Very Loosely Based on a True Story

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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"The following is based on actual events. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed."

The truth is a funny thing. It's slippery, it's not always self-evident, it can seem implausible, it can even be inconvenient, and more often than not it's just plain boring. Very Loosely Based On A True Story occurs when a writer decides that reality just doesn't pack enough punch in some way, and decides to improve on the historical record. Arguably, this has actually saved some er...true stories. For example, The Patriot would have been two and a half hours of a group of Minute Men hiding for hours in swamps sniping English troops and then running away had they kept it true to the historical events of the time. Doesn't exactly sound riveting, does it?

This isn't always a bad thing; after all, having the Von Trapps climb a mountain to freedom was much more uplifting to Cold War audiences than sticking them on a train to Italy would have been. The problem comes when writers go too far and take all semblance of reality out of a character they claim to have based on a real individual. It can leave knowledgeable members of the audience wondering if the writers only claimed to have based the story on a real event to attract fans, and it can leave less knowledgeable members thinking they know more than they really do about the past.

Very Loosely Based on a True Story often occurs because of Executive Meddling, especially if some of the characters are based on living persons who might sue them if the depiction is too unsympathetic. Another reason can be to make characters less three-dimensional so as not to confuse the viewers, whom they believe won't accept a socialist, atheist, or gay hero or a villain who loves his spouse. Sometimes historical incidents will be changed because they don't fit into Hollywood History or because the truth would be inconvenient, as when cowboys in old Westerns were all played by white actors when many real cowboys were black, Hispanic, or American Indian.

This is a common enough phenomenon in books and movies based on supposed paranormal events that this prologue was originally only about movies based on paranormal stories. Paranormal incidents often have to be exaggerated because the original narratives (especially supposed "eyewitness" accounts) tend not to be very plausible or exciting, especially to anyone with a grain of common sense. So filmmakers and writers edit the story to make it seem more dramatic, authentic, or in tune with society's (or the writers') beliefs about religion, the supernatural, and UFOs. They may even claim it really happened if they think that'll scare the viewers more.

There are two parts to this, stories with the actual names of the individuals involved and stories where everything except the general story is fictionalized (with considerable overlap).

If a film or book says it's Inspired by, it's a sign that it'll be nowhere near the actual true story.

See also Skepticism Failure, Documentary of Lies, The Tasteless But True Story, Inspired By, Suggested By. Anything based on Urban Legends overlaps with this trope pretty heavily. Compare Roman à Clef, which is tightly based on a true story, and Biopic.

Examples of Very Loosely Based on a True Story include:

Comic Books

  • Alan Moore's From Hell was based primarily on an earlier book entitled Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution, which was later largely discredited. Moore, in the book's lengthy annotations, freely admits he doesn't believe a word of it, but was never one to let facts get in the way of a good story. Despite this, the actual history portrayed in the book was vigorously researched, more so than some scholarly works on the Ripper. The Movie, however, plays fast and loose with both the conspiracy theory and the real history.
    • The Book used, as part of its "evidence," the long-discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion, though mercifully taking it as anti-Masonic (the "Zion" in their interpretation being allegorical rather than literal) instead of anti-Semitic.


