20 Unbelievable Films You Didn’t Know Were Actually Based On True Stories
Some films are so outrageous, so shocking that they leave you reeling, pacifying yourself with the fact that “it’s just a movie”. But what if it’s not?
Join us as we explore some of the most haunting, poignant and downright unbelievable movies that were actually inspired by real events.
20. 50 First Dates (2004)
50 First Dates is a light-hearted romantic comedy, following playboy veterinarian Henry (Adam Sandler) as he pursues a young woman named Lucy (Drew Barrymore).
Henry flirts with Lucy for days at a time, but is confused when every morning she seems not to remember him at all – and the relationship begins all over again.
As unlikely as this set-up might seem, it’s actually the true story of Michelle Philpots. After two severe head injuries, Philpots developed a rare form of amnesia which prevented her from forming any new memories.
Like 50 First Dates’ Lucy, Philpots’ memories reset each morning, and her real-life husband reminds her of all the time together that she’s missed each day.
In the last scene of 50 First Dates, Lucy’s video that she uses to remind herself of her past ends with her wedding to Henry, just as Michelle’s husband regularly reminds her of their real-life relationship milestones.
It’s no surprise that one of Adam Sandler’s most heartwarming films came from a true story, rather than from the madcap mind of the man himself!
19. Cool Runnings (1993)
Cool Runnings is the heartwarming tale of Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsledding team, and is loosely based on the real-life story of the 1988 team.
Inspired by the popularity of go-karting in Jamaica, and the high percentages of athletes in other sports such as track and field, the idea came about that creating a Jamaican bobsledding team to go to the Olympics would be easy.
Though it is true that it was the similarity of karting to bobsleigh that first sparked the idea, it was the Jamaican military who actually came up with it, and the bobsleigh team was recruited from the country’s armed forces.
Not only that, but unlike in the movie, the Jamaican bobsleigh team was welcomed to the Olympics with open arms – with teams from other countries going out of their way to make them feel welcome, lending them equipment, and even socialising with them when they weren’t competing.
In fact, the team were so popular that they were advised not to leave the Olympic Village, since thanks to the attention they were getting from the international media, they were mobbed every time they stepped outside.
18. The Blob (1958)
It’s already unusual for a horror movie to be based on a true story, and The Blob is one of the most unrealistic horror movies out there.
The Blob, which was released in 1958 and later remade in 1988, depicts a gelatinous mass from an alien planet that slowly feeds and grows, killing and devouring its way through an entire town.
Despite this seeming like the furthest possible thing from truth, the titular blob was inspired by a 1950s newspaper article, about a mysterious event in which two police officers saw something…blob-like float to the ground.
When the officers approached the landing site, they apparently saw a huge purple blob, six feet in diameter, filled with crystals and giving off a mist.
Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately) the blob dissolved away as soon as one of the officers touched it, and neither the other officers called to the scene, nor the FBI, found anything upon reaching the site.
17. The Big Sick (2017)
Most couples wish they had a story good enough for a romantic comedy, but Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s journey together was so captivating, they literally teamed up to write a rom-com based on it.
In The Big Sick, Kumail (played by Nanjiani himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) date briefly and fall in love, before breaking up over the commitments Kumail has to make to his highly religious family.
Kumail realises how much he wants to be with Emily when she gets sick and is placed in an induced coma. While she remains in a coma, he spends time winning over her family and making changes to his life while she recovers.
Since the movie was written by Nanjiani and Gordon themselves, almost every detail in the film is accurate, from the disorder that Emily is suffering from to the fact that Kumail is struggling to make it as a stand-up comic.
However, Kumail’s comedian friends in real life didn’t actually include the likes of Bo Burnham, and it’s likely that Emily’s parents weren’t quite as hilarious and likeable a pair as Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.
16. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Good Will Hunting is an entirely fictional story, with a screenplay written by stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon themselves.
However, one key scene was actually pulled directly from Matt Damon’s own life, specifically from an experience that was had by his brother Kyle.
Kyle was visiting a friend, a physicist working at M.I.T, when he saw a chalkboard featuring a string of unfinished equations.
Being an artistic person, Kyle took it upon himself to finish the string with entirely made-up numbers, but it looked so impressive that it remained on the chalkboard untouched for months.
Of course, in the famous scene in the movie, the janitor who finishes the equation actually does it with entirely real maths, figuring out that which had stumped the graduate students of M.I.T for months.
