The Best Movies Based on True Stories

Robin Raven
Milk movie poster

While film fans want to lose themselves in a story and take a journey with the main characters of any film, knowing that a movie is based on a true story gives it an extra sense of relatability. These real-life stories are some of the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Girl, Interrupted

Girl, Interrupted (1999) is based on Susanna Kaysen's beloved memoir of her troubled youth when she spent almost two years at a psychiatric hospital. This film is set during the late 1960's, which influences the soundtrack, mood, and some of the story lines. In fact, The New York Times praised the film stating that it "presents a meticulous, true-to-life portrait of a time and place where the era's combustible social stresses drove sensitive young women like Susanna into states of flailing desperation."

With a cast that includes such powerhouses as Winona Ryder, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Brittany Murphy, and Elisabeth Moss, it's no wonder that actors from Girl, Interrupted won Academy Awards. In fact, Jolie's awards include an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Critics' Choice Movie Award for her performance.

Milk

Milk (2008) tells the true story of Harvey Milk, an openly gay activist who fought hard to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was subsequently murdered by Dan White, who then used the now-infamous "Twinkie" defense in which he blamed junk food for his murderous rampage.

Among Milk's many awards are Academy Awards, Spirit Awards, and New York Film Critics Circle Awards. It also made many "best of the year" lists, and Roger Ebert gave the film his highest rating possible. Sean Penn's passionate portrayal of Harvey, the direction by Gus Van Sant, and the touching screenplay by Dustin Lance Black are all especially memorable.

Schindler's List

Steven Spielberg's powerful, critically acclaimed film Schindler's List (1993) tells a remarkable true story. Before the success of this important movie, many people had never heard of how Oskar Schindler, a Nazi industrialist, saved over 1,000 Jewish people from the concentration camps and the torture and death that would have awaited them there. The movie has won dozens of awards, including seven Academy Awards.

Making this movie even more important, Spielberg felt that profiting on the film would be taking "blood money" so he instead donated all of his salary and any future proceeds in perpetuity from the film to the Shoah Foundation, which honors survivors of the Holocaust.

The Sound of Music

Made decades before Schindler's List, The Sound of Music (1965) is also based on a true story that is set around World War II. Also critically acclaimed and a beloved crowd pleaser for over 50 years, The Sound of Music tells the true story of the musical Von Trapp family who escaped Austria as the Nazi regime was rising to power there.

Although many people know The Sound of Music for its gorgeous scenery and even more beautiful music, it tells a serious story in which family members had to make big ethical decisions and stand for something very important that changed all of their lives forever. As Sarah Crompton said in The Telegraph, The Sound of Music has "a confidence and a sense of moral purpose that warms the hardest heart."

The Accused

The true story of Sarah Tobias is uncomfortable to watch, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, but that is precisely why The Accused (1988) is such an important movie. Sarah is brutally raped in a bar while patrons cheer on the crime. Sarah decides to take action against her rapists, and her lawyer helps her stand up to the witnesses of the rape as well. She faces a lot of blame and backlash, and she even has a violent encounter as the attempts to shut her up escalate. Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sarah, among several other awards.

Glory

Edward Zwick's Glory (1989) is based on a combination of sources, including the private letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the books Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard. Set during the American Civil War, it tells the story of the first military unit of the Union Army that consisted solely of African American men, except for its officers.

Glory and its stars Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman received recognition that included Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and widespread critical acclaim.

Iris

Iris (2001) is a biographical movie that reveals the story of Iris Murdoch, a lively and fascinating British novelist. It closely focuses on an important aspect of the writer's life: her relationship with John Bayley. The film itself is based on Bayley's memoir titled Elegy for Iris.

Jim Broadbent won the Academy Award for his supporting role in Iris. Judi Dench was nominated for her portrayal of the title character, and Kate Winslet also received a nomination for her supporting role as the younger version of Iris.

Rosewood

Rosewood is a 1997 movie that's based on the horrific, historic events that happened in Rosewood, Florida in 1923. While some details and characters are changed to tell the story, the white mob's massacre of black Rosewood residents and the destruction of the town they lived in was all too real. In fact, one survivor of the Rosewood attacks, Minnie Lee Langley, even served a source and helped the movie's set designers.

Reviewers at popular film site Rotten Tomatoes give the film an 85% "fresh" rating. The New York Times described the movie in this way: "Never in the history of American film had Southern racist hysteria been shown so clearly. Color, class and sex were woven together on a level that Faulkner would have appreciated."

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) is largely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the legendary newspaper publisher. Orson Welles served as the film's star, producer, co-writer, and director.

Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards and was named the Best Picture at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards. The American Film Institute ranked it as the greatest American film of all time, and CBS News called it one of "cinema's great classics."

Riding in Cars With Boys

Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) is fantastic autobiographical film based on the life of Beverly Donofrio, a writer whose life took twists and turns after she got pregnant as a teenager. She faced many subsequent challenges, including the drug addiction of her new husband and a series of disappointments as a single mother.

