Best Movies Based on Non-Fiction Books, Ranked

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Best Movies Based on Non-Fiction Books, Ranked

When we think about books that were adapted into movies, most of the time we think of fiction. Whether it’s an epic fantasy series come to life such as The Lord of the Rings, or a thrilling sci-fi story such as Dune, none of it is ever based on true stories. However, there are just as many non-fiction books out there as there are fiction.

Whether it be a biography of an important person or a retelling of a historical event from someone who was there to witness it, it’s important to remember that it all exists. These books too can influence movie adaptations, ranging from war movies to romances to comedies. Though you might not even recognize that some movies were book adaptations of true events, these are just a few of many out there that fall into this category.



10 Friday Night Lights

Universal Pictures

The sports drama Friday Night Lights is based on the book written by H.G. Bissinger titled Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream. In Odessa, Texas, the Permian High School football team begins practice for the coming season with a lot of pressure on their backs. The town has high expectations for the team to make it to and win the state championships thanks to their star running back.

They suffer through many issues along the way, including the running back suffering from a leg injury in the first game that puts him out of playing for the rest of the season. The book chronicled much of this story, but instead of making it something inspiring and talking about how the boys came together to try and get the win, it criticized life in the town and the pressure the adults put on these kids who still had to worry about school as well.

9 Mean Girls

The plastics clique in Mean Girls
Paramount Pictures

The popular teen comedy Mean Girls is actually mostly based on Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. This book takes an in-depth look at social cliques and bullying in high schools, especially relating to the negative and often damaging effects they can have on teenagers. The movie’s writer, Tina Fey, also included some of her personal high school experiences to shape the story.

When Cady Heron leaves a life of homeschooling years behind and enters a public school for the first time, she has a rough first day. As she tries to find her place in the school she learns a lot about the different cliques and how being popular isn’t necessarily good.

8 Sully

Tom Hanks as Sully in Sully
Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on the autobiography Highest Duty, Sully is about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in the event dubbed The Miracle on the Hudson. The movie dramatized the moment from 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 lost power in the middle of the sky after running into a flock of birds that took out the engines.

Related: Best Book to Film Adaptations, Ranked

Sully was the flight’s captain, who had to find a way to bring a plane with no power back to the ground safely to save the passengers as well as avoid smashing into any buildings. Ultimately, he managed to make an emergency landing in the middle of the Hudson, but the movie doesn’t end there. Sully’s career is on the line as the media continues to follow him and the story closely, with people doubting the engines were so damaged he couldn’t have landed at one of the nearby airports instead.

7 The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Paramount Pictures

The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy crime movie based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name. In 1987, Jordan Belfort managed to become a Wall Street stockbroker and was quickly enticed by the corruption and fraud around it, but unfortunately lost his job again soon after due to the largest one-day stock market drop in history.

Determined to not quit, he tries to get rich in a different way, making a small fortune at a brokerage firm that specialized in penny stocks instead. Then, after befriending his neighbor Donnie Azoff, they found Stratton Oakmont together, which specialized in stock market fraud to make the pair get rich quick. Jordan was eventually caught, but it’s thanks to this that he was able to write an account of his actions to be turned into a movie.

6 The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews as Marie in The Sound of Music
20th Century Fox

Though it might surprise some people, the popular musical The Sound of Music is based on the memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, written by Maria von Trapp herself. It all takes place in 1938 when we meet Maria, who is studying to become a nun. However, her lack of discipline is seen as a problem, and instead of keeping her, she’s given the opportunity to go be a governess to the seven children of retired naval officer Captain von Trapp.

Though the kids seem adamant to dislike her at first, she continues to treat them with kindness even through whatever they do to her, slowly allowing them to warm up to her. However, as World War II begins to rage around them, they soon realize they can no longer stay in Austria and work together to flee the war. In both the memoir and the musical, their story and struggles won’t be forgotten.