15. A Few Good Men (1992)
Legal drama A Few Good Men tells the story of a ritual hazing in the marines gone seriously awry, leaving a man dead after his lungs fill with fluid during a ritual beating.
In reality, the victim of hazing depicted in the movie actually survived despite being severely injured, and recovered in a nearby hospital before returning to his duties.
However, when the real-life story got out, one of the Marines allegedly responsible for the hazing decided to fight the charges in court, vocally speaking out about the fact that he was just following instructions.
Shortly after the trial, the Marine vanished, and was missing for three months. When his body was eventually found, it was presumed that his murder had something to do with his court case.
Reports revealed that the Marine had been shot execution-style, and it was likely he had known whoever he was with. None of his possessions had been stolen, and his killer was never found.
14. Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall’s Chicago is an adaptation of a glitzy and glamourous Broadway musical, filled with jazz music, tango dancers and murder.
It’s a pretty unlikely candidate for being based on a true story, especially since it is technically based on a 1926 play of the same name.
However, the play that Chicago is based on was itself inspired by a real-life murderer: Beulah Annan.
Like the musical’s Roxie Hart, Annan began an affair shortly after getting married, and shot her lover following an argument.
Also like Roxie Hart, Annan pretended to her husband that she shot her victim in self-defence, and her husband, like Amos in the movie, stood behind her the whole way.
13. Julie & Julia (2009)
Everybody knows the story of Julia Child – the English socialite who became an expert in French cooking, and later went on to run an entire cookbook and TV show empire.
Less well-known is the story of Julie Powell, who spent a year blogging about her experiences cooking every single recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was co-written by Child.
Julie & Julia knits both narratives together to tell the story of two women learning to cook across generations, and it nails most of the core events in each person’s life.
It is true, for example, that Julia Child didn’t actually like the blog, and also that Julie was heartbroken when she found that out.
However, while the movie paints Julia as a remote and vaguely threatening, disappointed presence, the truth is that she was by the time of the events depicted in the film living in a retirement home and, having lived through both world wars and the Depression, simply couldn’t understand the blogging generation.
12. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love is a sweet, offbeat romantic comedy about a socially awkward man and his attempt to protect the new love of his life from extortionists.
It follows Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) as he tries to balance his newfound love-life with the stress of being followed by goons, who all answer to a villainous mattress salesman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in California.
Though the real-life Barry never fell in love with a beautiful woman or fought off several violent thugs in order to maintain his perfect life, one detail of Punch-Drunk Love is true.
Like Barry, his real-life equivalent David Phillips did in 1999 attempt to win 1.25 million miles of free airfare by purchasing $3,000 worth of pudding cups, thanks to a loophole in an advertising promotion.
Phillips became known as The Pudding Guy, and his story did get a fair bit of attention – but it didn’t help him to date a superstar actress like Emily Watson. Still, unbelievably, he did get those 1.25 million air miles in the end.
11. The Sound of Music (1965)
The Sound of Music is the timeless tale of a nun who falls in love with a widowed Naval officer, against the backdrop of the Second World War.
The film is based on the musical of the same name, but both are actually based on the memoir of the real-life Maria von Trapp, named The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.
The core of the story as seen in the movie is true: Maria was in training to become a nun, and she did grow to love the family she was asked to take care of.
Not only that, but the family did become a successful singing group, and fled their homeland around the time that Germany annexed Austria.
The difference is mostly romantic – in real life, Maria wasn’t in love with Georg. She liked him well enough, but instead loved the children dearly, and married the Captain so they could all be a family together.
10. Room (2015)
Room tells the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Joy, in a dilapidated shed they call “room”. Joy (Brie Larson) has been imprisoned in this squalid outbuilding at the hands of her sadistic captor for seven years, and the only world Jack knows is inside this room.
Eventually, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) manages to escape to freedom and alert the authorities, after which we see Jack and Joy deal with the aftermath of their ordeal.
Whilst this might sound like a nightmare, it was reality in the case of Josef Fritzl, who abducted his daughter in 1984 and held her hostage in his basement for 24 years, during which time his abuse resulted in the birth of seven children.
Fritzl’s wife was ostensibly unaware of what was taking place beneath her feet, though three of the seven children were brought upstairs to be raised by her, with Fritzl claiming that they were ‘foundlings’, or abandoned children who had arrived on the doorstep.
