Based on a True Story: 8 Documentaries that Inspired Feature Films (2022)

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True stories have been a prime inspiration for movies for as long as there have been movies. Early films recreated historical events and breaking news for eager audiences and films as disparate as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1921) and In Which We Serve (1942) to All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) turned recent history into compelling drama. Books, newspapers and sometimes TV and radio news reports were primary sources for years, but more recently, documentary films have become aninspirationfor adapting real-life stories and riveting events. In fact, afictionalizedversion of thestory told in the Independent Lens film The Great Invisible is due out this fall:Deepwater Horizon stars Mark Wahlberg as an electrician on the doomed oil rig.

While dramatized versions, with their movie stars and big budgets and carefully crafted screenplays, are invariably more popular, the original documentaries have their own, more compelling stories to tell. It’s not just a matter of “the original is better” or “documentaries are real.” Non-fiction films are shaped as surely as feature films but the immediacy, the authenticity of subjects who haven’t been polished for prime time, the messy historical records that don’t necessarily hew to the structure of the traditional three-act story all offer a different kind of drama. And the best of these non-fiction works are as dynamic and powerful as Hollywood’s greatest fictions.

We look at the relationship between eight films and the documentaries that inspired them, and why the original documentaries are still essential. Read on to plansome quality based-on-a-true-storydouble-features.

The Walk (2015), inspired by: Man on Wire (2008)

Robert Zemeckis dramatized the story of Philippe Petit, the French wire-walker and street performer who strung a tightwire between the Twin Towers and walked between the newly-constructed buildings in 1974, in his 2015 feature The Walk, using 3D technology to communicate the awe and wonder of the event from Petit’s perspective. Filmmaker James Marsh had neither the budget nor the technology for his 2008 documentary Man on Wire but he didn’t need it. Petit and his collaborators tell their own story, a mix of performance art and heist thriller, and Marsh illustrates their tale with news footage and brief recreations of their rehearsals. The documentary is just as compelling as the dramatic retelling, a reminder that storytelling is at the heart of great documentary filmmaking.

(Video) The Undeparted an award winning documentary film about spirits, attachments, and people!

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015), based on: Our Brand Is Crisis (2005)

Why watch a documentary when there’s a Hollywood feature complete with movie stars and big-budget production values? One reason is the way that Hollywood tends to tame knotty issues and uneasy socio-political truths. Rachel Boynton’s documentary Our Brand Is Crisis follows James Carville’s political consultant team as they rehabilitate an unpopular, out-of-touch candidate in Bolivia’s election andfinda troubling twist on American interference. The 2015 feature, directed by David Gordon Green, fictionalizes the election and leans on the comic cynicism of politics as personal battle between political burn-out Sandra Bullock and her longtime nemesis Billy Bob Thornton. The 2015 feature is a sly comedy focused on campaign antics and entertaining personalities. The documentary reminds us that issues of globalization, exploitation, and corruption of the election process have a real effect on citizens.

Cinema Verite (2011), inspired by: An American Family (1973)

You could call the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family the original reality TV drama. The HBO original movie Cinema Verite takes on the creation of the show, the drama behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera, and the reverberations of the program throughout American culture. Starring James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert and Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, a couple pitched somewhere between old-fashioned suburban cliché and affluent seventies hipsters, Cinema Verite is an engaging and accomplished production that also never quite communicates the revolutionary aspect of this event, or captures the controversy of the production or its repercussions. An American Family shattered stereotypes of middle class idealism with intimate, raw, revealing portraits of the stresses and contradictions of American life and showed just how provocative and serious the format could be.

(Video) Based on a True Story: Against Her Will (1994)

Grey Gardens (2009), based on: Grey Gardens (1975)

The legendary, controversial Grey Gardens from cinema vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles is a portrait of Edith Bouvier Beale and her grown daughter, Little Edie, the reclusive aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis, who feed their cats and raccoons and rehash their pasts behind the walls of their decaying East Hampton mansion. The documentary became a cult object and spawned a documentary sequel, a Broadway musical, and a documentary about the Broadway musical (not to mention a parody on IFC’s Documentary Now), and the HBO original movie of the same name with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as Edith and Little Edie, with flashbacks filling in the past before their withdrawal. The original is disturbing and discomforting as it reveals two women abandoned by their families who are left to cling to each other, for better or worse. The 2009 feature is an affectionate portrait of these women of privilege who slipped into squalor without ever letting it affect their identities: two real-life characters the world passed by.