  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Real story (based on Anneliese Michel), a young woman from a very religious background had some strange seizures. Based on her beliefs and those of her priests she stopped taking medication and relied on prayer. She died, but was convinced that the Virgin Mary had told her that her death would inspire many. Rather sad, especially since her death was not the result of seizures, but severe malnutrition and dehydration that arose from the ongoing exorcism. In the film, all courtroom scenes and scenes featuring doctors are flat and matter of fact. The fact that the doctors don't fully understand the condition is played up. The fact that the priest has an explanation to offer is played up. Whether his explanation makes sense is not questioned. Scenes concerning the attacks have spooky cinematography and chilling music and a general horror movie feel to engage the viewer.
    • Also based on Anneliese Michel is the German movie Requiem, which is more reserved.
    • The real story is a bit less dramatic when you take into account that she had seen other priests about her being possessed. Those priests told her that she doesn't match the established criteria for demonic possession, something much more dramatic than what she had. She also claimed to be possessed by Lucifer, who probably has better things to do with his time.
  • The Amityville Horror. A family bought a house in a small town. Some murders had been committed there. Later they left complaining that the house was haunted and the site of a number of strange phenomena. Subsequent Adaptation Decay upon Adaptation Decay took things farther and farther away from what may or may not have actually happened - some incidents in the book provably didn't happen, the film made more things up, and the sequels and remakes were entirely fictitious, while still claiming a loose connection to the true story.
  • In the Indie chiller Open Water, it's actually based on a true story, but the events of the film have been invented because no one can know what actually happened—and the actual couple were older.
  • The movie Primeval, while it deals with an actual, real-life giant crocodile (Gustave), exaggerates every other aspect of the events it claims to recount, from doubling his number of human kills, to depicting him seeking out and attacking entire groups of clearly defended humans (the real Gustave strikes at groups of three or fewer tourists, primarily when they are off-guard, and certainly when they lack shelter). And that's without mentioning the film's ads, which portray him as "the most prolific serial killer in history"... though, to be fair, that last probably wasn't the filmmaker's idea. On top of all that, it's a case of Never Trust a Trailer—Gustave only appears in brief stretches, and most of the film deals with a local civil war, complete with Anvilicious moral about how we Americans ignore fighting in other countries. The crocodile is reduced to Chekhov's Gun.
  • The film Eight Below is about an American expedition in 1993 where almost all the dogs live. It was based on the true story of a Japanese expedition in 1958 in which almost all the dogs died.
  • Enigma: The Katyn Massacre definitely took place, and the British and US governments did indeed suppress evidence of it in order to keep their fragile alliance with the Soviet Union from falling apart, but the events as depicted in the book are entirely fabricated; the only spy to make it to the Bletchley Park station was British and passing information to the Soviets. The 2001 film takes it up a notch by cutting Alan Turing out of the film completely and assigning his role in the war to protagonist Tom Jericho, where in the book Jericho is a junior member of Turing's cryptanalysis staff.
  • A Beautiful Mind was the story of John Nash, while basically telling the story, the movie shows Nash seeing people that don't really exist, whereas in real life he only had auditory hallucinations. The movie also ignores that John and Alicia divorced, and eventually remarried, as well as the fact that Nash had a son from a previous relationship.
  • Story lines concerning the Cottingley Fairies hoax are sometimes played, at least relatively, straight or assert that Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths did take photographs of fairies... despite the fact than anyone can tell they're fakes nowadays just by looking at the things. Even Wright's and Griffiths' admission that most of the photos were fakes doesn't stop this.
    • This happens in Torchwood where the fairies are part of an episode's back story, and at least one of the fairies in one of the photos is real.
    • Fairy Tale: A True Story asserts that part of it was real; The girls are portrayed as actually seeing fairies, but the fairies cannot be photographed, so the girls create paper models of what they've seen and photograph those.
    • Photographing Fairies has the hero, a photographic expert, prove that the Cottingley fairy photos are fake, but he is then presented with a set of fairy photos that he can't disprove. And of course they turn out to be genuine.
  • Nacho Libre was loosely (very, very loosely) based on the life of Fray Tormenta, a real-life monk-turned-luchador who supported an orphanage by wrestling for 23 years. To his credit, Jack Black never claimed that the movie was a true story, only that it was inspired by Tormenta.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The screenwriter kindly informs us at the start of the movie that "Most of what follows is true."
  • School of Rock was inspired by the story of The Langley Schools Music Project but was otherwise completely fictional.
  • The trailer for the ghost movie White Noise opened with a minute-long explanation of EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) complete with "real" examples of the phenomena (which were actually made up) in an attempt to sell the audience on the film. It didn't quite work. Similarly, the US remake of Shutter opens with an explanation of spirit photography and a montage of photos with blurry, half-resolved images showing up, complete with mentions of how the people in the photos died soon after.
  • The 'based on true events' part of the movie Wolf Creek seems to be limited to "there were some British backpackers murdered in Australia one time." And the movie was actually written prior to the disappearance of Peter Falconio and Ivan Milat's killings, but was not filmed until years later—so, cashing in rather than inspiration. For the record, neither case happened anywhere near (within a thousand miles of) Wolf Creek; the Ivan Milat murders didn't even happen in the outback.
  • Fritz Lang's famous film M was based on cases of several child-murderers (and at least one cannibal) throughout Germany over the previous few years, although it was most directly inspired by one in particular. Although in this case, Lang actively denied that there was any connection.
    • Apparently the Nazis, who were just coming to power, thought it was just a little too allegorical. This prompted the change of the original title, which was "Murderers Among Us."
  • Murderous Psycho Lesbian sisters Claire and Solange in The Maids are kind of based on Christine and Lea Papin who really were murderous lesbian maids... Well, resemblance ends here.
  • The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was heavily touted as being based on a true story. The film chronicles an inbred family of kidnappers, torturers, serial killers, and implied cannibals who brutally slay a carload of road tripping teens. The actual case it was based on was a solitary, fairly quiet man who killed only two middle-aged women, without a chainsaw, and in Wisconsin. While two murders are indeed tragic, that's still a lot less than the scores of murders implied in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
    • The original movie touted this claim as well. Of course, that doesn't keep it from being a cinema classic.
    • It also has some relation to the legend of Sawney Bean which has been around for several hundred years but is probably fictional.
    • The same story that "inspired" The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Ed Gein) also inspired Psycho. Norman Bates was a good deal closer to Gein, but the story still deviated pretty far.
      • To be completely fair, Psycho was not purported to be based on a true story.
      • Gein was also partially the inspiration for Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. Something about making a suit of human skin just seems to stick with people.
    • Ed Gein has inspired quite a few movies about serial killers for someone who wasn't one. According to the other wiki you've got to kill three.
      • Gein's infamy is more for the Squick value, as he was mainly digging up corpses for his material, rather than shopping at Mood. He was not a competent killer, and was caught immediately when he decided to turn to live targets.
  • The horror film The Strangers is a prime example of this trope: it opens by labeling the plot of the film as "based on true events"—supposedly the Manson Family murders. Similarities are slight. Another thing in the movie with a basis in reality is a technique employed by burglars (burglars, not serial killers) in which they knock on a random door to ask for a person who doesn't live there. If no one is home, they break in and steal stuff.
