Whenever a new movie claims to be based on a true story, it is guaranteed that the film’s advertising will emphasize that the events of the film actually happened in real life. While this marketing ploy is a tried-and-true method of getting people to see the movie, film enthusiasts are not idiots.
It is common knowledge that movies which are supposedly based on true events take a lot of liberties with what really happened in order to tell a more interesting story. However, there are times where filmmakers claimed a movie was based on a true story, when in fact it was completely made up!
While this is definitely false advertising, film studios still promote these entirely fictional movies as fact. The closest some of these movies seem to come to the “real life events” is that the scenes are a collection of random, unrelated events that were strung together in narrative form for a movie.
The films listed below all claimed to be based on true stories, but have only a minimal, if any, basis in reality.
1. Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1996)
Fargo was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, and it was not only an Oscar darling, but now also has a TV series based on it. While its legacy in movie history still lives on, its status as actual history is nonsense.
The film has the audacity to start with a fake disclaimer stating the movie is based on real events, and that only the names of the “real” people were changed in order to protect their identities. Protecting their identities would have been quite easy considering these people never existed to begin with!
There was a case in the mid-1980s where a body was put through a wood chipper, and a separate case where someone was committing through fudging serial numbers of cars, but everything else is complete fiction.
Joel Coen once explained his decision to claim Fargo was based on a true story by saying, “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” In other words, the Coens manipulated audiences into believing the more farfetched scenes in the film by claiming it really happened.
2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
The Blair Witch Project was a low budget horror film that became one of the biggest movies of 1999, and which started the found footage horror genre. While the film’s advertising did place emphasis on the film being shot through a normal video camera, the old method of claiming the film was based on actual found video footage was what helped the film strike gold at the box office.
However, what transpires in the movie is completely made up. The filmmakers even went as far as to film a fake documentary and fabricated fake newspaper articles about the witch to further back up the legend in order to promote the film. The film was not even filmed in the real town of Burkittsville, Maryland, that the film claims used to be called Blair; it was filmed at another location 25 miles away from Burkittsville, and Blair never existed.
3. Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011)
Killer Elite is based on a novel entitled The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who claims the novel’s story of three mercenaries hired by a sheik to assassinate three SAS personnel is based on a true story. Not only that, but Fiennes claims the “real” Feather Men saved him from being assassinated too, because of the book apparently exposed the shady activities of the Soviet trained terrorist group depicted in the book.
While Killer Elite is certainly an entertaining action and espionage film, it is simply not a true story at all. Despite that, the names of SAS soldiers who died in combat were used to further fabricate that the story was true. Many of the families of the deceased were outraged by how the book depicted their deaths as assassinations, and the filmmakers did nothing to change this story. As the saying goes, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
To be fair to the filmmakers, the book it is based on claimed to be based on fact long before the film went into production. Although years later Fiennes admitted the book was complete fiction, that did not stop the filmmakers from making a film based on the book rather than reality.
4. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
The Strangers was advertised as being based on a true story. The film was a success, partially in how it claimed this home invasion is based on a true story, as it could happen to anyone. This common fear of having your house broken into and being threatened by psychotic killers was exploited and made The Strangers a hit.
A disclaimer at the beginning of the film claims that in 2005 a couple were in fact murdered after their home was broken into by strangers. However, none of this happened, and the couple never existed. Director Bryan Bertino got the idea for the film from a childhood memory when a stranger knocked on the door, asking for people that did not live there.
It turns out they were burglars trying to see what houses were empty to rob them, as other houses in Bertino’s neighbourhood were robbed that night. This creepy experience inspired Bertino to make a film about what horrible things could happen if the wrong people entered your home.
5. The Perfect Storm (Wolfgang Petersen, 2000)
Besides the all-star cast consisting of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, and John C. Reilly, another big selling point for The Perfect Storm was its claim that it was based on the true story of a boat, called the Andrea Gail, which got caught up in what was dubbed “the perfect storm”, and that neither the boat nor the crew were seen alive again.
The truth, however, is that the events of The Perfect Storm are a collection of different and unrelated boating disasters that were documented in a book which was also called The Perfect Storm. They were all strung together to create a narrative. The only signs of the true aspects of the story were that the names of the real boat crew were used for the characters in the film, and that there really was a boat called the Andrea Gail.