Room was also inspired by a 2008 case in which it was revealed that a Pennsylvania woman had held her children captive in a single room for eight years.
9. The Terminal (2004)
A 2004 comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks, The Terminal might seem beyond belief, but it’s actually not far from the truth. In the film, Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is left in limbo after arriving at JFK airport only to find his passport is no longer valid. The reason? A military coup has occurred in his home country, and the United States does not officially recognise the new regime.
With Viktor now stateless, he is left to roam the airport, ultimately making his home there, before eventually being allowed to complete his journey. It’s a lot sweeter and less convoluted than it sounds.
Much as it might seem like typical Hollywood to have Tom Hanks bumming around JFK airport, there’s a very real story at the heart of The Terminal. An Iranian refugee, Mehran Karimi Nasseri claims he was expelled from Iran after protesting against the government, and was then caught in a bureaucratic web.
Having initially fled to the UK, Nasseri’s papers were either lost or stolen en route to France; in Charles de Gaulle airport, he was unable to present valid travel permits but also was unable to return to his birth country. As a result, he lived in Terminal 1 of the airport for an astonishing 18 years.
Unfortunately, after Nasseri fell ill and was taken to hospital, he was ejected from the airport where he’d been living. He currently resides in a homeless shelter in Paris.
8. Marley & Me (2008)
If you made it through Marley & Me without being reduced to floods of tears, then we can only assume you quite literally have a heart of stone. You should really get that checked out (for one thing, where does the blood go?).
Starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, the film details the couple’s exploits with the naughtiest dog in the world, Marley, plus – spoilers – how the family cope in the wake of his death.
If you don’t think you can take the emotional toll of watching a dog die on screen, you could instead read the story on which it was based: a memoir of the same name by journalist John Grogan.
You’re actually spoiled for choice, as that memoir has been adapted three different times based on what readers think they can handle. One, Marley: A Dog Like No Other, removes the details of Grogan and his wife’s sexual relationship; another, Bad Dog, Marley! is a picture book. The last is A Very Marley Christmas, which needs no introduction.
You can actually see the real Marley in the 1996 independent film The Last Home Run, in which he appears for two minutes and is credited as ‘Himself’.
7. Jaws (1975)
The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, which was itself inspired by the life of Frank Mundus, a real-life shark hunter and later shark conservationist (which is a perfect Hollywood 180).
Mundus became notorious for conducting so-called ‘big game fishing’, which involved harpooning sharks and killing whales for chum, a practice that has now been made illegal.
Perhaps more terrifying, however, is that the shark attacks depicted in the film also have historical precedent. In 1916, four residents of Jersey Shore were killed by an enormous shark.
Eventually, the ‘Jersey Shore man-eater’ was captured and met a grisly fate at the hands of terrified locals. Still, even if they aren’t gentle giants, it’s worth remembering that sharks are far from the evil demons that Jaws makes them out to be. They just have big teeth.
6. Open Water (2003)
You might never have heard of Open Water, but it’s actually one of the biggest box office successes of all time. Made on a shoe-string budget of somewhere between $120,000 and $500,000, the film ended up reaping $55.5 million in cinemas. And, yes, it’s about sharks.
Open Water tells the story of an American couple who go scuba diving, only to find themselves stranded in shark-infested waters after the scuba crew accidentally leave them behind with nothing but the tanks on their backs and a rather spacious watery grave.
The film was inspired by the still-unsolved case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, an American couple who became stranded in the Coral Sea off the northeast coast of Australia in 1998 during a group scuba diving trip.
Their disappearance wasn’t noted by the crew until two days after the incident, and their bodies have never been found. Several months later, their diving suits – marked with their names – washed ashore, as well as a diving slate ready to broadcast a message.
“Monday Jan 26; 1998 08am,” it read. “To anyone who can help us: We have been abandoned on A[gin]court Reef by MV Outer Edge 25 Jan 98 3pm. Please help to rescue us before we die. Help!!!””
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street is quite literally the stuff of nightmares. Chillingly, however, the story wasn’t just the result of Wes Craven’s dark imagination.
The film, which marked Johnny Depp’s feature film debut, sees a burned killer with a bladed leather glove entering people’s dreams and killing them – and if they die in their dreams, they die for real.
