Some of the most successful films are based on true stories that have been fictionalized and immortalized in these classic films. The real stories behind these classic films range from heartbreaking to outrageous.
The ship hit an iceberg during its voyage that was meant to go from Southampton to New York City. There were 2224 crew members and passengers on board, and of those, 1500 people died due to the shipwreck. The disaster is considered one of the deadliest! Many of the characters in the film were based on real people.
The 2014 film Big Eyes chronicles the life of artist Margaret Keane, who is known for her work that portrayed subjects with exceptionally large eyes. Her drawings and paintings are mostly of women, children, and animals and incorporate mixed media. Hers is an incredible story due to the fact that her husband Walter Keane began taking credit for her work throughout the 1960’s until she announced on a radio show that she was the real artist behind the work. She sued her then ex-husband and was finally given the recognition for her work after winning the case.
The Founder tells the story of fast food chain McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc. He opened the first McDonald’s Inc. restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois when the McDonlad brothers recruited him in order to help out with franchising. Once Kroc had successfully franchised out the restaurants, he bought the company from the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million. Kroc was the one to ensure that operations would be standardized in order to have consistency from restaurant to restaurant. By the time of his passing away, there were 7500 McDonald’s franchises open around the world.
Unbroken is a film directed by Angelina Jolie that tells the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who was first an Olympic track star and later became a World War II hero. His survival story is incredible, beginning with his surviving a plane crash in the Pacific theater. He then managed to survive for 47 days while drifting on a raft. Afterwards, he was taken as a prisoner of war where he survived three different Japanese prisoner of war camps over two and a half years.
Johnny Depp starred in Black Mass as Whitey Bulger, a former organized crime boss who was in charge of the Boston-based Winter Hill Gang. Bulger controlled the majority of the organized crime in South Boston but was challenged by a rival gang, the North End Angiulo Brothers. The FBI claims that Bulger worked as an informant for them, but he had consistently denied this. The FBI frequently turned a blind eye to his organization’s crimes in exchange for information about the Italian-American crime family Patriarca. He was eventually arrested at age 81 and is serving life in jail for his crimes.
Deepwater Horizon recounts the true story of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that resulted in a huge offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred on April 20th 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank due to the explosion and fire that took place, which led to the deaths of 11 workers. 17 others were injured in the explosion as well. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was considered to be the worst and largest accidental marine oil spill to have ever occurred.
Goodfellas is a fictional version of the story of New York city mobster Henry Hill and his association with the Lucchese crime family. He worked with them between the years 1955 and 1980, until he became an informant to the FBI in 1980. His testimonies allowed the FBI to capture and secure some 50 convictions. Several of these included key figures of the mob, which include Paul Vario and James Burke. The film is based on the book called Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family.
Gangs of New York
The film Gangs of New York was inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name that described the 19th century New York City gangs that were prominent at the time period. The gangs were the city’s main contributors of crime and came before the rise of the Mafia during the Prohibition period in the 1920’s. The book focused on describing the daily activities of the gangs, which included gambling dens and saloon halls and also described the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan.
War Dogs is a 2016 that is loosely based on the actions of two arms dealers, David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, who supplied munitions for the Afghan National Army after receiving a US Army contract to do so. They supplied the Afghan National Army with nearly $300 million worth of munitions. The two were caught trying to re-brand and re-package Chinese ammunition that are prohibited and after getting caught they ended up serving time for their crimes. Packouz spent seven months under house arrest and Diveroli spent four years in prison.
The Revenant is a 2015 film based on the true life of Hugh Glass who was a hunter, frontiersman, trader, and explorer who was mauled by a grizzly bear and then left behind by his companions. Although his story has been disputed due to the lack of written evidence, the story is that he crawled his way over 200 miles to South Dakota and has become somewhat of a legend.
Donnie Brasco, who in the film named after him was portrayed by Johnny Depp, was the alias of Joseph “Joe” Pistone, who was an FBI agent who spent six years working undercover with the Bonanno crime family. He also infiltrated the Colombo crime family. He worked as an FBI agent for 27 years. Pistone helped pioneer FBI undercover work and helped prove just how crucial going undercover can be as a law enforcement tool. Pistone was able to go undercover due to his Sicilian heritage and his fluency in Italian.
