A movie doesn’t have to be a straight-up documentary in order to use the claim “Based On A True Story.” Often, it’s just one tiny sliver of the premise that can be tied to actual events. That said, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Here are some of the most bizarre examples of films that took their initial cue from the real world.
Yes, an aircraft carrying members of a Uruguayan rugby team really went down in the Andes in October 1972—and yes, the survivors really did eat the flesh of their deceased fellow passengers. Alive, based on a 1974 book of the same name, tells their story. Sixteen survivors were eventually rescued, more than two months after the crash. One of them, Roberto Canessa, later penned his own account of this harrowing experience.
Princess Caraboo (1994)
The film, starring Phoebe Cates, introduces a foreign-looking woman to a staid British village circa 1817. The locals are fascinated by her appearance and her language, which no one else can understand. Eventually, she manages to communicate that she’s a princess and she recently escaped from a band of pirates, all of which fascinates the townspeople. Surely this story is too farfetched to be true—or is it?
In fact, a strange woman was found wandering around the English hamlet of Almondsbury in 1817. She was taken into the home of a family called the Worralls, who began calling her “Caraboo” after the stranger kept pointing to her chest and repeating this unfamiliar word. She was indeed feted as a princess for a time—until she was recognized and outed as Mary Baker, a resident of nearby Devon.
50 First Dates (2004)
In this lighthearted romantic comedy, Drew Barrymore plays a woman whose traumatic injury causes her memory to reset itself every morning. That might not sound like a particularly amusing situation, but since Adam Sandler plays her love interest, you know you’re supposed to laugh. Similar cases do exist in real life, however, which may have inspired the filmmakers to come up with a comedic spin.
A woman named Michelle Philpots suffered two massive head injuries—the first in 1985, the second in 1990—which led to a series of debilitating seizures. A few years later, she began to lose her ability to form new memories, even getting fired from a job after repeatedly photocopying the same document. Her case isn’t as neatly packaged as the Barrymore characters—the anterograde amnesia is so severe that she often can’t remember what she was doing even moments earlier, hence the photocopying incident—but as of early 2017, she was still waking up each day believing that the year was 1994.
In 1928, Los Angeles resident Christine Collins was reunited with her nine-year-old son, Walter, who had been missing for five months. The only problem? She claimed the boy was not her son at all, but a stranger. Complicating matters was the fact that the boy himself insisted he was indeed Walter. Although the local police dismissed her concerns as the ravings of a hysterical female, Collins fought to uncover the strange boy’s identity and learn what really happened to her son.
The premise sounds like something that screenwriters dream up after a few too many cocktails, but Clint Eastwood’s film is based on the true story of Collins and her unfathomable struggle. While the characters are sensationalized for the sake of entertainment, the structure of the story remains intact.
Tag is a buddy comedy that follows a group of adult males who are desperately trying to avoid being tagged by whoever is “It,” in a game that’s been going on for years. It sounds silly and it is, but the concept didn’t come out of nowhere.
As of 2020, a group of ten friends have been playing the same ongoing game of tag for 30 years. The game essentially began when the players were attending Catholic high school together in the early 1980s. During a 1990 reunion, the friends were reminiscing about the game and noted that one player was technically still “It,” since he had been tagged last. Since then, they’ve kept up the tradition, claiming that it allows them to get together more frequently.
Movies are made to fire the imagination, but sometimes, the events that inspire them are stranger than anything that we could dream up. Interestingly enough, the list of films that were based on true events seems to grow exponentially with each passing year. Does this mean the industry is running out of ideas? Or are they simply attempting to shine a light on people and events that might otherwise go unrecognized? Either way, the results are often entertaining.