5 The Big Short

The Big Short
Paramount Pictures

Another comedy crime movie is The Big Short, based on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. It talks about how the 2007-2008 financial crisis was caused by the housing market crash. Three separate but concurrent stories make up the movie as they all take place in the years leading up to the 2007 housing market crash.

First, hedge fund manager Michael Burry discovers the housing market is unstable and decides to bet against, or short, market-based mortgages, allowing him to profit. In the collapse, his proposal and efforts earned over two billion dollars in profits for everyone involved. Second, executive banker Jared Vennett discovers and understands Burry’s analysis and decides to follow suit for profit. Along the way, he discovers a lot of other friends and partners are beginning to do the same, especially after investigations revealed mortgage brokers were making profits by selling their deals to Wall Street and creating the bubble that eventually burst. Lastly, young investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley learn about the upcoming crash and intend to make some money as well.

As they look further into it and invest their money, they quickly become horrified by what these banks are doing and try to take it to the press before it’s too late, but the press’s bias and influence get in the way, and ultimately it isn’t reported on before the crash can happen.

4 Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can
DreamWorks Pictures

The crime comedy Catch Me If You Can is rooted in questionable truths, as no one is sure that the story that came out of the semi-autobiographical book of the same name, written by Frank Abagnale Jr., is entirely real. Still, it was interesting enough to catch Hollywood’s eye, bringing the long con to life on the big screen.

Frank grew up witnessing his father’s many attempts at conning people, influencing his own attempts later on in life. After a nasty divorce between his parents, he runs away from home and begins a small con to try and earn money. Its roaring success lets him get bolder, impersonating an air pilot and even forging airline payroll checks to earn himself millions. Eventually, the FBI catches wind of this and tries to chase him down, but he’s determined to keep switching identities and fake jobs in order to get away from them.

3 The Pianist

Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist
BAC Films

The Pianist is based on an autobiographical book written by Władysław Szpilman, a pianist, composer, and Holocaust survivor. Szpilman was a Polish Jew, who was playing a piece live for the radio when Germany invaded Poland and the station was destroyed. Though he and his family think things will be over quickly after Britain and France declare war on Germany, no aid arrives, and Germany seizes control of Poland.

He and his family are persecuted with the rest of the Jews and eventually forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, which Szpilman alone manages to escape from after being singled out by a friend in the police who recognized him. He was turned into a slave laborer instead of being sent to an extermination camp, and after smuggling weapons into the ghetto for a Jewish revolt, he escapes the ghetto fully and goes into hiding. Without the help of his friends, and the luck of a friendly German officer willing to help him hide, he might have never survived the war.

2 Goodfellas

Warner Bros.

The Academy Award-winning movie Goodfellas is based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi. This mafia movie follows the story of Henry Hill, who was enamored by criminal life in Brooklyn when he was young. He gets involved in a local mafia and begins as a fence, slowly working towards committing more serious crimes.

Related: Movies That Completely Changed the Book’s Ending

From covering up a murder of theirs to beginning to smuggle drugs, to even raiding the JFK airport and stealing six million dollars worth of cash and jewelry out of their vault, there was a lot he and his group did. He even spent several years in jail after he was arrested, and was released on bail a few times as well. Ultimately, however, he had to choose to live the exciting life of a gangster that he loves or become an informant, enroll in the witness protection program, and keep his family alive.

1 Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now
United Artists

Apocalypse Now is based on the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, though the setting is changed from the 19th century Congo to the middle of the Vietnam War. Captain Benjamin Willard is tasked with finding Colonel Walter Kurtz, a promising officer who had gone mad and now threatens the army. Willard is to remove Kurtz from command however he can.

Joining a Navy patrol boat that is already headed into the jungle said to be Kurtz’s last location, he hopes the boat will go far enough up the river so that he can reach his goal. He turns the crew into his allies as they spend time together, but as the jungle grows thicker, they begin to run into increasingly dangerous territory that only impedes their progress and threatens to not let them out alive, much less put an end to the fanatical Kurtz and everyone who still followed him.

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