Popular Movies You Probably Never Knew Are Based on Real Life

We all love a good story — and it’s even better when the story is based in reality. From documentaries to biopics, film has taken us deep into the lives of some of the most interesting people in the world. And you may have learned about a true event without even realizing it.

Here are some of the most popular films that are based on real events, including one that we all love (No. 9).

1. All the President’s Men

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon | Keystone Features/Stringer/Getty Images

You’re well aware of the Watergate scandal — but you probably didn’t realize the story behind exposing Richard Nixon, as outlined in All the President’s Men, is totally fact-based. Mental Floss explains this ’70s classic shares the story of the two reporters who exposed Nixon and his administration during the Watergate scandal. And most of the bizarre happenings in the story are totally true, which is rare even for a movie that totes it’s based on a real story.

Even the newsroom was a direct representation of The Washington Post’s at the time of Watergate, and the crew was able to shoot in the exact courtroom where the burglars were arraigned.

Next: You know this movie’s a classic — but did you know it’s also historically accurate?

2. Life Is Beautiful 

"Life is Beautiful" clip

Life Is Beautiful | YouTube Movies

There are plenty of real-life movies about the Holocaust (Schindler’s List is another), but Life Is Beautiful is still a favorite for most. The film tells the true story of Rubino Romeo Salmoni, a survivor of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII, Daily Mail Online reports. The main character uses his imagination to help his family survive.

In the film, the main character gets shots by a guard before the camp’s liberation, however. In real life, Salmoni lived until 2011.

Next: This recent film about Wall Street was a hit — and it was based on real life. 

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street | Paramount Pictures

Martin Scorsese went for full-out craziness with The Wolf of Wall Street, and audiences loved it. They had such a blast watching the film, in fact, that most forgot it’s based on the real tale of Jordan Belfort, the infamous New York stockbroker who lied his way to making millions, TIME reports.

Scorses reportedly did his best to follow Belfort’s memoir to outline the real-life tale as accurately as possible. Of course, it’s still film — and since Belfort made a living on lying, who knows how accurate his memoir really is.

Next: Here’s a famous horror movie that’s rooted in truth. 

4. The Exorcist

Scene from The Exorcist

Linda Blair levitating in The Exorcist | Warner Bros.

There’s obviously no way all of the events in The Exorcist occurred just as they were presented in the film. But there is a real-life tale that sets the stage for the movie’s story.

The Daily Mirror reports there was a report in 1949 recounting details of one Maryland boy’s strange behavior. According to the story, the boy, known as Roland Doe, heard strange scratching noises in the basement following his aunt’s death. Then, Doe and his family said they witnessed his mattress and other household objects lift into the air on their own. Even a friend of the family confirmed the incident was real, as he said he was flung from a chair he was sitting in.

Next: Did you have any idea this classic was actually based on reality?

5. Almost Famous

Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in "Almost Famous"

Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous | DreamWorks Pictures

It’s not the most accurate story on the list, but even so, Almost Famous stands as the semi-autobiographical film we all know and love. Mental Floss reminds us the movie follows William, a 15-year-old who decides to go on tour in the ’70s with a famous rock band.

Cameron Crowe wrote and directed the film, and he based it off of his own experiences he had touring with bands. Like William, Crowe was a teenaged journalist writing for Rolling Stone, and he toured with bands like Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The movie was nominated for four Oscars.

Next: This ’90s Disney musical retells a very important story.

6. Newsies

A scene in Disney's "Newsies"

A scene in Disney’s Newsies | YouTube Movies

You remember other Disney classics, but we can’t forget about Newsies. This dramatic musical set in 1899 relays the real events of the newsboys’ strike, which occurred when young newspaper sellers refused to sell the paper once they realized they were being exploited by publishers. New York Daily News explains the young boys organized a union and announced a strike from selling, which caused major issues in the business.

It’s an incredible story — and one totally based on reality. It’s also a Disney classic you can feel good about sharing with children, as they’ll learn something new.

Next: This famous war movie was based on amazing true events.  

7. Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

Soldiers in Saving Private Ryan | Amblin Entertainment

When you think of war movies, you can’t forget Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s Oscar-winning hit outlines the journey of what it took for eight men to save the life of one. And while the majority of the film is totally fictional, it’s partly based on the four Niland brothers who served in the army during World War II.

During the war, Mental Floss notes three of the Niland brothers were likely killed in action, and the one left, Fritz, was sent back to America. But then it was discovered that one of the brothers thought dead, Edward, was still alive and captured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The movie loosely follows this realization and subsequent journey.

Next: This classic story of a con artist was factual.

