There’s nothing like seeing the words ‘Based on a true story’ flash across the screen as a film begins. It makes a film seem more real, making us feel that Hollywood-worthy stories could be unfolding all around us.
Unfortunately, most of the time ‘Based on a true story’ is a flimsy trick used by producers to make a horror flick seem even more terrifying or a drama even more riveting. In reality, most films are very loosely (at best) based on real-life events.
The term ‘inspired by true events’ is even more wishy-washy. Instead of writers and producers drawing from real-life happenings, they’ve most likely strung together unrelated events into a narrative. The result still makes for interesting movies, but it can make drawing the line between reality and entertainment difficult.
This can be dangerous, in certain cases, as moviegoers will take fiction as fact—especially if a film is ‘based on a true story’. Movies that cover generally unknown topics can become an authority without being qualified; the Star Wars franchise, for example, introduced many Americans to outer space even though no astronauts were consulted during production.
For all the fact-hounds out there, Google has done wonders to shed light on the accuracies and pitfalls of box office hits. Let’s take a look at three characters who influenced major productions, and the truths and inaccuracies that made it into the final cut.
Kim Peek, Rain Man (1988)
Shortly after Rain Man was released by MGM, the term ‘savant’ became a household term across North America. The narrative follows a brother, played by Tom Cruise, as he seeks to reconnect with an estranged brother, played by Dustin Hoffman, and reclaim a family fortune.
Hoffman’s character was based on a real-life savant, Kim Peek, who could remember long sequences of numbers. In the film, this enables Hoffman’s character to learn to count cards and win back his brother’s fortune at a Vegas casino. But today’s film would have looked a bit different.
For one, Cruise’s character is more likely to peruse online casino bonuses before opting for a brick-and-mortar casino. There’s no card counting in online blackjack, but the deals are leaner across a wide range of sites—though online tournament play wouldn’t make for the same level of on-screen excitement.
Second, producers would have likely handled Hoffman’s version of Peek with more care. As mentioned above, the film introduced viewers to savant syndrome. But it did this in a way that mythologized autism as a superpower which enabled him to count cards and win big money; it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
One of the most interesting facts of Peek’s involvement with the film was that he learned to count cards to help with the story. However, Peek refused to use his skill to win money from brick-and-mortar casinos, as he considered it immoral. Naturally, Rain Man wouldn’t have become a hit should filmmakers have incorporated this truth into the final cut.
Chris McCandless, Into the Wild (2007)
This 2007 Paramount release was highly touted by critics and fans. Not only did the cast include a long list of budding stars, including Zach Galifianakis, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Jenna Malone, and lead Emile Hirsch, but the storyline was equally unforgettable. An original song by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder turned the project into gold.
Into the Wild is based on a non-fiction book by John Krakauer that covers the nomadic lifestyle of a man named Chris McCandless, also known as Alexander Supertramp. McCandless hiked across vast stretches of North America, interacting with society only as needed before driving out into the forest once again.
The narrative closely follows McCandless’s, played by Emile Hirsch, increasingly poor decision-making. Normally, a wayward protagonist gives viewers ideas to chew on—Hirsch’s character must constantly fight natural elements to stave off hunger and provide himself with shelter. Shortly after he decides to return to modern society to find happiness with friends, Hirsch’s character dies after eating a poisonous plant.
The truth about the real Chris McCandless is less clear. In fact, the book penned by Chris Krakauer, used as a reference by writer and director Sean Penn, has also come under fire for being inaccurate. Krakauer himself was an investigator who speculated about what, exactly, led to McCandless’s death in Alaska. To this day, his cause of death is labeled as starvation, though there were likely other factors at play. The version put forth in Penn’s film is based on Krakauer’s hypothesis.
Steven Callahan, The Life of Pi (2012)
Also based on a book (of the same title), Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a fictional tale that follows a young man’s journey to survive a shipwreck. In the end, the main character Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, endures almost a year on a safety boat with a Bengal tiger. The story is delightfully metaphysical, incorporating elements of Indian culture, and isn’t based on true events or even inspired by them.
However, that didn’t prevent Ang Lee from going the distance in bridging realism and fantasy. He consulted with a real shipwreck survivor named Steven Callahan to add flourishes of detail throughout the film. Like Sharma’s character, Callahan survived months alone on the open ocean (with no tiger, thankfully).
Decades ago, Callahan managed to escape as his boat sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He inflated a life raft that was only 21 feet in length in the midst of a raging storm. He tied his raft to his boat to weather the storm. From there, Callahan’s life took a dramatic, Hollywood-worthy turn.
For 76 days, Callahan survived on the inflatable raft by collecting rainwater to drink and catching fish, which he ate raw. He also made attempts at steering the life raft, which eventually crossed 1,800 miles before being safely rescued.
So how did Ang Lee put Callahan’s experience to work on set? The survivor helped create props that reflected the emotional state of the survivor, as well as what these items would look like after being degraded by saltwater and endless sunshine. Callahan said the experience of helping with Lee’s film helped him uncover new insights into his harrowing survival journey.