When it comes to accuracy, the last place you typically want to go looking is a biopic. Sure, filmmakers are entitled to some liberties when it comes to adapting stories for the screen, but even the familiar “Based on true events” side note is often pushing it at best. While most biopics claim to be as “authentic” as possible, these famous films went to incredible lengths to erase, over-exaggerate, and even outright bend the truth — all for the sake of a few award nominations.
Martin Scorsese’s crime epic actually left out one of Henry Hill’s most infamous crimes. During the 1978-1979 season, the mobster was involved in what became known as the Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal in which the mafia bribed players and fixed games in order to turn a hefty profit from gambling. However, the scheme didn’t last, and many of those involved wound up losing big in the end.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, was inspired by a very interesting source: an individual nicknamed “Paratrooper Padre.” Who was this man? Well, he was actually a priest. Father Francis L. Sampson was responsible for leading the rescue mission for Fritz Niland, the real Private Ryan.
Sometimes, a political thriller based on true events needs to spice things up. That suspenseful airport scene at the climax of Argo was certainly a nail-biter, but in reality, everyone boarded the plane quickly and safely. However, the biggest discrepancy in the American-made film was that it gave the United States all the credit for orchestrating the rescue mission when it was Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor who deserved the praise.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
From the trailer alone, it was clear this film was going to be a showcase for the talents of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. However, all of the tense encounters between the two actresses were very much fictionalized! Ronan’s Mary and Robbie’s Queen Elizabeth l never actually met in real life. Along with that, Mary would have most likely had a French accent after living in France for many years before her return to Scotland. Sorry, Saoirse.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
In this film, Melissa McCarthy took on the role of author Lee Israel, who forged and sold letters from famous deceased writers. But what the film leaves out is what actually propelled Israel to begin forging in the first place. After refusing a bribe to stop writing a scandalous biography of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics tycoon released a biography of her own that ultimately caused Israel’s to flop and destroyed her career.
That opening disclosure, “This is a true story,” and the one at the end, “All persons fictitious,” were all for show. The Coen brothers figured audiences would be more inclined to believe what happened on screen if they thought it was real. Only two of the events actually happened: a General Motors finance employee once attempted fraud, and a husband famously tried to dispose of his wife in a wood chipper.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Alan Turing was instrumental in cracking the Enigma code that was used by Germany during WWll. In real life, however, Turing hadn’t started working on the code until much later, and only after it had been heavily studied by Gordon Welchman. On top of that, Turing was considered much friendlier than Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Movies are both a visual and auditory experience, which may explain why many creative liberties were taken with the hallucinations John Nash suffered from throughout this film. While Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic episodes saw him being chased down by Russian spies, the real Nash only had auditory hallucinations. One might wonder how this fact could have changed the finished film.
Into the Wild (2007)
Chris McCandless’ story might have ended very differently if he’d trekked into the wilderness a decade later. The famed hiker is believed to have fallen ill after mistaking dangerous pea grass for potato seed, which was considered non-toxic at the time. As it turns out, both of these plants are poisonous, though this wasn’t confirmed until 2013.
David Fincher’s crime epic sure didn’t include this. Back in 1971, director Tom Hanson made The Zodiac Killer, a retelling of the infamous murders, in order to catch the real killer. During the film’s premiere in San Francisco, Hanson had moviegoers write on a card to enter a motorcycle giveaway contest being held in the lobby. In truth, the director actually used the contest to collect handwriting samples.
In 1997, several inexperienced thieves attempted to rob Loomis Fargo of millions. This film puts a comedic spin on the heist, though it left out one actual event that could’ve been hilarious on the big screen. In an interview with LRM Online, David Ghantt, who is played by Zach Galifianakis in the film, revealed that his fellow robbers actually locked themselves out of the van filled with the stolen money.
The Favourite (2018)
Spoiler alert: the fallout between Queen Anne and her ex-adviser, Sarah Churchill, was actually much uglier than this film let on. After her ousting, Churchill wrote many homophobic and demeaning poems about her old royal friend. The film did end their story in a bad spot, though the reality of their falling out probably would’ve been even too much for a movie.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Did you believe there was tension between King George Vl and his speech therapist Lionel Logue during their early encounters in this film? You were duped. In real life, the two enjoyed a much more pleasant relationship. It just goes to show: no one likes drama in their life, but they sure do find it captivating on the big screen between A-list actors.
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
While this film might have you believe Freddie Mercury met his eventual lover Jim Hutton at one of his wild parties, that actually wasn’t the case. In an interview with The Times of London, Hutton explained that he and Mercury met when the singer offered him a drink at a club which he declined, having no idea who he was. Eventually the two met again and the romance blossomed.
William Wallace fought and died fighting for the freedom of his fellow Scots, though he wasn’t quite the simple farmer that Mel Gibson portrayed. He was a nobleman, albeit a lesser one, who turned against the English crown.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Both the classic film and 1930s newspapers hyped up the scale of the criminal couple’s exploits. Rather than robbing banks and making a fortune, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow mostly held up small shops.
