When truth proves stranger than fiction, there’s only one thing left to do: adapt it for screens big and small. It’s then no surprise that a legion of movies and TV shows base their characters and storylines on actual people and events.
Most of these efforts take massive dramatic license and feel all the more exploitative as a result. Every now and then, however, Hollywood churns out an adaptation that does well by its real-life inspirations. (On the other hand, these are the worst movies based on true events.)
That said, one mustn’t assume that a terrific film based on a true story is necessarily an authentic representation of what actually occurred. Reality is simply too messy and disjointed to fit inside a tidy narrative, making it virtually mandatory that a filmmaker take at least some degree of creative liberty. Indeed, even a film as noble as the Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” modifies elements so as to make its characters and situations more palatable for mass audiences.
So where does that leave us? With a number of iconic films that take inspiration from actual events but also manipulate true stories so as to better explore certain themes or individuals. At least some of these titles conjure an authentic atmosphere while many are considered among the best classic films ever made. A few examples include 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg,” 1989’s “My Left Foot,” and 2013’s “12 Years a Slave.” (Not all such films have serious themes: Here’s a list of the best comedies based on true stories.)
To determine the best movies based on real events or people, 24/7 Tempo developed an index of films using average ratings on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, and a combination of audience scores and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, as of January 2023, weighting all ratings equally. Only movies tagged “based on true story” on IMDb were considered. Directorial credits are from IMDb.
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