Top 5 Movies Based on a True Story (Even Though You’d Never Guess)

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It sometimes seems like every other movie to hit the big screen proclaims it is “based on a true story”—and often they are. But just as often, filmmakers use the “true story” line as a sort of marketing ploy. Still, inspiration comes from some strange places, and there are many movies that actually are based on a living person, or real events—despite that famous fictional disclaimer that any such resemblance is purely coincidental.

5 “Chicago”

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Beneath the glitz and glamour of the 2004 film “Chicago,” based on the play of the same name, is a true story of two real women accused of murdering their lovers in Chicago in the roaring ’20s. As a journalist, playwright Maurine Watkins covered the murder trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan (played in the film by Rene Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, respectively), and she based her 1926 play on the stories she filed with the Chicago Tribune. The play, written after Watkins left the field of journalism, was intended to satirize the media’s role in salacious trials.

4 “The Terminal”

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Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European in an American airport in Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film “The Terminal,” but the real-life inspiration for the film was stuck in the airport a good deal longer than Hanks’ character. In the film, Viktor Navorski finds himself trapped in the airport for a few months after a revolution in his home country renders his passport void. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee without passport or papers, lived in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for 18 years. Spielberg’s DreamWorks allegedly paid Nasseri’s attorney $300,000 for the right to use his story in the film, but Nasseri didn’t have a bank account and had no way to access the money.

3 “Almost Famous”

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Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Such is the case with “Almost Famous,” Cameron Crowe‘s 2000 film. Yes, Crowe was a writer for “Rolling Stone” at the age of 15. Yes, he toured with now-legendary bands the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Who. And yes, there is a real woman named Penny Lane. She spells it “Pennie” though—and when Crowe called her to discuss the film, she was shocked he remembered her. Though all the touring stories are covered under the guise of a single fictitious band, “Stillwater,” the stories themselves are true. Apparently the musicians themselves did not disapprove of their portrayal—the film’s soundtrack was the first ever to feature music by Led Zeppelin.

2 “Dead Poets Society”

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Tom Schulman, writer of the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society,” based the story on his experiences as a student at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) is based on Sam Pickering, who was Schulman’s English teacher when he attended the Academy. Although most of the events in the film are fictionalized, Keating’s character takes inspiration from Pickering’s unique teaching style. In 2012, Montgomery Bell Academy dedicated a room within the school, the “Dead Poets Society Room,” in Schulman’s honor.

1 “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

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The comforting thing about horror movies is that we can tell ourselves they’re not real, however Wes Craven’s 1984 horror classic had a very real inspiration. According to Craven, he got the idea for the film after reading three articles in the “L.A. Times” about Southeast Asian immigrants who had died in the middle of nightmares. Families would respond to screaming to find the individual dead; there was never any physical cause of death found. The newspaper never connected the stories, but Craven did, and the idea of a demonic being who kills you in your sleep was born.

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