  • Suspiria, believe it or not, was inspired by what co-writer Daria Nicolodi's grandmother claimed really happened; that she (the grandmother) as a young woman fled a music school because she found out they were practicing black magic.
  • The non-supernatural parts of A Nightmare on Elm Street is inspired by events that happened in the hometown the director lived in as a kid. Specifically, Freddy is the name of the kid who tormented wee little Craven, Freddy's appearance was based on that of a old homeless man wee Craven had a terrifying run-in with one night, and the "died in their sleep" thing was based on a few cases of young Cambodian refugees dying in their sleep of no apparent cause after repeatedly saying they were frightened to go to sleep.
  • Cool Runnings is based on a true story about a team of bobsledders from Jamaica, in the sense that "in 1988 the Winter Olympics bobsledding event included a team from Jamaica." In real life it was the idea of two American businessmen (not of the athletes themselves), the team traveled to the Olympics on corporate funding (as opposed to the wacky fund raising antics they resorted to in the film), the athletes were all from the military (they did not consist of three sprinters and a competitive pushcart driver), and the team had only middling success, although their underdog status meant that they were widely feted throughout the city.
    • Also extremely noticable was that the athletes in the Calgary Olympic Games were extremely supportive of the Jamaican bobsledders, as oppose to their status in the movie.
    • The film doesn't even extend the actual bobsledders the courtesy of using their real names in the movie.
  • Jaws was loosely inspired by a series of shark attacks along the New Jersey shore in 1916.
  • Parodied in Anchorman which opens with a title card claiming that it's a true story and "Only the names, locations and events have been changed."
  • The movie 21 and the book Bringing Down the House, both based on the exploits of a blackjack card-counting team based at MIT, both fall squarely into this trope. Probably one of the most infamous changes is that the protagonist, who is Chinese-American in real life, became a Caucasian in the adaptations—but in comparison to some of the other inaccuracies, that's a minor deviation from the truth. Most of the supporting roles are Composite Characters, with one possibly based on three distinct individuals, and several key plot events were entirely invented by the book's author (who was also a co-writer of 21).
  • Spoofed in the '90s remake Attack of the 50 Foot Woman where the scientist introducing the movie assures us that everything that happened is absolutely true.
  • Subverted/Lampshaded by Domino. The trailer states "Based on a True Story... Sort of."
  • The movie series The Stepfather and The Remix was based on the true case of John List though List was not a serial killer.
    • The Stepfather does fit his case very well, it just goes the extra step of having him do this habitually instead of it being a one-time incident.
  • An American Haunting, being an adaptation of an adaptation of a southern United States folk legend, takes several liberties with the story, most notably: Betsy Bell's sexual abuse by her father.
  • The film A Place in the Sun is adapted from the novel An American Tragedy, which is itself based on the story of the 1906 murder of Grace Brown by her boyfriend Chester Gillette. While the movie takes liberties with the story—Brown was a lovely young woman but is portrayed as frumpy and nagging, the real-life murder was certain but left ambiguous in the film (possibly an accident), the plot follows the real-life events—Brown and Gillette were romantically involved and she was insisting that they marry due to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, while he was reluctant because doing so would have ended his chances of advancing into wealthy society. After inviting her away for the weekend under the pretense of it being a wedding trip, he took her out onto a lake where he promptly struck her on the head and threw her into the water to drown. The movie has them both falling out of the boat, but the fade to black leaves the viewer wondering if he might very well have tried to save her and simply been unsuccessful. In both mediums, the man was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
  • The Untold Story is said to be based on a true story but there doesn't seem to be much information on the supposed killings. Considering there is a sequel to this movie, it may have been hype.
  • The Damned United is a largely fictionalized account of Brian Clough's tenure as manager for Leeds United, first a novel by David Peace and then adapted as The Film of the Book starring Michael Sheen.
  • Parodied in Return of the Living Dead, with the disclaimer "All of the events in this film are true. Everything is shown as it actually happened".
  • Brotherhood of the Wolf, surprisingly, was based on actual events, although the conspiracy angle was a fiction. It is still unknown exactly what was responsible.
  • Fire in the Sky; After a long night getting drunk in the woods with his buddies in the summer of 1975, Travis Walton wanders off, gets lost, and turns up five days later, dehydrated, delirious, and amnesiac. The film shows him being beamed aboard a flying saucer in full view of his friends.
    • Travis Walton's actual story differs utterly and completely from the horrorfest portrayed in the film. According to his official story he awakened in a room with creatures with big eyes and orange jumpsuits. He had a metal device around his chest. He struggled to his feet and picked up a red rod from a nearby table to defend himself, and the beings left. Walton walked down a corridor and found a room where he made "stars" on the ceiling move, and then was escorted to another room by a tall alien who ignored his questions. He and a few other tall aliens encouraged Walton to get onto a table and they put something over his face and he passed out, next finding himself in the woods. This is nothing like the being shrink wrapped while having needles and milk put into his eyes as he tried to scream that the film portrayed.
      • So, basically, if he really was kidnapped by aliens, they'd be pissed and offended at how we demonized them for a quick buck?
  • Battleship Potemkin. It's true that the sailors on that ship did mutiny. But the famous scene where the Imperial soldiers attack the crowd of people and knock a Baby Carriage down the stairs is pure fiction, worked into the story for propaganda purposes.
    • Which didn't stop one of the soldiers from coming to the police and confessing about a double murder after watching the movie.
  • Oliver Stone's JFK, arguing for a conspiracy. Real story: nobody's sure, but here's a place to start.
    • Somewhat regrettable is the fact that to this day, many people believe a number of things about the Kennedy assassination which are outright false (based on easily verifiable information from objective sources), based solely on Stone's film, accepting the known falsehoods as fact and dismissing actual facts as fiction. In essence, actual history has been erased in the public consciousness by an assumption that JFK was entirely factual.
      • This is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Movies in particular have a way of imprinting themselves on the consciousness, to the point that even people who were actually present at an historical event can find their recollections referencing/affected by the dramatic account quite unintentionally.
      • Oliver Stone, more recently, has even expressed that he wishes he had made it a little more clear from the beginning that the plot of the film was mostly made up.
  • Practically any story based on Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, who was killed by the Bolsheviks with the rest of her immediate family. Practically every film based on her takes the approach that one of the many claimants to being Anastasia (usually Anna Anderson, or a made up person) really was the Princess/Grand Duchess. Considering that the bodies of the last two missing Romanovs have now been discovered, anything and everything that suggests Anastasia lived is now firmly in Jurisfiction.
    • Don Bluth's 1997 animated adaptation of the 1956 Ingrid Bergman movie probably takes the most liberties, but then Bluth admitted he never intended it to be accurate or even close: he reduced Anastasia's age by 7 years (she was 15 at the end of 1916 in real life, not eight as at the beginning the film) and made Rasputin into a fantasy character who cast spells, had a talking bat, and came Back from the Dead as a walking corpse; and even more outrageous—in the sense of being not merely fantastic but allohistorical—was Rasputin being cast out by the Tsar. In fact, Rasputin (quite undeservedly) remained a royal favorite to the end of his life and after. As everything was falling apart, Tsarina Alexandra wrote many letters to Nicholas lamenting, "If only our Dear Friend [Rasputin] were still with us! He would know what to do!"
    • Some of the corpses were not identified until 2008 well after the films were made so some excuse can be given to the authors.