The Blind Side (2009)
Michael Oher, the Tuohy family’s real-life adopted son, felt so compelled to set the record straight about this film that he actually published a book about his experiences! Apparently, the movie got one plot point very wrong. Before being adopted by the Tuohy’s, Oher was already a skilled football player and one of the highest-ranked offensive linemen in the country.
The Sound of Music (1965)
In the finale of this beloved musical, the Von Trapps escape the Nazi regime by hiking through the Swiss alps. What an ending! Of course, the actual family had a far more leisurely escape, as they just took a train.
Joaquin Phoenix sizzles as the villain in this Best Picture winner, but his portrayal is a bit unfair to the actual Commodus. Although he took pleasure in inflicting pain on humans and animals alike, the emperor didn’t murder his own father to gain power.
Cool Runnings (1993)
This tale of Jamaican bobsledders is more fiction than fact. For one thing, there were other Caribbean bobsled teams at the 1988 Olympics. On top of that, most of the characters were made-up, and none of the real athletes were failed sprinters.
The Revenant (2015)
Legendary trapper Hugh Glass really did get attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead in the wilderness. What the film invented, however, was Hugh’s companions murdering his son. That fictional crime simply served to amp up DiCaprio’s drive for revenge.
During the settling of Jamestown, the Powhatan princess met and befriended John Smith. But any romance between them was a Disney invention — especially since Pocahontas was 12 years old at the time. Later on, she did marry Englishman John Rolfe.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
This drama conflates different periods of the great queen’s life. Though she appears to have many suitors in 1585, historians believe this to be inaccurate. No one really knows how many suitors Elizabeth truly had, since she maintained a chaste reputation for her entire life. Moreover, Elizabeth never flirted with Walter Raleigh.
The narrative about composer Antonio Salieri spiraling into a jealous rage and murdering Mozart comes from baseless rumors. In fact, documents from the classical period show that they shared a mutual professional respect.
The Patriot (2000)
Mel Gibson has trouble sticking to the history books. His Revolutionary War epic paints the British as sadistically evil, while his character — based on Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion — is a family-loving action hero. In reality, Marion was a childless and brutal military officer.
Captain Phillips (2013)
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the merchant mariner is unquestionably brave and selfless, but many of the real-life crewmen disagree with that version. Some actually sued Phillips for putting them in danger with his off-the-books decisions.
10,000 B.C. (2008)
It’s unclear if the screenwriters behind this film did any research about life way back when. For one thing, the film includes the Egyptian pyramids even though they weren’t built until about 2500 B.C.
Is this Sparta? You don’t need a history degree to realize that Zack Snyder took many liberties, from rhinos fighting in the Battle of Thermopylae to King Xerxes being a giant. Also, Spartans wore full armor — not just capes and speedos.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
This Ben Affleck vehicle was heavy on the romance but light on the facts. Apart from featuring historically inaccurate planes and ships, the movie includes a ludicrous scene where FDR stands up from his wheelchair to inspire the troops.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
The characters played by Zac Efron and Zendaya were added to the story of P.T. Barnum to illustrate the racist attitudes of the era, though Barnum himself was no equal-rights activist. Barnum made plenty of money off of Joice Heith, a Black woman whom he claimed was the 161-year old nursemaid of George Washington. Heith died of poor health soon after her appearance in Barnum’s shows.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
This intentionally anachronistic film won’t help you pass English class. William Shakespeare didn’t need to fall in love to find the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet, as the play was merely an adaptation of an existing Italian story.
The Strangers (2008)
When he was a kid, director Bryan Bertino and his sister were home alone when a stranger knocked on their door asking for someone who didn’t live there. Bertino later discovered that the stranger was one of a number of robbers who’d been breaking into homes in the neighborhood, leading him to create this film based on his experience — not that he included this experience in the final product.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Could someone really have dated Ted Bundy and not known what he was up to? In real life, Elizabeth Kendall actually suspected her boyfriend was hiding something. After seeing a police sketch that looked like Bundy and learning the suspect’s car was the same as his, Kendall called the police. The authorities, however, weren’t worried: they’d already questioned Bundy and released him, confident he was innocent.
This film puts forth two big theories: Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson was heavily involved in the conspiracy. That all sounds like great material for a political thriller, but there’s a catch: most of what main character Jim Garrison wrote in real life was eventually proven false. But it made one heck of a conspiracy movie!
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Infamous for its opening tag, “Based on true events,” this film actually wasn’t lying. Real-life killer Ed Gein, who made household objects from his victims’ flesh, served as the inspiration for Leatherface, and director Tobe Hooper devised the film’s signature murder weapon after spotting a chainsaw in a crowded department store around the holidays and envisioning himself slicing his way out.