Milk (2008), inspired by: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Milk, the story of San Francisco activist and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office, earned Academy Awards for star Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. They had a rich resource to draw from: The Times of Harvey Milk, the first film profile of an openly gay subject to win an Academy Award, andonethat portrayed gay pride and civic pride as one and the same. The documentary revealed an openly, proudly gay man as, simply, a man, a member of the community, and a human being whose life touched so many others. It took Hollywood over twenty years before it had the courage to bring that story — not just that of Milk but a rich, complex, nuanced portrait of any gay character — to the center of a major motion picture. It’s just another example of why documentary filmmaking is such a vital and essential part of the film culture. It’s so often there first, pushing the boundaries of what and whom we put on screen.

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Rescue Dawn (2006), inspired by: Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Werner Herzog is not the only filmmaker to use his own documentary as the source material for a dramatic feature (Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato based their 2003 film Party Monster on their 1998 documentary of the same name) but he is in a pretty exclusive club. It’s a natural leap for Herzog, a filmmaker whose fictions are so steeped in the physical trials of their making that they accrue a primal documentary power. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the story of German helicopter pilot Dieter Dangler, who was captured and imprisoned by the Vietcong during the Vietnam war and returns with Herzog to Vietnam decades later to tell the story of his escape. Rescue Dawn dramatizes his ordeal with Christian Bale as the apolitical flier who bombs villages and civilian huts and flies illegal missions to Laos just to experience the thrill of flight. They become a matched set, the drama an illustration of the words spoken by Dengler in the documentary, two ways to tell the same story.

Lords of Dogtown (2005), inspired by:Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Skateboard pioneer turned filmmaker Stacy Peralta traced the seventies skateboard revolution back to a fascinating subculture that sprouted from the surf and on the streets of Venice Beach in Dogtown and Z-Boys, equal parts extreme sports and social anthropology. For Lords of Dogtown, Peralta turns screenwriter and distills history into a fictionalized drama of his own youth as one of the most influential of the Zephyr Skate Team (aka the Z-Boys). Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the drama has the energy of the dynamic videos that popularized the modern skate culture, but she gives in to the allure of their outlaw rebelliousness and celebrates their vandalism, petty theft, and social contempt as some kind of slum heroism. The documentary, meanwhile, is more personal and passionate, a collision of skate punk and pop culture archeology set to a bracing soundtrack of seventies rock and roll and driven with an amped-up, jittery cinema graffiti style. It’s both an entertaining and engaging slice of cultural history.

(Video) Top Gun: The Real Story Documentary

RKO 281 (1999), inspired by:The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996)

For all the unnecessary fictions, distorted facts, and apocryphal stories passed off as history, I think that the made-for-cable drama RKO 281 paints a more complex and intricate picture of the making and almost unmaking of Citizen Kane than the documentary that inspired it. In The Battle Over Citizen Kane, filmmakers Michael Epstein and Thomas Lennon succumb to the temptation to make Orson Welles’ brilliant debut film all about William Randolph Hearst (only partly true) and frame the backstage drama as a collision between larger than life personalities. It makes for exciting drama (they earned an Oscar nomination for the film) but reductive history. RKO 281, scripted by John Logan, features Liev Schreiber as Welles, both a charmer and a monster, the face of modesty over the soul of a megalomaniac, but the richness comes in the colorful personalities, telling details, and often-neglected heroes woven through his story. It has its failings as history but gets closer to the complexities behind the spectacular collision of art, ego, power, and history.


  • american family
  • christian bale
  • cinema verite
  • citizen kane
  • documentary
  • dogtown and z-boys
  • grey gardens
  • harvey milk
  • little dieter needs to fly
  • man on wire
  • orson welles
  • our brand is crisis
  • rescue dawn
  • sean penn
  • the walk
  • werner herzog

Based on a True Story: 8 Documentaries that Inspired Feature Films (1)

Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. His work appears in Parallax View, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and he writes a weekly newspaper column on streaming video column, which you can find at

(Video) Nuclear war is not only imaginable, but planned - True Story Documentary Channel


Are documentaries based on a True Story? ›

A documentary film or documentary is a non-fictional motion-picture intended to "document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education or maintaining a historical record".

