These days, television takes inspiration from movies, and vice versa. Many of today’s scripts are drawn from the stories of yesteryear, which further spawn massive reboots and contribute to the revival trend that’s currently sweeping Hollywood. But sometimes, the art of movie-making is inspired by real-life events. This can be beautifully done, with riveting performances, creative adaptations of the story, and plots that are so fantastical, you simply can’t believe they’re real — or at least based on real events. Below are a few of our favorite examples (spoilers included).
Surprisingly, many aren’t aware that the iconic crime film Goodfellas was based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, which, in turn, was based on the true story of mob associate Henry Hill. In the Martin Scorsese-directed film, Ray Liotta plays Hill, a wannabe gangster who gets entangled in the dangerous world of drugs, lies, and murder, only to come out on the other end as an FBI informant and eventually an “average nobody” in the witness protection program. The real life Hill was eventually arrested on drug charges, but was reportedly clean from the late ‘80s until his death from heart disease in 2012 at the age of 69.
It’s almost unbelievable the events that unfolded in the 2014 Academy Award-nominated film actually happened. But indeed, eccentric and troubled multimillionaire John du Pont of the E.I. du Pont family — brilliantly portrayed by Steve Carell in the film — shot Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) in cold blood during a psychopathic fit of rage. Not surprisingly, the real du Pont pled not guilty by reason of insanity. He was found guilty, but mentally ill, and thus sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2010, however, at the age of 72. Schultz’s wife and children, meanwhile, moved to northern California where they still live today. Schultz’s younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum) also coaches wrestling in Oregon.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
While another Leonardo DiCaprio true crime movie, Wolf of Wall Street (2014), might have just as easily made this list, Catch Me If You Can is a far more intriguing story. Frank Abagnale, who DiCaprio enthusiastically portrays in the film, was a world-class con man who managed to successfully impersonate everyone from an airline pilot to a doctor, forge many a check, and amass plenty of cash via a slew of fraudulent avenues. Ironically, in an interesting twist of events, Abagnale now heads his own security consulting firm in New York, Abagnale & Associates, and advises the FBI on how to create checks that can’t be forged.
It took home this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, and while the true story behind Spotlight didn’t actually lead to any convictions, it certainly highlighted some serious crimes. Set in Boston in 2001, the film chronicles how a team of journalists at The Boston Globe uncovered widespread sexual abuse by priests, and those involved in its cover up. Sadly, the outcome of the real story is far worse than just a failure of justice. Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston who reportedly knew of the abuse and did nothing to stop it, was promoted to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which is known as one of the biggest churches in the world. He resigned from his post there at the age of 80 in 2011.
The Big Short (2015)
Another Oscar winner from this year, The Big Short was based on the real-life financial crisis of 2008. But it takes a comedic and educational approach to the unfortunate reality, analyzing it from the viewpoint of a group of individuals who discovered the subprime mortgage collapse was going to happen before it actually did. It also features an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale as eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry, Steve Carell as hedge fund manager Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling as trader Jared Vennett, and Brad Pitt as retired securities trader Ben Rickert. If you find the whole subprime mortgage collapse confusing, this film explains it using a few clever analogies that any layperson will be able to understand. However, be prepared for the anger you’ll feel when you realize that no one has truly paid for the crimes they committed.
Taking a more sinister turn, this thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by David Fincher is based on Robert Graysmith’s 1986 novel of the same name. It’s about the unsolved case of a serial killer known as “Zodiac,” who would taunt police following each of the murders he committed throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s in the San Francisco Bay Area. The case remains unsolved to this day, though many theories have been floating around regarding his identity. Several people have even allegedly come forward claiming to be the notorious killer, but no arrests have been made.
Rillington Place (2016)
It isn’t a movie, but rather a three-part miniseries. The upcoming BBC One drama is based on the gruesome murders committed by John Christie in the 1940s and ‘50s. Christie, who will be played by Tim Roth (The Hateful Eight, Lie to Me), was hanged for the killing of at least eight women over the course of a decade. Most notable, however, was his own wife, his neighbor’s wife, and the latter’s daughter. Sadly, however, justice was not served until long after the husband and father of two of the victims, Timothy Evans (Nico Mirallegro), was wrongly accused of the killings and hanged. The case had a major role in ending capital punishment in Britain.