7 Movies Based on Unbelievable True Stories

A foundation of real-life stories hides beneath many blockbuster movies. Whether adapted from memoirs or novels, the stories of real people often inspire movie producers. A few of theses movies remain fan favorites generations after their release. For some, like Apocalypse Now, there are documentaries that tell an even stranger and more unbelievable stories than the dramatized versions. Here are seven of the true stories behind blockbuster movies.  

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The Exorcist, 1973.

As unbelievable as it may seem, real-life stories influenced William Peter Blatty who wrote the book on which they based the movie. Blatty based the character of Father Merrin on a British archaeologist he knew. Then, he used a series of events centered on a Maryland boy known as Roland Doe to inspire the possession and exorcism of the character Regan. 


Escape from Alcatraz, 1979.

Alcatraz, the island federal prison in San Francisco Bay, operated from 1934 to 1963. Its most lasting reputation is for being impossible to escape. That didn’t stop 41 inmates from trying. Although guards recaptured most, and the sea killed the rest. The story of three of the men who escaped recapture and made it to shore was so unbelievable it became a feature film starring Clint Eastwood. 


Apocalypse Now, 1979.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness inspired the eight-time Oscar nominated film. Lesser known is the LA Times obituary that also influenced the story. It was of a double-agent who was a Green Beret during the Vietnam War. While Apocalypse Now’s setting differs from the novel, the themes are the same, following men’s descent into madness from isolation and alienation, moral confusion, and racial discrimination. 

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Midnight Express, 1978.

This movie follows Billy Hayes, an American college student caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey. He’s sent to a brutal Turkish prison, from which he later escapes. After the movie’s release, the facts of the story conflated with the sensationalized version. The true story remains unknown. Despite its six Oscar nominations, critics deride the movie for its racist portrayals. 


Catch Me If You Can, 2002.

Leonardo DiCaprio depicts Frank Abagnale, a teenage conman who engaged in check fraud, travelled the world for free, and impersonated a pilot, lawyer, and doctor all before he turned 21. The FBI found and arrested Abagnale, when a girlfriend turned him in to authorities. After his arrest, he executed multiple jailbreaks, attempting to get to Brazil, before the FBI exchanged his freedom for his help to apprehend other conmen. 

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American Sniper, 2014.

Based on the memoir by Chris Kyle, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, the movie tells the story of Kyle’s struggle to re-enter his life after four tours in Iraq as a sniper. Once he returned to the States, he counseled other war veterans to deal with his own trauma. While he was helping a U.S. Marine suffering from PTSD, the veteran shot and killed him. 


12 Years a Slave, 2013.

An 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup is the basis for the critically acclaimed movie. Born a freeman in New York state, Northup travels to Washington D.C. where he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. His account details the slave markets of both Washington D.C. and New Orleans, and the treatment of slaves on Louisiana plantations. After a dozen years, he’s able to contact his family, who worked with the state to arrange his freedom. 


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