The movie covers the years of 1961 through 1986 in the author's life. The strong cast of Riding in Cars with Boys is led by Drew Barrymore, and it received praise from The New York Times and won awards such as the Prism Commendation for Theatrical Feature Film.

All The President's Men

All The President's Men (1976) stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as journalists who are investigating the infamous Watergate scandal. Among its many awards were the 1976 National Board of Review Best Picture award, Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics, Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for William Goldman and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards.

In 2010, the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected All The President's Men for special preservation because it was seemed as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Boys Don't Cry

Boys Don't Cry (1999) is based on the short, tragic life of Brandon Teena, who was born Teena Brandon. The young trans man had the courage and determination to be himself even without support from those around him, and he starts to carve out a hopeful life for himself before things take several irrevocably terrible turns.

Both Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny won critical acclaim for their strong performances in this film. Roger Ebert declared that Swank "was an absolute miracle, a truly tremendous star in this role." Awards for this film are numerous. Swank won the Best Actress Academy Award while Sevigny earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The film also garnered two Golden Globe nominations, two Satellite Awards, and three Boston Society of Film Critics Awards.

Summer of '42

Summer of '42 (1971) is a romantic, sweet, and intense film that is based on author Herman Raucher's life while he was growing up and falling in love for the first time during the summer of 1942 on Nantucket Island. Herman falls for an older widow, and he and his buddies try to navigate life and figure out love from their still innocent perspectives.

The New York Times praised the talents of stars Gary Grimes and Jerry Houser, stating that, "They are exuberant and intense and very, very funny." The film was nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes, and several other awards, and it won an Oscar for Best Music.

Apollo 13

Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995) was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture. It's based on the real-life Apollo 13 lunar mission and centers around Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 Commander who is played by Tom Hanks, as well as the other astronauts and their families. The audience journeys with them through this epic mission and important time in history.

Like most films that are based on a true story there were some discrepancies, but the film received nearly universal praise. The American Film Institute named Apollo 13 among its 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time. Among its awards are two Oscars, two BAFTA Film Awards, four Golden Globe nominations, a Directors Guild of America award, and two Screen Actors Guild awards.

Born on the Fourth of July

Not surprisingly, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) made Forbes' list of the Best Fourth of July movies. Oliver Stone directed this film based on Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic's autobiography. Born on the Fourth of July is remarkable for its depiction of the man through many important parts of his life. It shows him as an idealistic boy, an enlisted serviceman, a disillusioned vet who returns home paralyzed in a wheelchair, and as an anti-war activist.

This film earned Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination. Of the movie's eight Academy Award nods it won Best Film Editing and Best Director. In 2014, Esquire said that the movie is "still a powerful indictment of the way America treats its veterans."

Dead Man Walking

Based on Sister Helen Prejean's non-fiction book, Dead Man Walking (1995) is the story of how the Roman Catholic nun worked as a spiritual advisor to men who were sentenced to the death penalty. Prejean works toward the abolition of the death penalty, and the film takes a look at the issues that swirl around death row.

Susan Sarandon portrays Sister Helen Prejean, and she won an Academy Award for her sensitive and passionate portrayal of the nun. Sean Penn plays death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Both actors received Golden Globe nominations for their work as well, along with screenwriter Tim Robbins.

I Want To Live

I Want To Live (1958) is a complex film that doesn't offer any easy answers. Susan Hayward won an Oscar for her portrayal of real-life murderer Barbara Graham, who perished in the San Quentin gas chamber. In addition to Susan's win, I Want to Live was nominated for four other Academy Awards. The movie is a stunning film noir that was celebrated for its realistic portrayal of how the gas chamber functioned in California.

A League of Their Own

Director Penny Marshall hit a home run with A League of Their Own (1992), the comedy-drama flick that was based on the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. ESPN pointed out what was true and what was fiction within the baseball-themed film. The movie was both a box office hit and a critical success. The ensemble cast was excellent and included such stars as Madonna, Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, and Rosie O'Donnell.

The success of A League of Their Own continues on today. The Library of Congress chose the movie for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Malcolm X

Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) is an unflinching look at the complicated life of African-American activist Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little. The movie is based on three important parts of his life, and it explores his quest for spiritual enlightenment and inner growth.

The New York Times praised Malcolm X, calling it as complicated as its subject, and Roger Ebert named it as the top film in his Top 10 list of movies for 1992. The Guardian referred to it as "still absolutely necessary" and the "most vital civic rights biopic."

Coal Miner's Daughter

Sissy Spacek gave an unforgettable, Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner's Daughter, the 1980 biographical movie that is based on the difficult life story of beloved country music star Loretta Lynn. It follows her meteoric rise from poverty to being the darling of the music industry in the country genre, and it is inspiring in showing how one can overcome great obstacles to go on to thrive in life. Overall, this movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards and it was a smashing success with critics and at the box office.

Celebrating the Truth

Most people have fascinating stories to tell. These extraordinary true stories are sometimes drawn from everyday people who happened to find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Learn something about history and yourself when you check out these real-life stories.

The Best Movies Based on True Stories