  • Pocahontas deserves special mention here, the movie is the first Disney animated story that is claimed to be "based on a true story", and by that of course, that Colonial Virginia had talking trees, magical Native Americans, numerous cliffs and nature scenes that are no where to be found in coastal Virginia and to beat a language barrier, one only need to "listen with their heart.".
  • 300 is an in-universe example of this. The basic sequence of events is true to life, but the story is being told by a Greek storyteller who is both playing up the heroism of the Greeks and adding fantastic elements to improve the story.
  • The Bank Job. The government at the time put a D-Notice on the whole thing.
  • Hoodlum, especially when it comes to Dutch Shultz's death. The movie casts the protagonist as the ring leader behind the murder, while in real life it was related to the threat Schultz posed to a local District Attorney.
  • The Elephant Man. A few details are accurate; Merrick's age as Treves meets him, his appearance (it had better be, given the prosthetics were cast from a cast of the real Merrick), the existence of Nurse Nora Ireland, the building of the cardboard church (more or less), and Merrick's death—but the central plot of the story is almost entirely concocted. To give David Lynch his due, he was going entirely off Treves' memoirs, and Treves himself had a very different impression of the showman who had exhibited Merrick than reality would represent.
  • Cabaret is a film based on a musical based in part on part of a novel by Christopher Isherwood allegedly based on his encounters with one Sally Bowles. As a nice coincidence, Liza Minnelli greatly resembles the description of Sally in the novel.
  • The Sound of Music: While the basic outline of the story is true, all of the details (including the time lines, the songs, the names of the children and even the geographical relationship between Switzerland and Austria) were rearranged for the musical. You cannot get to Switzerland by climbing over the mountains from Salzburg.
    • The Von Trapp Family were musicians but they specialized in Austrian Folk music, not American show tunes.
    • Ironically, it's often claimed that Georg von Trapp's status as a retired captain of the Austrian Navy must be a falsehood because Austria is landlocked. But before 1918 Austria was much larger; Austrian lands included the shore of the Eastern Adriatic from Trieste (now in Italy) to Dubrovnik (now in Croatia). It had a small but effective and well-respected navy whose main task before World War I was to protect these ports.
      • And to culminate that, the real Von Trapp earned a medal while serving on a ship off the coast of China, during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900. His uniform jacket is preserved in the Military History museum in Vienna.
      • Being landlocked doesn't stop a nation from having a naval. force. Nor are countries restricted from having a landlocked naval base.
        • World War II saw tons of landlocked naval bases, due to the need to train naval aviators. But Georg von Trapp was the captain of a warship—the U-boat ace of the Adriatic, no less.
    • In real life, Von Trapp married Maria in 1926, rather than in 1938 as in the film, and they had two children before leaving Austria. In the film they marry in 1938 and have no time to have children before heading overseas.
  • Ip Man, based on the eponymous master of Bruce Lee, only covers part of his adult life and some of the fights are fictionalized.
    • The Ip Man movies are heavily fictionalized, and retooled his life and circumstances completely to suit Chinese propaganda purposes.
  • The main story in 1953's Titanic was derived from the real-life drama of the Navratil kidnapping, of course changing the various sexes, ages, nationalities, and ultimate outcome of the family involved.
  • Fighter in The Wind similarly skips over sections of Mas Oyama's life and creates others out of whole cloth. General Kato is completely fictional, and "Choi Baedal" wasn't his given name (it was Choi Yeong-eui). There's also some dissent over how much he was into Korean patriotism, as he joined the Japanese air force and took a Japanese name and citizenship voluntarily.
  • Pearl Harbor had problems other than historical inaccuracies, but here's a few of them:
    • Admiral Husband Kimmel is shown golfing before the attack. He was totally unprepared for the attack, but was nowhere near the greens.
    • Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are shown taking to the air and battling the Zeros. In reality, only Kenneth Taylor and George Welch managed to get into the air, and they weren't being portrayed in the film. They're also seen flying in the Doolittle raid over Tokyo, but there are no pilots who flew in both battles.
    • Affleck is seen serving in Brittan's Eagle Squadron. While the squadron did include Americans, they were all civilian. Any US Military would have violated neutrality at the time.
    • Worse, Baldwin as Doolittle is shown as Affleck's commander in a fighter squadron. In 1940 he was actually a reserve officer working in procurement. Affleck also flies in a Spitfire with Polish squadron markings and, by the way, the Eagle squadrons were formed AFTER the Battle of Britain was over.
    • In one scene, a soldier displays a dollar bill with "HAWAII" written on it. The bills were issued in Hawaii so they could be declared illegal if the Japanese invaded, but the bills weren't issued until June 1942, long after the attack.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai resembles actual history only so far as the fact that a bridge was built over that river and it did get blown up. In real life, there were actually two bridges and they were destroyed two years after their completion by an aerial bombing. This, of course, means the circumstances under which the bridge was blown up in the film are purely fictional. That should give you an idea how accurate the rest of it is.
  • Catch Me If You Can engages in this quite a bit. Besides throwing in the Freudian Excuse for Frank becoming a con-artist and counterfeiter, many details from Frank Abagnale Jr.'s life were altered or added in the film. For instance, Frank is shown as an only child, when in real life, he had three other siblings. But most notably, Frank Jr. is depicted reaching out to his father in-between cons, whereas the actual Frank Jr. never saw or spoke with his father again after leaving home. This drastically changes Frank's motivation in the film: his relationship with his father is portrayed as having been so close that he can only stop his criminal lifestyle if his father wants him to; instead his father (still embittered over the lack of support he received when his business went under) refuses and uses his son as a weapon to get back at the government. In reality no such thing happened of course - Frank continued simply because he was good at it, and because it was preferable to getting a hard-working job or going to jail.
    • Frank's quasi-friendship with Carl while Frank is on the run is entirely invented, although Frank and the agent who was chasing him did become friends after Frank was released from prison.
    • He certainly didn't escape from the plane they way they show it in the film. For one thing the septic tank on airplanes rarely detours into the luggage area.
    • In his memoir Frank claims to have done exactly that (escaped out an airplane toilet). Of course his memoir might have been Very Loosely Based on a True Story as well. In the memoir, he had flown back to the United States on a Vickers VC10, the toilet unit lifts out, so he could have escaped.
    • Frank was not finally caught in France by any cunning FBI work. What actually happened was that after he had gone to ground in a small village, he was spotted by a Pan Am stewardess on vacation, who notified the police.
  • They Died With Their Boots On pretty much makes up everything besides the fact that George Armstrong Custer served in the Civil War, and was killed with all his men by Indians.
    • An Enforced Trope, up to a point, as there are several conflicting versions of events from Native American sources and historians are still trying to piece together the details even today.
  • A very notable aversion in Freedom Writers. It seems incredibly out there, one notable occurrence being getting Miep Gies to visit their classroom, which is implausible in real life to say the least. But the actual students and teacher were involved in the making of the film and script writing and such, to make sure it stayed true to what happened.
    • Actually the movie changed the relationship slightly between the teacher and her husband. While it's true he left, it was actually because he had been cheating on her for a while. After learning this some of the students were on their way to rough him up before she stopped them.
  • Elizabeth: Oh, Elizabeth. Among its many fallacies:
    • People who were dead.
    • People who were the wrong age (plus or minus twenty years in some cases!).
    • Elizabeth having sex willy-nilly all over the place. (True, some people don't believe she stayed a virgin her whole life. However, reputable historians now believe that she was a virgin.) She was a savvy ruler who knew that if it could be proven she was no longer a virgin, she would lose all her power and b)She would literally not have had the opportunity to have sex, because she was constantly surrounded by maids, courtiers, etc., she had several bedmaids, so she never slept alone, and she had no way of being certain which of these people were spies for one of her many enemies and could destroy her with a report of any sexual indiscretion.)
