Film narratives don’t always directly reflect real life, but when they do they can be especially powerful. Sadness is a deep emotion, and tragedy is a rich source of inspiration. No matter how affecting the film might be, though, sometimes the truth behind it is even more powerful. A number of the most tear-inducing films ever made were based, at least in part, on fact. However, in the following cases the true stories are even more upsetting and profound.
20. Philadelphia (1993)
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his turn as lawyer Andrew Beckett in what was a major turning point in his career. He had plenty of material to draw on when making Philadelphia, mind you. The Beckett character was based on Geoffrey Bowers, a lawyer who sued his old firm for wrongful dismissal after being diagnosed with AIDS. The hearing lasted six years, but Bowers died after the first two months. Meanwhile, Bowers’ family later sued the makers of the film, as his story was never directly credited.
19. Elephant (2003)
Gus Van Sant’s disturbing teen tragedy Elephant isn’t directly about any particular incident, but it was partially inspired by the harrowing Columbine High School shooting. In 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their school and fatally shot 12 of their fellow students and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves. Both of their journals contained evidence that the pair had been bullied.
18. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
The 1994 Rwandan genocide remains one of the worst atrocities in human history. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed, and numerous horrific stories came out of the mass slaughter. One of them inspired Hotel Rwanda – the tale of Paul Rusesabagina managing to save almost 1,300 people from a grisly fate. The real horrors of the wider genocide are almost impossible to imagine.
17. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
What happened to Solomon Northup – a free black man in the North who was kidnapped in 1841 and then enslaved – might sound like a relatively isolated incident, but in truth his story is far from unique. The “Reverse Underground Railroad” operated for decades, and how many free black people were taken is unknown; however, in one two-year stretch in Philadelphia, more than 100 children were kidnapped. Acclaimed it deservedly is, but 12 Years a Slave – based on Northup’s memoir – can only scratch the surface of such largely forgotten history.
16. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Dian Fossey was a pioneering researcher of mountain gorillas. Yet while the film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, largely focuses on Fossey’s work, it also deals with her gruesome 1985 death at the hands of an unidentified assailant – who may well have been a poacher. To this day, it’s still not known who killed her, but she made a lot of enemies in her quest for conservation.
15. Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Hilary Swank remains one of the youngest ever winners of the Best Actress Academy Award, and it was her performance as real-life transgender man Brandon Teena that won it for her. Teena identified as male but never underwent reassignment surgery, and in 1993, at the age of 21, he was raped and then murdered by two young men. Boys Don’t Cry is something of a modern classic, but the story it is based on is truly sobering.
14. Schindler’s List (1993)
While Steven Spielberg’s iconic World War II drama, Schindler’s List, depicts one of the more heroic tales to have come out of the Holocaust, even the brightest of endings is tragic when it’s set in the midst of such an unimaginable atrocity. The real Oskar Schindler was forced into hiding after the war and ended up jumping from country to country, almost destitute. In later life he suffered a heart attack, ultimately dying in 1974 at the age of 66.
13. Monster (2003)
Another Oscar magnet based on difficult subject matter, Monster tells the story of one of the more tragic and disturbing lives in recent history. Having already suffered sexual abuse as a child, Aileen Wuornos was repeatedly raped while working as a prostitute in Florida. She ended up killing seven men across the state, saying that each one had attempted to rape her – or succeeded in doing so. Then, after being turned in by her girlfriend, she spent over a decade on death row before finally being executed in 2002.
12. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Despite its now overused name, a “perfect storm” does in fact describe a real phenomenon – specifically, what happened when one cyclone absorbed another in 1991. The film The Perfect Storm is based on the story of the fishing vessel Andrea Gail, which was caught in the aforementioned weather event in the Atlantic. Neither the boat nor the six-man crew have ever been found.
