As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s often because what really happened can sometimes be unbelievable. With so much fiction to consume, what happens in real life can often be even more shocking…which is why many a film has sold itself as being based on a true story. In many cases, these tales will be based on a well-known individual or event, which makes the viewer more likely to buy into whatever goes on in the films. However, many a producer has marketed their movie as being based on actual events, even though it’s pretty much all fictionalized, with most viewers being none the wiser.
This list presents a series of films that are believed to be true stories, have been marketed as such, or were outright stated to be true by either trailers, posters, or the filmmakers themselves. Every entry has also been either revealed to be fiction, or has enough evidence against it to disprove its authenticity. It’s also important to note that a film lying about being based on real events doesn’t necessarily make it a poor movie, though in the case of a few, it can make a bad film even worse.
Presenting, with full honesty and disclosure, the 16 "True Story" Movies That Aren't Actually Based On A True Story.
17 The Strangers
Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, The Strangers is a notable entry on this list, because while the advertising states to be “inspired by true events” (which sort of implies that the film itself is fiction), many believe it to be based on true events. The film stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple who, while staying in a remote home for a weekend, are attacked by the titular strangers, who don't appear to have any true motive whatsoever. It had a $9 million budget, but managed to make over $80 million in box office gross.
As for the “true events,” Bertino revealed that the Manson family murders inspired the film’s plot, along with incidences from his own childhood that involved a series of break-ins. While the film received mixed reviews at best, it managed to gain critical attention for its premise of a remote location that, while perceived to be safe, is just as dangerous as any other.
16 The Blair Witch Project
One of the most successful independent films ever made, and the movie that kicked-off the modern found-footage genre, The Blair Witch Project was quite deliberately advertised as being based on a true story. The events presented in the film claimed to be an edited version of actual found footage. Unlike most other "true story" movies, this was completely the intention of the filmmakers (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez), so much so that they told their stars to not make any press appearances, since their characters were supposedly dead.
The film was a critical success, though the audience reaction was much more polarizing. Nevertheless, the movie, made for a paltry $60,000, ended up earning over $240 million worldwide, and once it was a bonafide hit, the actors couldn’t help but make appearances in the press. The film also got itself a largely forgotten sequel (2010's Book of Shadows), as well as 2016’s Blair Witch, though audiences weren't as easily duped the second and third times around.
15 Battleship Potemkin
Another heavy hitter of early filmmaking known for its presentation of the so-called facts, Battleship Potemkin is one of the truly classic films of the 20th century. Appearing on many “best of” lists and a favorite of many filmmakers from past and present, the film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein, and presents a dramatization of the 1905 mutiny on a the battleship Potemkin.
However, much of what conspires onscreen didn’t actually happen. So while the event in question did, the film itself is fiction. That said, it’s held the imagination of many the world over, to the point where one would be forgiven for thinking it all really happened the way it’s shown in the film. That includes the classic and famous “Odessa Steps” scene, one of the flick's most notable sequences; impactful, memorable, but yeah, it never really happened.
14 The Haunting in Connecticut
Featuring the tagline “Some things cannot be explained”, The Haunting in Connecticut tells the totally not true story of the Campbells, who experience supernatural events when they move into a new house, which was formerly a mortuary. While the film made enough money to warrant a couple sequels, it was mostly panned by critics.
The fright flick was supposedly based on events described in a book written by Roy Garton, but he distanced himself from the film because of its lack of factual accuracy. However, Garton himself later admitted his story was also fictional, having been instructed by the owners of the home to just make things up. All in all, a story about spooky supernatural stuff (the kind which so many have seen before) is doubtless to have skeptics if it claims to be based on a true story. Of course, this skepticism is based out of one horror classic in particular...
13 The Amityville Horror
One of the most well-known horror films to come out of the 1970s, The Amityville Horror, based on Jay Anson’s book, managed to take on a life of its own, spawning a film franchise spanning decades. It tells the story of a family that moves into a house and experiences paranormal activity; the house itself was the scene of a gruesome family massacre by Ronald DeFeo Jr.
DeFeo was real, as were the murders committed at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. The authenticity of the story of what happened to the family that later moved into the house, however, has long been debated. Along with Anson himself admitting to certain exaggerations, stories of those who entered and lived in the home present the idea that the house’s haunts are more likely just fanciful imaginations by those who choose to believe it. To this day, the house in Amityville and its story live on in American folklore as a spooky place where, if nothing else, a real tragic murder occurred. Probably not much else, though.