    • Rumor has it that the director, who's Indian, was just using Elizabeth as a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo for Indira Gandhi and her struggles to defuse religious tension,which might explain the... casual attitude to history.
  • Despite being a Disney musical, Newsies is based on a real newsboys' strike; the newsies' nicknames are mostly taken from contemporary records, the conditions of their work are fairly accurately depicted, and several of the incidents in the film closely follow the real events, but otherwise it's pretty much fiction. The real Newsboys Strike was led by Kid Blink, who does appear in the film (with an eye patch!) even if he isn't leading the strike.
  • Finding Neverland tells the story of how J. M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan through his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, but kills off the husband, deletes one of the boys, and repeats the conventional wisdom that the story was really about the boy named Peter (not his brothers)... a bit of baggage that contributed to the real Peter's eventual suicide. Oh, and Johnny Depp went without Barrie's trademark mustache.
  • The film The Alphabet Killer was very loosely based on the story of three murders in the Rochester, New York area in the early 1970s.
  • Roland Emmerich's The Patriot is basically a loose and PC version of the real life of Francis Marion. If you ask, no, he didn't free his slaves.
  • Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, starring Jason Scott Lee, claims to be the story of Bruce Lee's life. It gets many things wrong - the time line of his life, his "famous" match with Johnny Sun, his book's publication before his death, the nature of his back injury, and other similar things. It also adds extra fights to the movie (such as one turning Shih Kien, who played Han in Enter the Dragon, into a covert Chinese assassin out to kill Lee), and invented an extra subplot involving a demon chasing Bruce Lee and his son in his nightmares.
  • The Wind and The Lion is a retelling of the 1904 "Perdicaris incident," in which a Berber bandit (Sean Connery) kidnaps an American (Candice Bergen), leading Theodore Roosevelt to send in the Marines . . . except, in real life, Perdicaris was a man, and there was a lot less shooting and swordplay than the movie suggests.
  • The Last King of Scotland is a film about Idi Amin's life. However, even though a statement at the beginning of the film says it's a true story, the character Nicholas Garrigan never existed and is loosely based on Bob Astles. The film is also an adaptation of a fiction work with the same title.
  • Braveheart. The film is only loosely based on the actual man and the historical events of the time. People love pointing out the great many inaccuracies in the film, though the narrator admits in the very beginning that "historians will call me a liar," lampshading the trope.
  • A Beautiful Mind completely misrepresents the work, career, family life, delusions, bizarre behavior, and cure of John Nash. Everybody in the movie is more sympathetic than the equivalent person in real life (the real John Nash's wife divorced him), but some critics think that the truth (that Nash recovered from schizophrenia without treatment) is too important to replace with an anodyne about loving families and putting your trust in psychiatrists. Liberties taken with Nash's story range from the egregious - Nash's homosexual relationships were axed - to those covered by Artistic License - Nash's hallucinations were strictly auditory, but that presents obvious problems for film making.
  • Cellular doesn't openly brand itself as being a true story or even inspired by one but some elements of the film were Ripped from the Headlines, based on the infamous Rampart scandals of the 1990s.
  • The plot of Karla is (sadly) quite true to reality, but decided to portray Homolka as yet another victim of Bernardo's sociopathic antics - despite the fact that it's long-since been established that she was just as culpable as Bernardo. The Canadian media and public were understandably appalled.
  • Glory Road is a semi-fictionalized account of the events leading to the 1966 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, in which Don Haskins, head coach of the Texas Western College led a team with an all-black starting lineup. However, it makes it seem that Haskins turned the team into a champion in one season (it took several years), turns his playing five black players in the starting lineup into something of a personal statement about race (when, in reality, it was simply because they were his five best players) and exaggerated how much of a underdog the Miners were (they certainly weren't favored, but they'd made the tournament the last few years before 1966).
  • Nino Brown, Villain Protagonist of New Jack City, was based on Boston drug kingpin, Darryl Whiting. In fact, Nino throwing one of his lieutenants under the buss to save himself in the final act was directly lifted from Whiting's federal trial. (Nino got a ludicrously light sentence, Whiting got life.)
  • The Emerald Forest was about a cute little white blonde American kid adopted and Raised by Natives in the jungles of Peru as his engineer dad searched for him. The "true story" is actually a mishmosh of several different accounts, one of which is about a Peruvian child, the son of a construction worker. The whitewashing was done avowedly to help the audience "relate" to a white father's anguished desperation, as they couldn't have done if he'd been a brown-skinned construction worker played by a great Peruvian actor.
  • Evilenko is an Italian horror movie that is very loosely based on the crimes of Andrei Chikatilo, a Russian serial killer. The movie portrays him as a hard-liner Soviet possessed of psychic powers enabling him to lure his victims to their deaths. It even goes so far as to suggest that American or European agencies wanted to whisk him away in order to study his hypnotic powers but were denied.
  • The 2001 drama The Believer, starring Ryan Gosling, is loosely based on an incident in the 1960s in which a New York Times reporter uncovered the fact that a high-ranking member of the American Nazi Party was Jewish. The movie is set in the present day and makes the closet Jew into a skinhead. The portrayal of this character and his psychological profile is largely fictional, but it was inspired by anecdotes about the real person in which he would bring knishes to the neo-Nazi meetings, oddly seeming to embrace parts of his Jewish heritage even as he scorned it.
  • Red Dog is based on a book, which is in turn based a collection of anecdotes and poems of the same name. Red Dog was real, as is the town of Dampier, and Red Dog was known to travel vast distances along Western Australia's Pilbara region, spending much of the meantime in Dampier. It is also true that he died in 1979 and had a statue built in his honor, but most of the rest of what happens in the film is almost certainly fictitious. The film further divorces the fictionalised Red Dog's adventures from anything that might have happened in real life by having the Framing Device invoke the Unrealiable Narrator trope on at least one occasion, although the bulk of it can be thought of as true in-universe.
  • Patch Adams: Patch's romantic love interest Carin never really existed. He was actually a male best friend of Dr. Adams. Moreover, the real Dr. Adams felt that the film didn't accurately represent his views and philosophies as it simplified all his work into "laughter is the best medicine".
    • Not to mention the felonies (stealing supplies from a hospital and practicing medicine without a license) that the movie depicts which, needless to say, the real Dr. Adams never did.
  • Sunset: Wile highly fictional, the film does actually contain a few elements of truth. Wyatt Earp did live in Hollywood in the 1920s, did act as a technical advisor on several silent westerns, and was close friends with Tom Mix (who served as a pallbearer at Earp's funeral). The murder in the movie is very loosely based on the events surrounding the death of Thomas Ince (which did not involve Earp or Mix in any way).
  • The films The Gumball Rally and Cannonball Run (as well as several others) were very loosely based on a real outlaw road rally, the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.
  • American Gangster. Like many of the examples cited here, the basic outline of the story is true, but there are many differences. Film—Lucas and his wife are childless, Roberts is embroiled in a custody battle. Real Life—Lucas and his wife had a daughter, Roberts never had children. This is just one of many discrepancies.
  • 2017's The Greatest Showman claims to be a biography of P. T. Barnum, but takes quite a few liberties, including completely fictionalizing his early life; compressing much of his career as an impresario into what appears to be a period of about a year or so; collapsing his four daughters into two; manufacturing an almost-affair with Swedish singer Jenny Lind as well as a near-breakup with his wife over it; and manufacturing a fictional partner and his interracial love affair (circa 1850).


