillips hostage.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

The 1984 slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by the story of one of the worst atrocities in history. The movie’s creator Wes Craven was inspired to write the film after reading an article about survivors of the Cambodian genocide.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the youngest son of the family had terrible nightmares and would deprive himself of sleep because he thought he would never wake up if he slept.

The Strangers

The Strangers is a horror film that’s loosely inspired by a real-life crime spree. The events in the film are not a direct re-enactment of any real-life case, but there are several similarities to the Keddie Cabin Murders.

A family was killed in their cabin while they slept, and no witnesses or suspects were ever found. Both murders occurred at night in secluded areas.

Anastasia

Anastasia is a 1997 animated musical film inspired by the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II.

Although nothing is known about what happened to Anastasia and her family after they were taken captive by the Bolsheviks in 1918, the movie follows a teenage orphan girl who experiences amnesia and tries to track down her family history with the help of two charming con men.

Child’s Play

The film Child’s Play is about an evil killer who uses a spell to transfer his soul into a Good Guy doll. But did you know that this story is actually inspired by supposedly true events?

In 1904, Robert Eugene Otto was gifted Robert the doll by his grandfather. Allegedly, Robert had the ability to make noises and move around the house. Robert is now displayed at a museum in Florida.

The Big Lebowski

The Dude is one of the most iconic and beloved characters of all time, but did you know that the character from the movie The Big Lebowski was based on a real person?

He was based on a man named Jeff Dowd, who was a member of the Seattle Seven in the 1960s, a group of anti-war activists who were convicted for their roles in violent protests.

Rocky

Rocky is the movie that made Sylvester Stallone’s career. He wrote, directed, and starred in it. In some ways, it’s the movie that launched the entire phenomenon of underdog movies.

One of his main sources for the plot came from the story of boxer Chuck Wepner, who was able to last 15 rounds going up against Muhammed Ali before getting knocked out.

Nomadland

Affecting, beautifully shot, and full of rich performances, Nomadland is a must-watch. The source material is also worth reading – it’s a 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder.

Bruder's book gives an intimate look at the lives of people living on the fringes of society, as well as a scathing deconstruction of the American dream.

Hidden Figures

A movie that’s both entertaining and enlightening – what could be better than that? Hidden Figures is the true story of three African-American women who were involved in the space race.

The film shows how they rose up against a system that kept them from advancing in their careers and were instrumental in helping NASA achieve a manned launch and landing.

Eat Pray Love

Eat Pray Love is based on the real-life story of Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the bestseller to explore her pursuit of love, self-discovery, and spirituality.

In both the book and the film, Gilbert picks up and leaves behind her old life as a reviewer in America to travel abroad to Italy, India, and Bali, having personal revelations along the way.

A League of Their Own

The movie A League of Their Own is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league was formed in 1943, when World War II led to many men being away at war and needing to be replaced in their jobs.

Another industry suddenly without a workforce was baseball. With very few options for work available to them, women were recruited to play on teams across the country.

Minari

The beautifully shot and heartwarming story of Minari follows a family of South Korean immigrants who buy land in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

The story is semi-autobiographical, based on the director’s own family’s experiences of emigrating to America from South Korea when he was a child.

Belle

The inspiration for this film came from a 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was born in 1761 to an enslaved mother and her then-owner, a member of the British aristocracy.

Although it’s not known where she ended up, the movie explores what her life would have been like if she had been raised by her father and was subject to Britain’s colourist hierarchy.

42

The late Chadwick Boseman, best known for his role as the Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, also portrayed Jackie Robinson in the 2016 biographical sports film 42.

Robinson became the first African-American to play professional baseball in the MLB when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, after years of discrimination and segregation.

Molly’s Game

Molly’s Game is based on Molly Bloom’s memoir. She wrote about running an underground poker empire in Los Angeles and New York for six years.

The stakes were high and the customers – both celebrities and business leaders alike – were interested in keeping their involvement with these games secret.

BlacKkKlansman

When you hear the name Spike Lee, you probably think of his classic comedies like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It. However, he has an expert way of mixing comedy and drama, too.

His film, BlacKkKlansman, is based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth, who was the first Black detective in Colorado Springs and who infiltrated and exposed the local white supremacist chapter.

Bombshell

Fox News executive Roger Ailes was forced to resign in July 2016 after he was accused by multiple employees of sexual harassment.

The women in question included journalists Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly. Their story was adapted into this 2019 film, starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

Nacho Libre

In Nacho Libre, Jack Black plays a wrestler who uses the proceeds from his matches to help orphans. Sergio Gutierrez Benitez was the man who actually inspired this movie.

Benitez was both a Mexican priest and a luchador, and at night, he would fight for money to feed and clothe orphans. He didn’t have Jack Black’s angelic voice though.

The Exorcist

I’m sure most people have heard of The Exorcist, but did you know that it was actually based on a true story? In 1949, there was a case in Maryland where a boy went on a rampage.

After the boy allegedly tried to contact his dead aunt using an Ouija board, weird things started happening: furniture started moving, objects allegedly levitated, and jars of holy water were smashed.

Hostel

Eli Roth was inspired to make the movie Hostel because he discovered that the underground practice of murder for hire actually does exist on the dark web.

Shockingly, it’s not just something that happens in movies. His own inspiration came from a place where people actually pay $10,000 to end someone’s life.

Open Water

In 1998, two divers, Tom Longergran and Eileen Booley, were on a scuba diving excursion when their boat unintentionally left without them, and they were left stranded in the water. Tragically, they were never found.

The filmmakers behind the movie Open Water took inspiration from this real-life event to create a fictional account about two scuba-diving enthusiasts who are left behind by their tour boat and have to defend themselves against hungry sharks.