It’s always tricky claiming your “true story” to be authentic when its source is well-known to be the stuff of legend. Hidalgo tells the story of the titular mustang, its owner Frank Hopkins, and an 1891 equestrian race in Arabia. The film starred Viggo Mortensen and managed to make a decent little profit, scoring $100 million at the box office on a $40 million budget.
Starting with Hopkins' ancestry (said to be mixed with Native American), the film received a decent amount of criticism concerning its factual accuracy. While the filmmakers employed historians and tribal leaders in order to faithfully depict the various cultures shown, others disputed the actual driving plot of the film: the race itself. It had been said to be nothing but a hoax, and several historians have claimed it never took place. According to them, logistically, technically, and geopolitically, it simply wasn’t possible.
Directed by Oliver Stone and released in 1991, JFK is the story of a lawyer who believes the assassination of John F. Kennedy to be a cover-up. It was based on two books, one of which was written by the film’s main character, Jim Garrison. While the film was a success, it was embroiled in controversy from the start, for a number of (probably obvious) reasons.
The main issue most had with the film was its intentional inaccuracy to the facts and history. Stone himself described the film as a “counter myth” to the Warren Commission, who convicted Lee Harvey Oswald as responsible for the president’s murder. The film essentially says the murder was part of a conspiracy, one which involved VP Lyndon B. Johnson. But the facts Garrison himself had presented, which were used as sources for the film, have also been soundly debunked, making JFK a true work of “myth.”
A film that managed to rack up lawsuits and drama before and after the film came out, Julia was based off of a chapter in a book by Lillian Hellman. The chapter tells the story of an anti-Nazi activist who the author claims to have known and been friends with. The film starred Jane Fonda and managed to snag 11 Academy Award nominations (winning three) along with positive reviews from critics.
The film's director, Fred Zinnemann, was said to be believe that Hellman herself was a great writer, but a liar who put herself in fictional situations. Among the other controversial accusations, there was the one by New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner, who claimed to be the true figure off whom Julia was based. Hellman denied this, and has claimed to have never even met Gardiner.
9 Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County
Released a year before The Blair Witch Project, Alien Abduction also has a bizarre history behind it. The director, Dean Alioto, had made a little seen found-footage film back in the 1980s called UFO Abduction, which some believed to be actual footage of extraterrestrial happenings. Alioto then decided to remake his own film with professional actors, but it was still shot in a similar way, preserving a VHS home video look.
However, due to a warehouse fire, very few copies of Alien Abduction were released, and those who saw it believed it to be the real deal. This persisted with both the original ‘80s film and the ‘90s remake, becoming popular among ufologists. Whether its luck or a curse, it’s noteworthy that Alioto’s movies are so strongly perceived to be being genuine that he’s had to frequently tell people and publications that they are in fact fiction.
8 The Devil Inside
The Devil Inside was yet another film that looked to take advantage of the found footage craze in the years following Blair Witch, and later, Paranormal Activity. It was directed by William Brent Bell and co-written by Bell and Matthew Peterman, who wrote a script about the Vatican’s school of exorcism. The film itself (shot documentary style) tells the story of a mother who murdered several people when she was possessed by a demon.
While the name of the murderer is real, the story is entirely fiction. The writers clearly made the story up, but in fairness, they never really advertised it as being a true tale. The confusion seems to have arisen out of the film’s ending, or utter lack of one; the movie ends abruptly with a message saying that the murders in the film are still under investigation, along with a website to visit for more info. Setting aside the strong implication that the film is claiming that what it just showed its audience is true - the ending was so reviled that, these days, it’s what the movie's most infamous for.
7 Enemy at the Gates
Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, and Rachel Weisz, Enemy at the Gates is based off the non-fiction book of the same name. The film tells the story of Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev, who was in a duel with a German sniper named Erwin Konig. The movie got mixed reviews, and was very negatively received in both Germany and the former Soviet Union.
While Zaytsev was a real person, the film presents a wholly fictionalized version of him, along with a duel that never actually happened. In fact, according to German record, no soldier by the name of Erwin Konig ever existed. There’s also the detail of Zaytsev being portrayed as illiterate (completely untrue), while also fictionalizing his real-life love interest, who is also said to have been a sniper herself, something not portrayed in the film. The devil is in the details.
6 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
One of the most influential, popular, and infamous horror films of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was directed by Tobe Hooper and released in 1974. While it wasn’t a major critical success in its day, it was a hit with audiences, making over $30 million against a $300,000 budget. Several sequels, prequels, and remakes followed.