  • This is noticeably averted in House of Leaves when in Johnny Truant's written introduction, he explicitly says that everything...The Navidson Record, all of the commentary on it in the book, all of fake or made-up. He hasn't been able to contact anyone who has ever heard of the film. The irony, according to him, is that what's real and what's not doesn't matter in the end since the consequences are the same. In a slightly more specific case, Johnny recounts a period of time where he lived with a doctor friend and his wife, and started going on medication, and generally getting his life back together. The chapter ends with him telling the reader he was making it up completely, and laughing at the reader for believing it.
  • Joyce Carol Oates was inspired by news of the mysterious death of a college student to write the story Landfill. If anyone interpreted that story as being what actually happened, it would be a serious libel on the student's frat brothers and others. Faced by criticism from the student's family and accused of sensationalism and exploitation, Oates said that the story was never meant to be taken as anything but fiction, and that she writes however she's inspired to, news being an important source of ideas for her.
  • Many fairy tales derived from tales of the lives of saints, such as St. Barbara ("Rapunzel") or St. Margaret of Cartona ("Snow White"). Alternatively, a number of people have been cited as possible inspirations for the fairy tale characters in question, like with Margaretha von Waldeck and Snow White.
  • The middle section of Princess of Wands was inspired by the events at RavenCon, a Science Fiction convention, in 2006. Needless to say, there was no battle with a demon at RavenCon.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms was written a thousand years after the events it depicts, and takes far more inspiration from the various legends that had grown around the major figures of the Three Kingdoms period, even freely mixing in supernatural events.
  • Played straight with Nabokov inventing a doctor to give a foreword to Lolita that was supposed to have independently adjudicated all the facts contained within.
  • All accounts of the actual history involved are highly biased, so it's hard to say, but presuming the union activists have it right, the inspiration for the hero of Valley of Fear wasn't so much a brilliant conqueror as a meek voice of reason in a terrible organization, and that terrible organization wasn't the gang (which, according to most union folk, didn't even exist); it was the Pinkertons.
  • Mark Twain's The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg was based in part from his experiences in a town in Western New York where he moved his mother to. In the town, he was accosted by members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union for his smoking and drinking in public, as well as a bad encounter with the police not believing who he was.
  • Robinson Crusoe is based off Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor that was marooned on a deserted island of the coast of Chile for four years. He hunted goats and found God on the island, but everything else either pure fiction or taken from other stories of marooned sailors.
  • The book In the Time of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is based on the true stories of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic who were assassinated by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Most of the events depicted in the novel actually happened, but the novel embellishes some details and imagines the motivations for their actions.
  • Not the entire book but the Frame Story of The Princess Bride is entirely fictional but claims to have been based on a previous work by someone named S. Morgenstern. This has caused a great deal of confusion with some people even telling William Goldman, the true author, that they remember reading the original book when they were young.
  • An interesting example is Vergil's Aeneid. While based off of myth rather than history, Vergil's poem does not exactly follow the mythical story either, taking rather extreme liberties with the myth of Aeneas' journey from Troy to Italy.
  • The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was a battle where the rear-guard of Charlemagne's army was massacred in the Pyrenees by a small guerrilla force of Basque Christians. In The Song of Roland the battle is between a small Christian rear-guard and a massive army of Saracen Muslims, takes place in Spain, and ends with the entire Saracen army destroyed by the main body of the army. Really, the story only resembles the historical event inasmuch as Charlemagne's rear-guard was destroyed.
  • The heroic poem Jerusalem Delivered is about the siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. Only it takes place two years later, lasts six months, involves non-real heroes on both sides, involves a demonic forest and magic, and distorts the historic figures involved (Bishop Adhemar was not shot in the eye with an arrow but died of illness and Godfrey was not elected king until after the sack of the city).