Apollo 13 was the third manned mission meant to land on the moon and the seventh overall manned mission in the Apollo space program. It was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in April 1970. However, the mission did not make it to the moon since an oxygen tank explosion led to a crippled Service Module. This meant that the crew experienced loss of cabin heat, a water shortage, and limited power. Despite this, the crew managed to survive and return home safely.
Schindler’s List is inspired by Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark that told the story of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was an ethnic German who was a member of the Nazi Party but who is credited with saving the lives of around 1200 Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. He was able to help save their lives by giving them employment in his ammunitions and enamelware factories. He is the only person to have been a part of the Nazi Party to be buried in Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale is a film based on the true story of the dog Haciko. Hachiko was an Akita who was born in Odate, Akita Perfecture in Japan. He is known and remembered for his unwavering loyalty to his owner, even after his owner passed away. The dog remained faithful to the owner even nine years after his passing. He is often referred to as “chuken Hachiko,” which translates to “faithful dog Hachi.” He became a symbol of faithfulness, loyalty, and fidelity and is continued to be remembered today.
The Pianist is a historical drama based on the real life of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who was a Jewish Polish pianist and classical composer. He is known for his story of surviving the German occupation of Warshaw as well as the Holocaust. During the German invasion of Poland, Szpilman was forced into hiding in the Warshaw ghetto for two years. He was able to escape the Holocaust with the help of a German officer who opposed the Nazi occupation and policies.
The Danish Girl
The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe, who was a transgender Danish woman and known as one of the first identifiable recipients of gender reassignment surgery ever. She officially transitioned in 1930 after she was born Einar Magnus Andreas Wegener. She began going by the name “Lili” and publicly introduced herself as Einar’s sister before successfully completing the surgery. Before her transitioning, she was a successful artist and painter. She was married to a woman before her transition.
12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave is the story of New York State-born free Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery despite being born to freed slaves. He was held captive and forced to work as a slave in Louisiana. He wrote an account of his 12 years spent in slavery. He was able to escape and regain his freedom after a Canadian working on the same plantation helped get his story to New York, where the Governer Washing Hunt helped him escape and return to New York to live in freedom. His captors never received any punishment.
The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who was a computer scientist, mathematician, and cryptanalyst who is best known for decrypting German intelligence codes during World War II for the British government. He also designed several different methods of speeding up the breaking of ciphers. His decryptions played major roles in crucial moments against the Nazis, for example the Battle of the Atlantic. His death remains a mystery until this day, and there have been several theories and speculations regarding what actually happened.
American Gangster fictionalizes the true story of Frank Lucas, who was a drug lord and gangster from North Carolina who became known for smuggling hard drugs into the United States on American service planes who were coming back from the Vietnam War. He became prominent during the 1960’s and 70’s in Harlem and was notorious for cutting out the middle man and buying the substances directly himself from the source in the Golden Triangle.
The Pursuit of Happyness
The 2005 film featuring Will Smith and his son Jayden Smith is based on the memoir of Chris Gardner, which chronicled his struggles of being homeless while raising his son on his own. While working at an unpaid stock brokerage training position, Gardner had no home. After working tirelessly he found success, found a home, and went on to become one of the most successful futures traders in the business.
The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada is a 2006 film based on the novel of the same name by Lauren Weisberger, who wrote the book based on her own experiences working as Anna Wintour’s personal assistant. The character of Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, is widely speculated to be based on Anna Wintour, U.S. Vogue editor. Wintour is considered to be one of the most prominent and demanding figures in the fashion industry.
Everest recounts the incredible story of Beck Weathers’ survival of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which is based on his 2000 memoir, Left for Dead: My Journey Home From Everest. Weathers was one of eight people being guided through Mount Everest in May 1996. He had recently had radial keratotomy surgery and early on into the trip he became blinded by the high altitude and ultraviolet radiation in the mountains. After being left behind and a blizzard striking the area, he managed to survive despite extreme weather conditions and was finally evacuated back home.