Craven was inspired to write the film after reading a newspaper article about a family who had survived the Cambodia Killing Fields and later fled to America. After fleeing to the States, the youngest son experienced vivid nightmares so horrific he could not bear to sleep, instead staying awake for days at a time.
One night, he finally drifted off to sleep, but his parents were awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of him screaming. By the time they reached their son, he was dead.
There were other reports of survivors of the Killing Fields who allegedly died in their sleep as the result of disturbing nightmares, a phenomenon known as Asian Death Syndrome.
4. Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window is a Hitchcock classic, telling the story of a photographer (Jimmy Stewart) who is confined to his apartment after he breaks his leg. Left with little to do but observe his surroundings, the man soon discovers some dark revelations about his neighbours.
While Rear Window is explicitly based on the 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder by Cornell Woolrich, there were real-life crimes that also figured in the development of one of Hitchcock’s greatest films.
The first is that of Hawley Harvey Crippen. Doctor Crippen – that being his best known moniker – was hanged for the murder of his wife, Cora, in 1910. At first, Crippen claimed his wife had gone to live overseas, but neighbours soon become suspicious after his girlfriend moved in and they noticed she was wearing his wife’s old jewellery.
Hitchcock also took inspiration from Patrick Mahon, who in 1924 murdered his pregnant lover, dismembered her corpse and boiled her body parts in a large pot.
Mahon was caught out when relatives discovered women’s clothing and a bloody knife in his luggage. Police soon arrived at the scene, where they discovered several bags of human flesh. Not exactly the crime of the century.
3. The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror: is it a true story? Well, that’s exactly what makes it interesting. There’s no question about what it claims to be, since A TRUE STORY is emblazoned on the cover of the original book (in red, naturally).
The book and film both focus on the Lutz family, whose dream home in Amityville, New York quickly became something they’d like to wake up from.
The Lutzes claimed they were plagued by malevolent spirits who made it their mission to leave terror and misfortune in their wake. This negative energy, they add, is hardly surprising considering that just a few years prior, the house had been the setting for a real-life massacre.
Ronald DeFeo Jr. went on a murderous rampage in what was – before the Lutzes moved in – his family home, ultimately taking the lives of his parents and four siblings. The events of that tragic day live on in the numerous films and books they inspired.
So, regardless of whether the events in The Amityville Horror are real, the brutal killings that inspired them are as true as the bodies are cold.
2. River’s Edge (1986)
Starring Crispin Glover and a baby-faced Keanu Reeves, 1986’s River’s Edge details the exploits of a teenage boy who kills his girlfriend and dumps her body near the edge of a river.
Clearly the teen was proud of his work, as he then proceeds to boast about the day’s events to his school friends. The local teens then rather bizarrely decide to visit the corpse, turning it into some kind of morbid tourist attraction.
If you thought this trivialisation of death was completely unrealistic, we’ve got a lesson to teach you about human nature. The real-life events that inspired the film played out in pretty much the same way: Marcy Renee Conrad was just 14 when she was brutally murdered by 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard.
Broussard is said to have openly bragged about the killing (by strangulation, after sleeping with her), before two of his acquaintances broke ranks and filed a police report.
Broussard was sentenced to 25 years to life behind bars, where he remains to this very day. He has been repeatedly denied parole, and has become an often-referenced figure on the topic of juvenile criminal law and incarceration.
1. Aftermath (2017)
Not to be confused with 2019’s The Aftermath, 2017’s Aftermath is perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most surprising film yet (and, if you’d forgotten, the Terminator star once played the lead role in Hercules in New York).
In Aftermath, the Hollywood hunk ditches his vest tops and bicep bulges and shows off a more sensitive side. The film is based on the true story of Vitaly Kaloyev, a Russian man who moved to Barcelona in search of work, desperate to provide a better life for himself and his young family.
In 2002, Kaloyev’s wife and children were flying over to visit him in his new home when their plane crashed into an oncoming airliner. 71 people were killed.
Overcome by grief upon learning of the tragedy, Kaloyev immediately travelled to the crash site where he discovered the lifeless corpse of his daughter. In a fit of rage, Kaloyev tracked down the air traffic controller he deemed responsible for the crash and stabbed him to death.
Kaloyev himself has criticised the film adaptation, stating that he was motivated solely by justice, not pity. Furthermore, he alleges that the real-life air traffic controller was arrogant and contemptuous (read: Cell Block Tango, from Chicago).