Live-Action TV

  • The Trope Codifier is probably Jack Webb's Mark VII shows, starting with Dragnet, in which "the names have been changed to protect the innocent". His other productions, including Adam-12 also included the disclaimer that everything was based on true events, which is a trifle funny when the episode revolved around Jim's inability to tell jokes or Friday and Gannon's weekend sleepover.
  • Law & Order bases most of their stories on (or off--often way off) real cases and incidents. In order to be able to deny that they're referencing a certain real person, they may insert a remark to show that the real person also exists in the fictional world. For example, in one episode that featured a No Celebrities Were Harmed Ann Coulter, one character remarks that she "makes Ann Coulter look like a socialist" or some such remark. There was also an episode where a little boy who apparently got sodomized by a rich pale white guy who donates a lot of money to charity and whose parents deny anything because apparently they were paid off. Sounds familiar? Debatable, though...
    • And the episode where a husband's fight to remove the feeding tube from his comatose wife led to his murder. Needless to say the people fighting to keep the wife alive are the killers.
    • These examples are interesting subversions, because they are often closer than the truth than other works that are purported to be "based on true events," but they are always very careful to let us know that it has nothing to do with Real Life events.
  • Parodied in an episode of Millennium, where the protagonist Frank Black finds himself on the set of a slasher movie very loosely based on a murder he had investigated years prior. Black, not being much for pop culture, is understandably confused as to why a disabled geriatric victim killed in her driveway would be dramatized as a sexy blond co-ed murdered in her shower. It Gets Worse.
  • Little House On the Prairie is somewhat infamous for this, to begin with the real life Ingalls family lived in Walnut Grove, Minnesota only for about three years, then moved to a farm in Western Minnesota, then to Burr Oak, Iowa, and eventually settling in DeSmet, in what is now South Dakota. Mary Ingalls never married, and never regained her sight as she does several times on the show, and the character of Albert Ingalls never existed, being entirely made up for the show.
  • Oh, where to begin on the historical inaccuracies in both The Tudors and Rome.[context?]
  • The Great Escape II: the Untold Story, unlike The Great Escape uses the actual names of the real-life people involved. After that it borders on a Documentary of Lies. John Dodge really was an American-born Royal Army officer interned with RAF prisoners but he played no part in the murder investigation. Von Lindeiner, the Commandant, was not executed, he moved to London after the war. Most egregious was the depiction of Burchardt, the mastermind of the murders. Burchardt and Dodge face off in the climatic battle, Dodge armed with a pistol and Burchardt only with a rhinoceros hide whip. Dodge, nearly defeated, finally shoots and kills Burchardt. Burchardt was actually just one of the mooks in real life and received light punishment in the end. About the only facts in the mini series were that there was an investigation and prosecution of the murderers of "the fifty", John Dodge did escape from Sachsenhausen concentation camp after his recapture and Burchardt did own a rhinoceros hide whip.
  • At no point in the docudrama miniseries Harley and the Davidsons did Discovery leave a disclaimer that the show, while inspired by historical events, took a lot of creative liberties in portraying Harley-Davidson's origins. While they did state in behind-the-scenes interviews that the "geography and timeline was compressed" for the sake of narrative, it still gave out the impression that most if not all of the show's events played out as it did in real life. Indian Motorcycle's rivalry with Harley was nowhere near as fierce as the show implied, and there is no way the Motor Company would dare reveal their newly-minted Knucklehead (referred to by company literature as simply the "OHV" standing for "Overhead Valve"; the Knucklehead moniker did not come into popular use until years later by the custom chopper scene) at an outlaw motorcycle race rather than at a formal AMA ceremony.


