23 Blockbuster Films You May Not Know Were Inspired by Real-Life Events

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Most great films succeed by convincing the audience that the story is plausible and could happen to anyone. While many films take their inspiration from other sources of fiction, some would rather turn to our shared history for their ideas.

From mafia stories to inspiring tales of heroism, some real life events have been the inspiration for Hollywood’s biggest hits. Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear which of these films are fiction and which are based in fact. To clear up some of the confusion, we went ahead and gathered a list of our top picks for films you may not know were inspired by actual events.

1. Rain Man

Photo Credit: MGM.

Rain Man is one of the most iconic films to come out of the 1980’s. Outstanding performances by both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise secured the film’s status as one of the best films ever made.

But many people may be surprised to know that the character Raymond Babbit was inspired by a man named Kim Peek. Kim was born with a condition called F.G. syndrome, which in the film is represented as autism. Kim Peek also had an exceptional memory dating back to his early childhood. 

2. Eat Pray Love

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Eat Pray Love has become synonymous with kitchen signs and living room art, but the term became a household name after the 2010 smash hit film was released. Julia Roberts does a fantastic job playing Elizabeth Gilbert as she travels the world in search of herself following a divorce. What may surprise some viewers is that Elizabeth Gilbert is a real person, and the film is based on her memoir of the same name, published a few years before its release.

3. The Irishman

Photo Credit: Netflix.

Everyone loves a good organized crime film. The problem is that there are so many mafia flicks, it gets hard to tell fact from fiction. The Irishman may be one of the more accurate mafia films out there. 

The film is based on the book I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, which was a collaboration by a former homicide prosecutor and defense attorney, Charles Brandt, in an attempt to chronicle the real life of Frank Sheeran.

4. Dallas Buyers Club

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Mathew McConaughey is widely known for his comedic and over-the-top acting style. Still, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his dramatic portrayal in Dallas Buyers Club. The film follows Ron Woodroof as he tries to provide banned medication to diseased patients during the height of an epidemic. These acts of heroics are based on Ron Woodroof’s real-life fight with the United States government after discovering that he was also incurably ill.

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5. Goodfellas

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see another mafia film on this list; there are so many of them, and a few are bound to be based on real-life events. Goodfellas is primarily based on the life of Henry Hill, a member of the Lucchese family, up until his entrance into the witness protection plan. 

But many of the other roles in the film were also based on members of organized crime families. Robert DeNiro’s character, Jimmy Conway, was based on Jimmy Burke, who was also involved with the Lucchese family. 

6. The Sound of Music

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

At this point, The Sound of Music is regarded as a classic film but isn’t watched as often as it should be. An inspiring tale of societal pressure, the role of womanhood, and personal responsibility, The Sound of Music will likely remain relevant for many years. The film is based on Maria von Trapp as she struggles to balance her ambitions to become a nun after becoming the governess of the von Trapp children.

7. Good Will Hunting

Photo Credit: Miramax.

While Good Will Hunting is an inspirational tale for young people worldwide, the story itself isn’t based on a real person. Instead, the film is based on events that happened to Matt Damon during his years at Harvard.

 One of the most famous scenes in the movie, in which a visitor solves a complicated math equation left on a whiteboard, was inspired by Matt’s brother visiting M.I.T. His brother noticed the equation on the board and wrote an accurate-looking fake equation that was not erased for some time. Matt blended experiences like these into one of the best dramatic films of the modern era.

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8. Jaws

Jaws (1975)
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.

It is widely believed that Jaws was based on the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks in which four people passed away. This narrative is somewhat false. The film shared many similarities to the incident but was not inspired by the events. 

That being said, everyone’s favorite shark hunter, Quint, was primarily based on a real man named Frank Mundus. Frank was a big game shark hunter who worked around Long Island when the book was written.

9. Footloose

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

It may be hard to believe, but the events of Footloose are based on the events of a small town in Oklahoma that occurred in 1979. Elmore City had outlawed dancing since its founding in 1989. 

The ban was challenged by a group of high school students who wanted to have a prom but met strong resistance from those who claimed that dancing was a satanic practice. The high schoolers eventually won the case and were permitted to dance. This goes to show that sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.

10. 50 First Dates

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Adam Sandler has been involved with more romantic comedies than most actors of his prestige. But 50 First Dates is one of the more heartwarming entries in his catalog. The film is based on the life of Michelle Philpots, who suffered two brain injuries between 1985 and 1990. 

Because of these injuries, she has developed anterograde amnesia, meaning that she cannot turn short-term memories into long-term memories. Each day, she would need to be filled in on each event that had happened since her accident in 1990.

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11. A Beautiful Mind

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

Russel Crow sold the idea of the tormented genius in A Beautiful Mind to resounding applause. The film follows real-life Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash as he battles to keep control of his life while experiencing schizophrenic episodes.

 The film performed very well in theaters but has since been criticized for deviating too far from the events of John Nash’s life in an attempt to clean up some of the more problematic elements of his life.