The poster for the film claims that it’s based on a true story, fueling the belief that the events of the movie are based on fact. In reality, at most, the villainous Leatherface was inspired by one Ed Gein, an actual murderer from the 1950s who lived in Wisconsin. This means the film’s plot is entirely fictional, with a minor dash of inspiration from a real life murderer. Regardless, the film’s down-to-earth and horrifyingly realistic depiction of violence has continued spooking audiences all these years later, and the film has also garnered substantial critical appraisal since then.
5 The Fourth Kind
One of the most bizarre films to ever market itself as “Based on Actual Case Studies,” The Fourth Kind is a mockumentary posing as a documentary, but sold to the masses as a science-fiction horror film based on actual events. If that itself seems a little bit convoluted, buckle up.
The film is set in Nome, Alaska (but filmed in Canada), and uses actual missing persons cases to create a completely made-up story about alien abduction. What’s most strange is the film’s structure: it presents itself as a movie that dramatizes actual things that happened, featuring two separate actors for the same person (the “dramatization” and the “real” person), as well as presenting “documentary” footage of events that occurred, often showing the dramatizations side-by-side. Many a critic was baffled, and Universal Studios (who distributed the film) were sued by Alaskan newspapers for using their name in fake news stories used in viral marketing. The film itself was panned by critics, but managed to turn a profit all the same.
4 Cannibal Holocaust
Banned in several countries, and continuing to drudge up controversy to this day, 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust was deemed so realistic that its director (Ruggero Deodato) was arrested and brought to court amidst claims that he had made a true snuff film. A film that was essentially Deodato’s response to the Italian news media, it’s about a documentary crew ill-fated interactions with a cannibalistic tribe, and the film they left behind that’s later picked up by a rescue team.
Because of its found footage style, the film was viewed as being overwhelmingly horrifying, with many believing the acts of violence as portrayed in the film to be actual murders. While it was proven that all the people killed in the film weren’t actually killed in real life, the animals that were slaughtered onscreen did not share the same fate. The killing of the animals onscreen actually caused contention with the cast and crew, and Deodato himself has since condemned the actions.
3 Nanook of the North
Released at a time when full-length documentaries were barely in their infancy, Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is one of the most important films ever released. Documenting real-life Intuits in the Canadian Arctic, it was an unprecedented work of filmmaking, showing audiences a world previously unseen. The film’s full name includes the subtitle A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic...which is only partially true.
Flaherty actually staged much of what occurs onscreen, be it hunting wildlife with a spear (the actual Inuit man preferred to use a gun), who his wife was, as well as how much danger Nanook himself was in. Flaherty’s reasoning was that he wanted to portray Inuit life as it would have been before European influence. Even though the word has gotten out about the film’s untrue nature, Nanook of the Life has endured as one of cinema’s earliest docudramas, influencing what would be a major genre in the 20th century and beyond.
Arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s most celebrated film, Fargo tells the story of a crime gone horribly and hilariously wrong. Starring Francis McDormand, Willaim H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, the film attained critical acclaim, commercial success, and continued popularity, as well as an FX television series that has also garnered a comparable level of acclaim on its own.
The film is somewhat infamous for including the text “This is a true story” at the outset. This was supposedly done to give the movie an air of pseudo-authenticity that would make the events onscreen more shocking to the audience. However, it’s also been said that certain elements featured in the film have a basis in real life, such as the story of a man who hired someone to kill his wife in 1960s Minnesota, as well as a man who killed his wife via a wood chipper in Connecticut. Overall, Fargo appears to take inspiration from several real-world murders, rather than one "true story".
1 Honorable Mentions: Dude, Where’s My Car? & Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
While these films are obviously not based on true stories, we’re pretty sure they managed to fool a few folks out there with their lighthearted claims. Both films are 2000s era comedies about pretty stupid individuals doing pretty stupid things, but both are also beloved by their fans, regardless of what critics have had to say about them.
Something else they have in common iare their joint claims that their stories as true. Both films begin with a message stating that what the audience will see actually happened; however, in the case of Dude, Where’s My Car?, it can be safely assumed that this is obviously done for comedic purposes. After all, the film involves cults and extra-terrestrials, and it stars two impossible dim-witted individuals who can’t even remember where they parked their car. Anchorman, being something of a period piece, could fool a person or two, but uses a fun bit of wordplay to reveal its hand. The movie takes a beat at the outset to state that it’s based on true events, and that only the names, places, and events themselves have changed.
Did any of these films' claims of authenticity fool you? What other films falsely claim to be based on true events? Sound off in the comments!
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