  • When David Henry Hwang heard over the radio of the incident that formed the basis of M. Butterfly, he deliberately didn't do any more research, because he wanted an original artistic creation, not something Ripped from the Headlines. He openly admitted this, however, and changed the names of those involved, so he probably shouldn't be ripped on as much as certain individuals above.
    • Peter Shaffer did the same thing when writing Equus. He read a newspaper article about a teenager who blinded six horses, then wrote a story that would explain it.
    • Shaffer also wrote Amadeus (see below).
  • The Crucible is based on the Salem Witch Trials; while all of the characters who died in the play died in real life, and the girls who made the accusations in the play made the accusations in real life, all of the girls were older in the play. The real girls ranged from about 8 to 12; the characters went from 12 to 17. Basically all of the motivations in the play were fictional; John Proctor was not a particularly important man, and he and Abigail Williams never even spoke before the trials. The real, 60-something man most certainly did not have an affair with the 12 year old girl.
  • Older Than Steam: William Shakespeare took many liberties with some of his historical plays.
    • This is especially the case with the known facts about King Macbeth. For example, the real Duncan was not a wise, old king, he was a young man who wasted his wealth. Also, the real Duncan was killed in a fair fight with Macbeth, instead of being assassinated in his sleep.
    • Likewise, Richard III. What little paperwork remains from his reign suggests he was the reasonable, competent type with a certain reputation for bravery justified by his death in battle—the last English monarch to do so, as it happens. This impression is at odds with that of the ruthless near-sociopath who murdered several of his 'allies', his wife, brother and two of his cousins and wished to marry a third to secure his succession. Also, Richard is typically portrayed as being quite old and severely deformed (Laurence Olivier, here's to lookin' at you) -- though he died at the age of 32 with at most a minor deformity of one shoulder—so minor that there is disagreement as to which shoulder it was. (And it could have been due to overtraining—Richard's favorite weapon was the axe, which can't be as easily switched from one side to the other as a sword can.)
  • Frost/Nixon plays fast and loose with history more than once in the interest of a cool story. Among these:
    • On the Nixon team, Col. Jack Brennan was actually a pleasant man with a keen sense of humor rather than the hardcore humorless Marine he's portrayed as.
    • The drunken midnight phone call by Nixon to Frost never happened; it was inserted mainly as a way to climb inside a private man and show some similarities between the two opponents.
    • Caroline Cushing did not meet David Frost by chance as he prepared for the interviews, but had actually been dating him for some time.
    • The biggest of all: Nixon *did not* confess to being part of a cover-up during the interviews, though he did admit to and apologize for disappointing the American people.

Video Games

  • The Playstation 2 game Fatal Frame fits this trope, at least as it was advertised outside of Japan. The cover of the game-box proudly says "Based on a true story" on the American and European version, and the tale that follows has a young Japanese girl searching a haunted mansion for her missing brother, battling ghosts with a magical camera, and slowly uncovering a mystery that stretches back hundreds of years and involves vengeful ghosts, dozens of innocent victims, sacrificial rites, star-crossed lovers, creepy dolls and trying to hold shut the gate to hell. To much confusion as to whether Himuro Mansion was real or not. There was a debate going on about it for awhile until it was revealed the inspiration for the setting of the game was in fact many places and Himuro Mansion did not, in fact, exist for real. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese version makes no pretense of being based on anything but urban legends.
  • Parodied in the Death Spank games, where the intro starts off stating that it's "Based on a True Story". This being a game about a Justice-obsessed moron fighting and questing for a piece of bacon.
  • In general Japanese game developers tend to have extreme liberties with their own Sengoku era and China's Three Kingdoms era, even more than the example of Romance of the Three Kingdoms above. Listing these games would be suicidal mission, but let's say the only exceptions are the strategy adaptations such as Nobunaga's Ambition or Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
  • In Skyrim the player gets a chance to do this when writing the story of King Olaf for the Bard's College. The higher your speech-craft skill, the more fantastic you can make the story.


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