Hacksaw Ridge chronicles the life of Desmond Doss, who was a pacifist combat medic who served during World War II. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, Doss did not agree to carry or use any weapons or firearms. Doss made history when he became the first person to receive that Medal of Honor as a conscientious objector after he made many contributions during the Battle of Okinawa. Andrew Garfield portrayed Doss in the film and received an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Natalie Portman portrays former first lady Jackie Kennedy in the film Jackie, which tells the story of her life following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy. The film is based off an interview she gave with Life magazine in Hyannis Port by Theodore H. White. Jackie stayed at the White House for two weeks following the event and also requested from newly inaugurated Lyndon B. Johnson that the space center in Florida would be renamed the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
McFarland, USA is a film about the high school track team at McFarland High School in McFarland, California. The team became well-known for its impressive 24 CIF Central Section championship winning streak between the years 1987 and 2013. Throughout all of the years, the team was was lead by coach James White, who was later portrayed in the Disney film by actor Kevin Coster. The winning streak was broken after the team was elevated to Division I and began competing against teams withs schools that had 2.5 times the population of McFarland High.
The film The Terminal was inspired by the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who spent 18 years living in Terminal 1 of the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. He lived there between the years of 1988 until 2006. Nasseri is a refugee from Iran and after being expelled from his home country, found himself without anywhere to go. Since he legally entered the airport, he could not be sent out, but he could not enter France legally either, so he had to live in the airport for all of those years.
The Bling Ring
The Bling Ring is a film based on an article entitled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” that told the story of the real Bling Ring, a crime ring that consisted of eight teenagers that burgled the homes of many celebrities between the months of October 2008 and August 2009. They managed to steal around $3 million worth of cash and personal belongings, including clothing and jewelry. Some of the celebrities that were targeted were Paris Hilton, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Kerr, Megan Fox, and Lindsay Lohan.
Beauty and the Beast
The beloved Beauty and the Beast story is actually based on a true, and rather heartbreaking, story. Obviously, the actual story did not involve a curse, but instead a man who suffered from a genetic condition called hypertrichosis that caused an abnormal amount of hair growth on his body, including his face. He was brought as a gift to Paris to the court of King Henry II of France, where he was given an education and later married off to a beautiful woman named Catherine. They had seven children, four of which were also affected by hypertrichosis.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, which chronicled Belfort’s life story. After being found guilty of committing fraud as well as several other crimes related to stock-market manipulation, Belfort was sentenced to prison and served a 22 month sentence before being released. After his time spent in jail, Belfort decided to write about his story and thus wrote two memoirs: The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street. He also works as a motivational speaker now.
The film American Hustle is based on the real life events that took place in the FBI ABSCAM (Abdul Scam) operation in the late 70’s and 80’s. It told the story of how the Feds used a real con man to help them track down which public officials were willing to allow a Arab sheikh (who was a fake set up by the Feds themselves) to bribe them into giving him a fast-track citizenship as well as other illegal favors. 19 people, including several congressman, a mayor, and a senator were convicted in the case.
Lion tells the incredible story of Saroo Brierley, who, when he was five years old, got separated from his biological family on a train. He got separated from his brother while attempting to travel to Burhanpur from his home town of Khandwa. He ended up miles away from home and managed to survive on his own for a few weeks in the station before venturing out into the city. He eventually gets adopted by an Australian couple and twenty five years later he decides to find his biological mother. With the help of Google Maps, he was able to reunite with his biological mother in India.
Charlize Theron portrayed Aileen Wuornos in the film Monster. Wuornos was a former prostitute turned serial killer who was eventually executed for murdering six men throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Wuornos claimed that the men had either sexually abused her or attempted to do so while she was working as an escort and that she was only acting in self defense. Wuronos was living with her girlfriend Tyria Moore when she was arrested in their home in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Hidden Figures is a biographical drama film that tells the story of three brilliant female African American mathematicians who worked at and made great contributions to NASA during the Space Race. The women depicted in the film are Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The film covers important events such as when Katherine Johnson calculated flight trajectories for missions such as Project Mercury. Although the story has mostly remained true to reality, several liberties have been taken in order to create a bit more drama for the film.
Back in 2001, tragedy struck in New York that affected people all over the world, leaving everybody shaken to their core. The film documents United Airlines Flight 93, one of the flights hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists as a part of the September 11 attacks. Paul Greengrass, the director of the film, used any available information to create this film, including stories from surviving family members, cockpit recordings, and a few other sources. This flight was the only one that didn’t reach the hijackers’ target as a result of passengers regaining control of the aircraft.
