The words "based on" cover a multitude of sins, which means that not all of those "true story" movies you've been watching recently are anything close to truthful in their portrayal of the events that inspired them.
Of course, the changes made don't make the movies themselves any less enjoyable (in fact, probably the exact opposite), but the purists among us might want to steer clear of the all gun-blazing Hollywood sensationalism below and hone in on flicks with a more iron grip on the sometimes slippery truth.
1. Black Mass
What Happens In The Movie: The movie chronicles the ultra-violent rise of Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) through the grubby echelons of the Boston crime scene. Although much of the movie's events include serving time in Alcatraz, the death of Whitey's son and the multiple murders did indeed happen, although the central facts about Bulger's role as an FBI informant stray somewhat from the real story.
In the movie, Bulger persuades Stephen Flemmi to see the benefits of getting into bed with bent agents, but in real life, Whitey denies he was ever an informant at all. Others around him also claim that his role as a "grass" has been totally blown out of proportion.
The True Story: John Connolly was a real person and he was indeed a crooked FBI agent with links to organized crime, but the way that Whitey became enmeshed with him is still unclear.
According to Kevin Weeks, who served as Bulger’s personal bodyguard from 1978 to 1994, it was Flemmi who first became an informer and ratted Bulger out to the FBI, forcing him to cooperate. Weeks also claims that during a meeting with Connolly, he explained that 90 percent of the tips came from Flemmi even though, like in the movie, they were pasted under Bulger's name to make him look like a valuable informer.
Bulger himself still denies that he was ever an informant at all and he recently told British newspaper The Daily Mail that:
"I never, never, never cracked."
Whitey doesn't deny meeting FBI agent Connolly but he claims that Connolly was feeding him information and not the other way round, he explained:
"I asked the questions. I got the answers. I was the guy who did the directing. They didn’t direct me. I’m the guy who’s paying. Money was the common denominator. Organized crime people can’t exist without contacts and these people know it. It’s a way of business. It’ll never stop."
2. The Strangers
What Happens In The Movie: The Strangers is a brutal home invasion movie that sees a young couple being terrorized by three murderous masked assailants.
The "True" Story: While the movie relied heavily on marketing that claimed it was based on a true story, the reality is a lot more mundane than the events that occur in the movie. According to director Bryan Bertino, the childhood moment below is what gave him a preoccupation with unknown forces invading your home:
"As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses”
While it certainly must have been chilling to be confronted with a stranger in the dark as a young kid, it definitely lacks the bloodcurdling drama of the movie.
Later, Bertino added that he was also inspired by the true crime novel Helter Skelter, which documents the grisly Manson murders.
3. The Pursuit Of Happyness
What Happens In The Movie: An entrepreneur named Chris Gardner (Will Smith) invests his life savings in bone density scanners, but poor sales lead to poverty that erodes his relationship with his wife and makes it difficult to scrape together the cash to care for their 5-year-old kid, Christopher.
A chance meeting with Jay Twistle, a manager for Dean Witter Reynold who is blown away with Gardner's mean Rubik's cube skills, leads to Chris being offered an interview to become a trainee stockbroker in an unpaid program. Despite a number of obstacles, Gardner beats 20 hopefuls to land the job.
Garder's wife leaves under the financial pressure and he is left caring for his son during a nearly year-long stint of homelessness as he continues to follow his dreams of becoming a better father who can provide for his family. Eventually he wins the job and starts his own brokers firm, becoming a multi millionaire.
The True Story: I hate to burst anyone's happiness bubble, but it turns out that the real Chris Gardner was a pretty shabby father who wasn't even aware of his son's whereabouts for much of his climb to success.
Although in the movie, Chris has a son with his wife, the real-life figure had much more complicated family circumstances. After his wife Sherry Dyson had a miscarriage, which helped to cause the breakdown of their relationship, Chris began having an affair with a woman named Jackie. After a cocaine fueled 30 day sex fest that Chris describes in his book, Jackie became pregnant and gave birth to their son, Christopher.
Chris did not look after Christopher during his time in training; in fact, for a four-month period he didn't even know the where his son was. His relationship became so strained with Jackie that they only communicated by arguing over the phone and she would not tell him where she lived.
You also probably can't get a high-flying job by solving a Rubik's cube quicker than your average pleb. This turning point of the movie is fabricated and Chris was given the internship through the much more mundane means of being helped out by a friend.
