16 Movies You Never Knew Were Based on True Stories

Just because a film is “based on a true story” doesn't mean it's a slow-moving, historical drama. In fact, countless classics and romantic movies have real-life connections that are almost impossible to believe. For instance, did you know that Jaws was inspired by real shark attacks? Or that Nicholas Sparks based The Notebook on his relatives? Keep reading for 16 movies you might not have known were based in reality.

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1. The Woman King (2022)

The Woman King presents a slightly fictionalized version of the story of the Dahomey Amazons, an all-female military regime that existed up until the early 1900s. Viola Davis portrays Nanisca, a fierce warrior who trains a new generation of fighters.

2. The Notebook (2004)

In 2004, Nicholas Sparks brought us Romeo and Juliet 2.0 with the forbidden love story of Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling) in The Notebook. From their adorable meet-cute at the carnival to that serious make-out session in the rain, we can’t help but be reduced to a puddle every time we catch this classic. And the fact that Sparks based the story on his wife’s grandparents is just icing on the cake.

3. Jaws (1975)

Although director Steven Spielberg added a fair amount of theatrics, Jaws was based on a series of real shark attacks. In 1916, four beachgoers died at the Jersey shore, which resulted in a massive shark hunt to find the man-eater and protect the city’s tourism industry. And the rest is movie history.

4. 50 First Dates (2004)

No, it’s not just some silly Adam Sandler flick. 50 First Dates is a real-life love story of a veterinarian (Sandler) who falls for a woman with daily memory loss (Drew Barrymore). The film is based on the true story of Michelle Philpots, who suffered two head injuries, in 1985 and 1990. Like the movie, Philpots’s memory resets when she sleeps, so her husband has to remind her of their marriage, the accident and her progress every morning.

5. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016)

As far-fetched as it might seem, this wacky romp actually happened. But for the real Stangle brothers, hilarity didn't ensue until after it all went down. The story goes: Mike (Adam DeVine in the film) and Dave Stangle (Zac Efron) scramble to find dates for their sister’s wedding—to prove to everyone that they’ve matured. After posting an ad on Craigslist, the boys invite two seemingly lovely girls (Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza) who turn out to be a lot wilder than they imagined. That poor, poor sister…

6. Good Will Hunting (1997)

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the original-screenplay Oscar for their 1997 film, Good Will Hunting. But did you know the story came about from a real-life incident involving Damon's brother, Kyle? As it turns out, Kyle was visiting a physicist at the M.I.T. campus and came across an equation on a hallway chalkboard. Using his artistry skills, the star's brother decided to complete the equation (with totally fake numbers), and the masterpiece remained untouched for months. Thus, Good Will Hunting was born.

7. The Shining (1980)

Over the years, many people have reported unexplained, paranormal activity inside the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. In 1974, Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha, decided to see what the fuss was about and checked into room 217. After their stay, King admitted to hearing strange noises, having nightmares—which he never does—and thinking up the idea for his 1977 novel turned film.

8. Fever Pitch (2005)

Nick Hornby's autobiographical essay, "Fever Pitch: A Fan's Life," served as the basis for this fun rom-com, although in real life, Hornby was passionate about football rather than baseball. Jimmy Fallon stars as Ben Wrightman, a die-hard Red Sox fan whose obsession with baseball begins to threaten his romantic relationship with Lindsay (Drew Barrymore).

9. Chicago (2002)

Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere shine in this musical black comedy, which took its inspiration from Maurine Dallas’s 1926 play that was based on the true story of Beulah Annan, a suspected murderer. Chicago, which follows two murderers awaiting trial in the 1920s, earned six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And if you want even more backstory to the musical, watch FX’s Fosse/Verdon.

10. The Terminal (2004)

Tom Hanks plays Viktor, a European man who finds himself stuck at the airport when he's denied entry into the U.S. and unable to return to his home country due to a military coup. But did you know that the storyline is based on the true story of the Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri? He lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport for nearly two decades and even penned an autobiography about the experience, called The Terminal Man.

11. The Vow (2012)

Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum are captivating as Paige and Leo Collins, whose happy marriage is tested after an accident leaves Paige with severe memory loss. The film was inspired by the true story of Kim and Krickitt Carpenter, although they’ve revealed that there’s more to the story than the movie suggests. Kim said, "The dramatization in the movie was much greater, but it is hard to put 20 years of challenges into 103 minutes."

12. River’s Edge (1986)

The plot for River's Edge sounds like it came from the mind of a crime writer, but really, it was inspired by true events. In 1981, the nation was shocked to hear about the murder of 14-year-old Marcy, who was assaulted and killed by 16-year-old Anthony Jacques Broussard. According to reports, he casually told his friends about the incident and then showed them her body. The craziest part? They didn’t alert the authorities for days.

13. It Could Happen to You (1994)

The rom-com drama is inspired by Officer Robert Cunningham and Yonkers waitress Phyllis Penzo, who often crossed paths at Sal's Pizzeria, where Penzo worked. One fateful day in 1984, Cunningham asked Penzo to help him pick half of the lottery numbers on his ticket, and sure enough, he wound up winning the lotto the next day. Like in the film, he split his winnings with the waitress, but Cunningham and Penzo were never romantically involved (as they were happily married to other people).

14. Psycho (1960)

Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (aka The Butcher of Plainfield) was the inspiration behind the film’s main character, Norman Bates. Although Gein was notorious for many things, the writers channeled his creepy gaze and odd obsessions to create the on-screen version of the infamous antagonist. (Fun fact: Gein also inspired the events of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

15. Gotta Kick It Up! (2002)

Based on the true story of Meghan Cole, a teacher who led an after-school dance team at Nimitz Middle School during the '90s, Gotta Kick It Up follows a group of Latina teen girls who learn valuable life lessons as they make their way to the national championships. To this day, “Sí se puede” remains one of our biggest mottos.

16. Kiss & Cry (2016)

This touching Canadian drama centers on a young figure skater whose dreams appear to come to a halt when she discovers she has an extremely rare form of cancer. It's based on the life of real-life skater Carley Allison, who was a huge advocate for those battling with cancer.