11. The Killing Fields (1984)
Many films seek to shed light on overlooked atrocities in human history, and The Killing Fields is one of the most well known. It deals with the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime, established in Cambodia in 1975 by Pol Pot. The title refers to the enormous mass graves where hundreds of thousands of victims were buried after being murdered by Pot’s fanatical followers. Again, almost unimaginable horrors.
10. Into the Wild (2007)
The true story of Christopher McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, is a sad, cautionary tale – and the basis, via a book of the same name, for the film Into the Wild. In 1992 McCandless spent three months in the Alaskan wilderness before at length deciding that he wanted to leave. When he did, though, rising river waters blocked his path; and without a map, he was trapped – and ultimately died of starvation. Had he possessed a map, McCandless would have known about a tramway crossing less than a mile from where he’d originally crossed the river.
9. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Rags-to-riches stories are often inspiring, because the people in them often have to fight through a great deal of adversity before they get to the “riches” part. That’s certainly true of Chris Gardner, who is portrayed by Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. Gardner spent almost a year sleeping rough while at the same time taking care of his young son. Now, though, he’s a businessman worth in the region of $60 million.
8. Hunger (2008)
Before Steve McQueen tackled 12 Years a Slave, he directed a screen adaptation of another deeply saddening true story. Hunger stars Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the man who led the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Sands was even elected to the British parliament during the course of the strike, placing him in direct opposition to Margaret Thatcher. Bleakly, though, the protest ended when he and nine other prisoners died of starvation.
7. Spotlight (2015)
Spotlight deals with a major journalistic investigation into child abuse in the Catholic church. Yet while the story is largely confined to Boston, the film also addresses the horrifying scale of the abuse. Indeed, research has suggested that 4 percent of all deacons and priests who were active between 1950 and 2002 have been accused of child abuse – and that’s just in the United States.
6. Braveheart (1995)
Still regarded as one of Mel Gibson’s strongest efforts despite its historical inaccuracy, the landmark film Braveheart tells the story of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who fought fiercely for his nation’s independence. Wallace was ultimately captured and then hanged in 1305 – but that still didn’t kill him. Hence, he was subsequently gutted and had his innards burned while he was still alive. Only then was he finally decapitated. Grim.
5. Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway became one of the most iconic movie couples of all time when they played real-life Great Depression-era partners in crime Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. As in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde, the historical figures died in a hail of police gunfire; however, the pair also left a string of bodies behind them, including those of nine police officers. Barrow additionally killed a young father named Doyle Johnson during a car theft in Texas.
4. The Blind Side (2009)
Sandra Bullock received a lot of attention for her performance in The Blind Side, but real-life NFL player Michael Oher is the true star, since he inspired the book on which the film is based. Oher’s mother was a drug addict, and his father was in and out of prison, forcing him into foster care. He also spent time on the street when he was between homes. Tough times indeed.
3. Goodfellas (1990)
True-story films about awful people seem to be Martin Scorsese’s bread and butter, and Goodfellas is one of his best. But while the film covers a lot of ground – and several decades – the story behind it runs even deeper. Tommy DeSimone, played by Joe Pesci, racked up a body count of 11 in a series of killings that began when he was only 17.
2. The Pianist (2002)
The story of The Pianist is tragic in and of itself, telling as it does the tale of a composer who only narrowly avoided death during the Holocaust. Its director, Roman Polanski, however, had himself escaped the Krakow Ghetto as a child, while his mother was killed in Auschwitz. His adult life, too, would be marked by tragedy – with the murder of his heavily pregnant wife at the hands of the Manson Family in 1969. In 1978 Polanski then fled America, having allegedly drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl at a party held at Jack Nicholson’s home.
1. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Donnie Brasco features one of Johnny Depp’s most celebrated performances. In it, the actor plays the real-life FBI agent who used the eponymous alias. Brasco investigated a New York crime family in the 1970s, and during that time he became particularly close to one member, Dominick Napolitano – while knowing full well that what he was doing could get the man killed. Then when the operation was forced to end, it emerged that Brasco was an agent, and Napolitano was duly murdered.