Dallas Buyers Club
The heartbreaking film tells the story of a real-life AIDS patient – Ron Woodroof – who was diagnosed in the mid 80s when the treatment was under-researched and practically unavailable and experimental. Woodroof smuggled unapproved medication into Texas for his symptoms, and soon would start to distribute it to other people with AIDS – a group that became known as the “Dallas Buyers Club”. Although Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are fictional, their characters were based on interviews of transgenders AIDS patients, activists, and doctors for the film.
“Captain Phillips” is based on a real survival story. In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by a group of pirates led by Abduwali Muse in the Indian Ocean – the first successful pirate hijacking under the American flag in 200 years. After the release of the film, many crew members accused the film of being inaccurate, stating that it portrays Phillips to have been more heroic than he actually was. After the seizure, the president directly addressed the crew members, but the footage was never showed in the film.
“The Impossible” is a film based on the story of Maria Belón – a miracle story about the survival of her and her family in the Indian Ocean tsunami (Thailand) in 2004. While on vacation in Thailand for Christmas, Belón and her husband Enrique (and three sons) were separated by the tsunami. Belón was critically wounded but managed to reunite with her son Lucas. When the two started looking for medical help, Lucas happened to come across his father and two brothers in a hospital. Belón became a public speaker and an advocate for survivors of the tsunami.
The film and the book are both based on the true story of the Oakland Athletics baseball team that used the evidence-based approach and analytic sabermetric system in order to assemble a successful team with the help of their general manager Billy Beane, portrayed by Brad Pitt.
Seabiscuit was a champion Thoroughbred racehorse that inspired the 2003 equestrian film that was named after him. The film starred Tobey Maguire as his jockey, Red Pollard. Although he was first overlooked due to his small nature, Seabiscuit proved to be a true underdog story when he became a champion horse. His unlikely success brought many people hope, as his success came around the time of the Great Depression. He became a symbol for prosperity during the tough economic times.
Walk The Line
In Walk The Line, Joaquin Phoenix portrays legendary singer Johnny Cash. Cash rose to stardom right at the beginning of the rock n’ roll craze of the late 1940’s and early 50’s. Although he was already married, while on tour he met singer June Carter and fell in love with her. The two would go on to perform together as Cash continued to pursue her. He began to struggle with substance abuse, and eventually it began to affect his personal and professional life.
Into The Wild
Produced and directed by Sean Penn, “Into The Wild” tells the story of Christopher McCandless – an American hiker and traveler who went all across North America and spent a long time in the wild territories of Alaska in the early 90s. Upon arrival, McCandless embarked on the Stampede Trail with barely any supplies, hoping to embrace the wild and learn to survive with items given to him by nature. Four months later, his decomposing body, weighing a mere 66 lbs, was found by hunters; the assumption is that he died of starvation, but the exact details were never uncovered.
Bridge Of Spies
Yet another epic film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, “Bridge Of Spies” tells the story of James B. Donovan, a lawyer during the Cold War who was assigned to the negotiations of the release of Francis Gary Powers – an Air Force pilot whose spy plane (U-2) was shot down above the Soviet Union in 1960. Some critics have stated that shortening the timespans throughout the film was misleading, while others state that the film’s slight diversion from the real story was permissible.
Escape From Alcatraz
The film depicts the June 1962 escape from Alcatraz – the only successful escape from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in history. Inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris, made papier-mâché replicas of their heads and put them in their beds before escaping the building via the deserted utility corridor. Critics have often pointed out that even though the film made it seem like the escape was successful, it was never confirmed that the escapees survived; evidence, however, suggests that it’s possible that they did in fact make it out alive.
The biographical film starring Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich tells the story of Brockovich and her fight against Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) as a result of contaminated drinking water caused by waste from PG&E going into the area near the water plant. The case was settled in 1996 for $333 million – the largest settlement in U.S. history. According to Brockovich, the film was 98% accurate, but some critics claim that there were a lot of minor changes made to the real story.
Spielberg’s narrative describes the dark event of the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists held 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage. There was an attempted rescue, which went horribly wrong and resulted in the death of all 11 athletes. The movie then shows a hastily assembled covert assassination team gathered by Israel’s Prime Minister. The team is provided with a list of 11 targets – supposedly, the men responsible for the attack. Some claim the film is lacking credibility, due to tweaks done in a Spielberg-y manner to make a blockbuster instead of reveal the truth.