What are movies called when they are based on a True Story? ›

A biographical film or biopic (/ˈbaɪoʊpɪk/) is a film that dramatizes the life of a non-fictional or historically-based person or people. Such films show the life of a historical person and the central character's real name is used.

What is inspired by a True Story? ›

“Inspired by a true story” means a real person or event (or events) only triggered the idea for the script, but does not follow the trajectory of the true story. Often the material takes a “what if” approach to explore the issues. Example: many Law and Order television episodes.

Are documentaries based on facts? ›

"Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally -- but not always -- portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts.

What is documentary example? ›

A documentary is defined as a film or television program that is educational and tells a true story. An example of a documentary is the An Inconvenient Truth, a movie about global warming.

What is the first documentary film? ›

The 1922 movie "Nanook of the North" follows a charismatic real character in a distant land. Though in truth filmmaker Robert Flaherty fudged a few facts, and staged a few scenes, it's generally considered the world's first documentary.

What is the best based on a True Story movie? ›

The best movies based on true stories
  1. All the President's Men (1976) Film. Drama. ...
  2. In Cold Blood (1967) Film. ...
  3. Hustlers (2019) Film. ...
  4. Argo (2012) Film. ...
  5. The Social Network (2010) Film. ...
  6. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Film. ...
  7. Dallas Buyers Club (2014) Film. ...
  8. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) Film.
Mar 15, 2022

What genre of movie is based on True Story? ›

A docudrama is defined as: “is a genre of radio and television programming, feature film, and staged theatre, which features dramatized reenactments of actual events.” (Wikipedia). In every one of these so called “docudramas” or “bio-pics,” the end credits include a disclaimer.

Why is True Story called True Story? ›

So, how much of these match real events? Despite the title itself suggesting that the series is based on real events, True Story is a work of fiction, but there are some elements of the story that are accurate to Kevin Hart's real life.

How do you write a True Story? ›

How to Write Fiction Based on a True Story
  1. Be clear about your premise. ...
  2. Remove yourself from the story. ...
  3. Do your research. ...
  4. Be flexible with facts. ...
  5. Decide if you need permission. ...
  6. Combine stories. ...
  7. Shift the setting. ...
  8. Edit extensively.
Aug 9, 2021

What is the purpose of documentary? ›

“Documentary films tell important, often unknown stories and bring awareness to a wider audience, and are some of the best resources for information, inspiration and entertainment. They have also become core elements and prompters of social issue campaigns.”

How do you describe a documentary? ›

A documentary film purports to present factual information about the world outside the film. A nonfiction film about real events and people, often avoiding traditional narrative structures. Documentary [is] the creative treatment of actuality.

Do documentary films tell the truth how? ›

By definition, a documentary film exists to document a truth. As such, unlike other genres, the documentary is limited by the boundaries of not only what is possible, but also what is real. It is a story like no other genre because it tells the factual and real story of the subject.

Do documentaries have to tell the truth? ›

Filmmakers and ethicists generally agree that filmmakers have an obligation to present information that, if not objectively “true,” is at least honest in intent.

What makes a documentary real? ›

Documentary film speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed.

Do documentaries represent reality? ›

Because the “real” includes that for which is possible to provide an equivalent representation, but a documentary is merely a representation of reality, it never truly captures the real.

Are documentaries reliable sources? ›

New Study Finds Documentaries As Trustworthy Source For Discourse On Racism And Police Violence – Deadline.


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2. The true story behind the new Lifetime movie “Believe Me: The Lisa McVey Story”
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3. The Real Uncle Tom: Josiah Henson (Full Documentary) | Our Daily Bread Ministries
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4. Michael Moore Presents: Planet of the Humans | Full Documentary | Directed by Jeff Gibbs
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5. Sold by Her Mother | The Heartbreaking Story of Kamarie Holland (True Crime Documentary)
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6. The God Who Speaks (2018) | Full Movie | Alistair Begg | Darrell Bock | D.A. Carson
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