12. A Few Good Men

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Few lines from cinema are as engrained in American pop culture as “You can’t handle the truth!” The film is regarded as one of the best legal dramas ever. But the film doesn’t tell you that it was based on P.F.C. William Alvarado, who wrote letters to a congressman exposing specific actions of the marine core. William was subsequently punished for these actions, and the following events are the basis for A Few Good Men.

13. The Conjuring

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

The Conjuring universe has become one of the highest-grossing horror franchises in the past few decades. Many horror films claim to be loosely based on some actual events. Still, only a few are as culturally relevant as the conjuring films.

 Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life paranormal investigators working with the church during the 1970s and 80s. Ed and Lorraine were involved in high-profile court cases and hauntings, which are still discussed today. Their influence in the world of paranormal investigations will likely still be scrutinized and studied for years to come.

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14. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Photo Credit: New Line Cinema.

Freddy Krueger is one of the most well-known horror icons around. But many horror fans may not know that the idea for the film is based on an event that Wes Craven read about in the L.A. Times. The article stated that a young man from Cambodia refused to sleep out of fear that he would pass away in his sleep. 

He had numerous nightmares in which something was chasing him, and he feared that if it caught him, it would end him. The young man passed away soon after during a nightmare, and this event inspired Wes Craven to invent The Nightmare on Elm Street series.

15. Cheaper by the Dozen

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

What happens when two efficiency experts have 12 children together? That is the basis for the book Cheaper by the Dozen, a semi-autobiography by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth. The book details their childhood as their parents tested theories of education and efficiency on them. The film Cheaper by the Dozen is loosely based on this family and the dilemma of having so many children.

16. Newsies

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Real-life events often inspire musicals. That said, most people do not associate Disney musicals with historical events. This musical is based on the life of Jack Kelly, who leads a group of young newspaper sellers as they fight for better working conditions and fair pay. These actions are a part of the more significant labor movement that we all enjoy the benefits of today.

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17. Dead Ringers

Photo Credit: Téléfilm Canada.

Dead Ringers has recently been revamped as a T.V. show; before that, the story had cult classic status as a horror film by David Cronenberg. Both adaptations are based on the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. The stories are all based on the mysterious events that surround the death of two successful twin surgeons in the 1970s.

 The once respected doctors began to miss appointments and failed to maintain their social life before being found, no longer living, in their apartment. There is still no cause listed for their demise, and this mystery has inspired works of fiction to this day.

18. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

This film centers around a reporter and his lawyer taking a drug-fueled trip from L.A. to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. What isn’t made clear in the film is that these events are based on how Hunter S Thompson remembers the trip.

Hunter was a gonzo news reporter during the ’70s and was famous for his experimentation with various substances. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas chronicles one of his many substance-fueled adventures during this time.

19. Catch Me If You Can

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

How much of the film Catch Me If You Can is accurate Is hard to say. The film is based on the exploits of conman Frank William Abagnale Jr. The problem with the film is that much of what is known about Frank William Abagnale comes from Frank himself.

 Frank has admitted that some of these events are exaggerated, and fact-checkers have spent years pulling apart the intricate web of lies he has told. It is still a fantastic film with at least one foot in the real world.

20. Rocky

Photo Credit: MGM.

Many people cannot hear “Eye of the Tiger” and not think of the film Rocky. This boxing classic is still referenced today and has its host of spin-offs and sequels. But some people may not know that the original movie was based on the life of Chuck Wepner. Wepner’s story has never been credited in the Rocky franchise, but recently, his story was told in the documentary The Real Rocky.

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21. The Amityville Horror

Photo Credit: American International Pictures.

Tragically, The Amityville Horror is based on a mass murder that occurred in Amityville on November 13, 1974. On that day, Ronald DeFoe Jr. took the lives of his parents and four siblings. DeFoe claimed that the house was haunted, and he was compelled to attack them by the forces within the home. This morbid tale has spawned over 30 adaptations, and sequels are still being made today.

22. Scream

Photo Credit: Lionsgate Entertainment.

The film Scream was inspired initially by Danny Rolling, a.k.a. The Gainesville Ripper. Between 1989 and 1990, Rolling took the lives of eight people and was known to spy on college women in their homes.

As gruesome as the inspiration for this film is, Scream is stated to be the inspiration for Brian Draper and Torey Adamcik. In 2006, they took the life of Cassie Stoddart in Idaho, citing Scream as one of their sources of inspiration.

23. The Exorcist

Photo Credit: Blumhouse Productions.

The Exorcist defined horror for a generation and is still terrifying audiences today. This film is even more frightening because it is based on the real-life case involving Father William Bowdern. Bowdern performed a series of exorcisms on an unnamed 14-year-old boy in 1949. 

These events inspired author William Blatty to write The Exorcist in 1971. Much of the book and film information was changed from the original event to protect those involved. Who the young boy was or what happened to him is still unclear.

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Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

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