8. Catch Me If You Can

Frank Abagnale from "Catch Me If You Can" at "Talks at Google"

Frank Abagnale, writer of Catch Me If You Can | Talks at Google

The story sounded too crazy to be true, but it really is based on the life of Frank Abagnale. Reel Rundown explains Abagnale started conning people at the age of 15 when he first created eight different identities for himself successfully. By the time he was 21, he was wanted for check forgery and being an imposter in over a dozen different countries.

In 1980, Abagnale wrote Catch Me If You Can about his life, which then became the hit film.

Next: We all know this film — but did you know it was based on real events?

9. Goodfellas


Goodfellas | Warner Bros.

There are plenty of great gangster movies, but we all know and love Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s classic tells the story of Henry Hill, an Italian mobster who pulled off the Lufthansa heist with his associates, All That’s Interesting reports.

When the heist was performed in 1978, it was the biggest to ever occur in the U.S. And Goodfellas did an excellent job of portraying Hill and those who helped him, like “Jimmy the Gent” and Hill’s wife, Karen. Of course, there’s much more to the story than the film was able to portray, too, so read up on the event for even more insider info.

Next: We’ll never forget Jack Nicholson in this iconic role.

10. The Shining

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining"

Jack Nicholson in The Shining | Warner Bros.

Even if you’re not a horror movie fan, you’re certainly familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s classic, The Shining. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, the film shows the strange occurrences that happen when the Torrance family moves into the Overlook Hotel.

The Sun reports in real life, the haunted Stanley Hotel in Colorado is what gave King inspiration for the story. Reports claimed the owner, who died in 1926, haunted the hotel and bothered guests in room 401. And room 217, which is allegedly the most terrifying, is said to be the home of a dead chambermaid who pokes guests if they don’t keep the room tidy.

Next: Critics adored this recent film.

11. Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving | History via YouTube

This recent film got tons of Oscar praise, and it was based on a real couple. People reports the movie chronicles the life of Richard and Mildred Loving as they fought for Virginia to recognize their interracial marriage as legitimate in 1967. They managed to bring their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, too.

Richard died in a car accident and Mildred died from pneumonia eight years after the Supreme Court voted in their favor. And their surviving daughter, Peggy, says she’s grateful her parents’ story “is finally being told.”

Next: We almost forget this 2001 classic was based on a real person.

12. A Beautiful Mind

Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind"

Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind | Universal Pictures

Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is one of the more memorable movies from the early 2000s. And Slate reminds us it’s based on the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash creates a contribution to Princeton that revolutionizes economics, Slate informs us, but soon thereafter, he was hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia. Eventually, the real Nash received a Nobel peace prize after his mental health was stabilized.

Not everything in the film regarding Nash was true, but the film certainly captures his spirit. And that’s what it’s all about.

Next: This amazing World War II story will not be soon forgotten.

13. The Pianist

Adrien Brody in "The Pianist"

Adrien Brody in The Pianist | Movieclips via YouTube

The Pianist was a beautiful take on the events of World War II, and it’s easy to forget that it was based on true events. The movie chronicles Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who continued to play his music as he dealt with the atrocities committed by the Nazis, All That’s Interesting reports.

There was a real-life Wladyslaw Szpilman, too, who was saved because of his amazing piano skills but subsequently watched as friends and family were shipped to concentration camps. He survived the war, as a German officer also helped save his life.

Next: Here’s another incredible war movie based on true events.

14. Hotel Rwanda

Paul Rusesabagina

Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired Hotel Rwanda | CGTN America via YouTube

Unlike the other war films that made the list, Hotel Rwanda chronicles the events of real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina. The movie shows how Rusesabagina helps Rwandans during war times by allowing refugees to hide in his hotel.

Rusesabagina was awarded the Lantos Human Rights prize in 2011 for his bravery during wartimes, The Guardian reports. And while he really did use his hotel to help families survive, the historical accuracy of the movie has been called into question. In any case, this movie serves as a good overall reminder of what was going on at the time.

Next: This harrowing tale wasn’t just entertaining — it was also based on a memoir. 

15. Wild

Reese Witherspoon in "Wild"

Reese Witherspoon in Wild | Fox Searchlight Pictures

Reese Witherspoon was so convincing in Wild that we almost forgot the movie was an actual retelling of Cheryl Strayed’s life. In real life, Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail after major life events, like her mother’s death and her own divorce, TIME says. She walked the trail alone, meeting some folks along the way, while on a quest to find herself.

The movie paints a startlingly accurate picture of Strayed’s life, too. Much of her backstory, journey across the trail, and heartbreaking inner monologues were authentic to Strayed’s experiences.

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