50 First Dates
A romantic comedy seeming so far fetched – but based on a true story. Drew Barrymore plays a woman who is afflicted with a rare form of amnesia due a car accident. Whenever she went to sleep, all her recent memories were erased. One day she meets a man who decides to fight for her despite how hard it is having to explain who you are to your significant other on a daily basis. Michelle Philpots is a living, breathing proof that such stories really do exist – except she had met her husband prior to her amnesia.
Remember the Titans
This American sports film, takes place in Alexandia, Virgina and is based on the true story of African-American coach Herman Boone and his attempt to integrate the T. C. Williams High School football team in 1971. While this movie is fundamentally based on real life events, many claim it has strayed from the actual facts. For example, Boone was hardly the coach that actor Washington was – many former Titans players said real Boone was harsh to the extent of causing some players to quit. The film also wrongfully portrays Sheryl Yoast as an only child.
Aron Lee Ralston is an American outdoorsman known for having survived a canyoneering accident in southeastern Utah in 2003. Ralston was trapped in Blue John Canyon for five days and seven hours (127 hours), until he realized the only way he could free himself from the boulder was to amputated his own right forearm with a dull pocketknife. The incident is documented in Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place and is the subject of the 2010 film 127 Hours starring James Franco.
Cinderella Man is a film titled after heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock and inspired by his life story. Real life Braddock, the Cinderella Man, has lead a gripping, brimming life and lived to tell his tale of a rising star with shattered dream, his fall from greatness and one of the most epically legendary comebacks in history. Since the true tale is unbelievably engaging as it is, little if any Hollywood-esque features were introduced into the silver-screen version.
Best-selling American author Susanna Kaysen wrote her 1993 memoir and titled it Girl, Interrupted. As a young woman submitted into a psychiatric hospital for a year and a half in the 1960s, Kaysen jotted down her experiences. Some say the movie is a loose adaptation of the book, although both book writer and lead movie character go by the same name, are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder after a nervous breakdown, and take an overdose of pills with a bottle of vodka.
Playwright J. M. Barrie decided to commemorate his relationship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan. Still, the film openly acknowledges on both the opening and closing credits that it is only inspired by true events and that it has happily condensed or eliminated characters for the sake of the story. Furthermore, with a striking cast list like Johnny Depp playing James Matthew Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies played by Kate Winslet, it’s safe to say the movie was bound to be a huge success from the start.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson
The People vs. O.J. Simpson recounts the story of the famous criminal trial O.J. Simpson faced for the murder of his wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. After Simpson became a person of interest, and failed to turn himself in to the authorities, he was a part of a famously televised car chase, which even interrupted coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals. After he was arrested, he was put on trial in what is considered the “Trial of the Century.” Simpson was found “not guilty” of the murders. Robert Kardashian was one of his lawyers.
The Blind Side
The Blind Side tells the story of Michael Oher, who is currently the offensive tackle for the Carolina Panthers and who has previously played for the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. The film is based on the book of the same name that chronicles Oher’s college football career while at Ole Miss and also focuses on his tough upbringing during his high school years. He overcame many obstacles with the help of his friend’s mother, Leigh Anne Tuohy, who helped him out and even took him in to her home.
Catch Me If You Can
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Frank Abagnale, who in real life became an expert imposter, check forger, and confidence trickster, all before the age of 22. He also managed to escape police custody twice before 22. Abagnale successfully impersonated a physician, pilot, lawyer, and a U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent. After finally being caught and serving time in prison, he was able to start working for the FBI as consultant and lecturer. Abagnale also runs a financial fraud consultancy firm.
Joy is a film that is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, who is an inventor, entrepreneur, and businesswoman. She is known for inventing the Miracle Mop. The invention grew to become wildly successful and in 1999, she sold the company to the Home Shopping Network. By 2000, the company was selling $10 million worth of the mops. She later released other inventions that include Huggable Hangers and Forever Fragrant.
Patch Adams is a 1998 film based on the true life of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams. The real Patch Adams was very critical of the film. Adams’ openly stated,”[Robin Williams] made $21 million for four months of pretending to be me, in a very simplistic version, and did not give $10 to my free hospital. Patch Adams, the person, would have, if I had Robin’s money, given all $21 million to a free hospital in a country where 80 million cannot get care.”