The real-life Chris scored around 88 percent on his final exam, but unlike the movie he was not the only one selected to work for the firm. In fact, almost everyone selected for the internship qualified. Oh, and you also got paid $1,000 a month.
4. Captain Phillips
What Happens In The Movie: In the movie, Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) is shown as a conscientious and safety conscious Captain who takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama.
Tasked with a dangerous route, Phillips performs safety drills, but his ship is still boarded by pirates despite his best efforts. His attempts to pay the pirates off are in vain, and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) insists on holding the entire ship ransom for the millions of dollars of insurance money on the vessel.
After a long ordeal at the hands of the erratic pirates, Phillips is eventually rescued by Navy SEALs. The entire crew survives.
The "True" Story: Crew members who were abducted alongside the real-life Captain Phillips have condemned the movie and say the version of events in the film is far from the truth.
Instead, they claim Phillips was a reckless man who totally ignored safety proceedings. According to the crew, Phillips was ordered to sail at least 600 miles from the shore to avoid pirates after a spate of attacks, but instead sailed just 253 miles from the coast. He also allegedly ignored other safeguards, even cutting the power on the ship at certain times. According to a sailor who wished to remain anonymous:
"He didn't want anything to do with it, because it wasn't his plan. He was real arrogant."
The sailor's lawyer, Deborah Waters, also claimed that Phillips had no fear of pirates, despite being shown an attack chart detailing the fate of ships in the area over 50 times, she said:
"The crew had begged Captain Phillips not to go so close to the Somali coast. He told them he wouldn't let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.
"It is galling for them to see Captain Phillips set up as a hero," she added. "It is just horrendous, and they're angry."
5. The Last King Of Scotland
What Happens In The Movie: A recently graduated doctor from Edinburgh travels to Uganda looking for adventure, but ends up in the midst of political turmoil as Idi Amin overthrows the president to become the leader of the country.
Garrigan becomes Amin's personal physician and is soon advising him in matters much more diverse than the medical needs of the country, all the while naively believing that Idi will do good things for the struggling people.
The young doctor ends up having an affair with the polyamorous leader's youngest wife, Kay, who has been exiled for giving birth to a son with epilepsy. Kay is caught seeking an abortion by Amin's forces and brutally slaughtered. Garrigan finds her dismembered body and realizes the inhumanity of the regime before deciding to kill Amin and end it all.
Garrigan's plans to poison the leader are uncovered and he is beaten to a pulp by Amin's troops but ultimately managed to escape the country with the help of a doctor who is killed for his act of mercy.The True Story:
Well, for starters, there wasn't ever a person named Nicholas Garrigan and the person James McAvoy's character is very, very loosely based on wasn't a doctor, and he wasn't from Scotland. Garrigan was inspired by "Major" Bob Astles, a British man who moved to Uganda and became a political advisor to Idi Amin. Although Garrigan's character was quite sympathetic to audiences and simply presented as naive, it seems like Astles was a much harder to like character.
Known as "The White Rat" by the people of Uganda, Astles was hated almost as much as his big boss the brutal dictator. He stuck by Idi Amin until his regime shuddered to a halt and then fled to Kenya. Astles was soon dragged back to Uganda to be punished for war crimes and he served six years in prison before returning to his native Britain in 1985.
Although Astles seems to be a wildly different man to Dr. McAvoy in many ways, his relationship with Amin was in some aspects similar to the one depicted in the movie, Astles explained:
"I was the only person he could trust because I never asked him for anything – no fine house, no privileges, no Mercedes-Benz. I was the only one, perhaps because I was white, who he could be sure was not after his job and his life. If Idi Amin ever had a sincere friend, it was Bob Astles. I was the only person who could cope with him. The other members of his Government would phone me and say: ‘Can you come quickly – he is out of control.’ I would go and let him shout and rail at me and then I would try to calm him down. I was one of the few people he trusted."
Oh, and Astles never slept with Amin's wife, although there are some grains of truth to be found in the story of her death. Kay was found dismembered and crudely sewn back together in the trunk of a doctor named Peter Mbalu Mukasa's car.
It is unknown if she died during a botched abortion or was murdered by Amin's forces for a suspected affair, but according to various sources, Kay was four months pregnant when an autopsy took place. Dr. Mukasa killed himself before he could be questioned.
Which movies do you think stray furthest from the 'true story' that inspired them?