"Hello. I'm Leonard Nimoy. The following tale of alien encounters is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer is...no."
Basing a book on a true story is a handy way to get some publicity for a project. But hey! Why not save time and effort by cutting out the middleman? Just come up with your own, entirely fictional story and tell everyone that it actually happened. Who's going to find out?
Everyone who visits IMDb, for a start.
The best case scenario is that you get a wry chuckle from your fans and a nod in a couple of papers. A worse case scenario is that some folks get together and sue you for selling the story to them under false pretenses. The worst case scenario is when your supposedly true story is actually very close to someone else's actual true story, and you end up losing every penny of your profits in a humiliating lawsuit because nobody believes your sudden recantation. Best solution? Just say that it's fiction all along.
You could argue that the very premise of this trope exists because Viewers Are Morons. It's generally taken for granted that just about everyone over the age of six realizes that fictional media is not real, and that any attempt to replicate an actual event within a fictionalized framework - no matter how painstaking the effort - is inevitably going to fall short. But in a heavily suburbanized era where so many people in post-industrialized countries are sheltered from so much of reality, it's probably inevitable that they'll think of docudramas as being as real as it can get.
Based on a Great Big Lie is a specific type of Dan Browned. The author may make heavy use of From a Certain Point of View to justify himself. For the Sub Trope about documentaries, see Documentary Of Lies.
Compare Very Loosely Based on a True Story and Mockumentary. Contrast Roman à Clef.
Note: No real life examples, particularly against specific persons.
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Films — Animated
The story of Pocahontas used by Disney and others is pretty much entirely bunk despite it being billed in its original form (the writings of John Smith) as true. Researchers reviewing Smith's other works quickly realized he had a penchant for making up absolutely insane stories about himself and passing them off as fact (if taken as true, Smith was a demi-god of manliness and combat skill who found success, riches and sex wherever he went). Conveniently, the story wasn't published until after Pocahontas had died, leaving Smith's claims and exaggerations uncontested.
While Disney never claimed it was actually a true story, their version wasn't even true if you take Smith's story at face value. Among other things, Disney's Pocahontas is pretty clearly around 18 or so while Smith claims she was about 12, and The Other Wiki's engraving of the historical Pocahontas/Rebecca Rolfe (who was at the time of the engraving about 21) has a lot more in common with voodoo god Baron Saturday than with the Disney hottie.
Films — Live-Action
The original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1974 was supposedly based on a true story, but no such "massacre" ever took place. Leatherface is allegedly loosely based on the killernote According to the FBI a person needs to kill three people with a "cooldown" period in between the murders to qualify as a serial killer; Gein killed only two. Ed Gein. The director mentioned in the DVD commentary that if you check the dates during which the fictional events supposedly occur, they correspond with the dates that they were filming the movie. So, From a Certain Point of View the events really did happen. In a way note (Actually, the events depicted in the movie happened a short time after filming took place).
Fargo is supposedly based on a true story. It isn't. The Coen Brothers (eventually) tried to weasel their way out of this by saying that everything in the movie was meant to be interpreted as fiction, including the blurb at the beginning that claimed it was based on a true story. Another lie they fed the media was that there was a news report in 1987 about a businessman who planned on having his wife fake-kidnapped for ransom money, but the police caught him before he could make his plan come to fruition, and the Coens asked themselves "what if he had succeeded?" On the special features on the 'Fargo' DVD, the Coens claim they were afraid nobody would have believed the crazy plot they came up with any other way.
One thing that may have been based on an actual case was the famous scene where Grimsrud shoves Showalter's body down a woodchipper. It was loosely derived from the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts in Connecticut.
The horror movie The Strangers, about a masked trio of psychopaths who stalk, terrorize, and eventually murder(?) a couple in a vacation home, is supposedly based on a true story, but it was primarily inspired by an incident from the director's childhood in which a pair of "strangers" came to the door, and were later found to be breaking into houses if no one was home when they knocked. It also took cues from an actual set of murders, but they were absolutely nothing like the plot of the movie - while staying in a cabin in a resort town, a woman in her thirties, two of her children, and a friend of one of the children were mysteriously bludgeoned and stabbed to death. Those murders were never solved.
Hidalgo is based on the actual stories of Frank Hopkins — but Hopkins is known to history as a con man and quite possibly a pathological liar. Hopkins was not part Native American, did not ever work in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, never visited the Middle East (and certainly was never in a gigantic race in the Middle East, which never existed to begin with) etc. etc. etc. On some level, however you've got to admire the guy for inventing a story that Hollywood decided to make into a movie (given all the writers who have stories they are trying unsuccessfully to sell to Hollywood).
The Amityville Horror is supposedly based on a true story. However, the book containing said "true story" was admitted by its writer to have been at least somewhat exaggerated. Debate still rages as to which parts of the book really happened.
The Haunting In Connecticut purports to be based on a true story. However, Ray Garton, the author of the book that the film (and a Discovery Channel documentary) was based on, has admitted that the "true story" was a fabrication. He has said that none of the family members could get their story straight, and that they were dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction at the time, which may have affected their judgment. When he pointed this out to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the case investigators (who, not coincidentally, also investigated the Amityville case), they reportedly told him, "Make it up and make it scary."
Ed and Lorraine Warren themselves are (were in Ed's case) self professed demonologists. Opinions may differ in terms of their reliability when it comes to cases, shows, and other investigators such as Jason Hawes that they have been involved with.
King Arthur is billed as the true historical story of King Arthur, but instead is little more than a "remix" of the popular Arthur mythos with some garbled bits of Late Roman/Early Medieval history. Whether there was a historical Arthur at all remains a matter of fierce historical debate, and there are several potential candidates for the basis of the character, none of which bear more than a surface similarity to the movie's Arthur. It's not exactly a success as a "true historical story" either - the entire movie is one longhistoricalinaccuracy. Heck, the title character himself lived (if he lived) about 300 years before the movie is supposed to take place.
In a very similar vein to King Arthur, the makers of movies such as Troy and 300 make a big deal about the historical content, which, in reality, is minimal at best. The glaring violence toward epic mythology and written history would be sufferable if people like Zack Snyder didn't insist on their accuracy, and yet in the case of 300 there's the Unreliable Narrator thing. So which are we supposed to believe? In both cases, however, with even the most rudimentary knowledge of classical history and literature one can recognize that the movies are mostly In Name Only adaptations (at best) of whatever the original work is.
The 300 example is pretty tricky to pin down, especially since Snyder himself has been both inconsistent and somewhat cavalier in claims of accuracy. Between him, Miller, and various other involved personnel, the idea seems to be that the events as depicted are knowingly exaggerated, subjective and the result of an Unreliable Narrator, but the broad history and the thematic content are intended to be accurate- which is generous, but still- and that the film is intended to give an impression of the events, rather than an accurate depiction. It's about the myth of Thermopylae, in short, rather than the battle per se.
It's also worth noting that, for all it's inaccuracy and exaggeration, some scholars have commented that it is at least roughly consistent with the contemporary traditions of heroic fiction; for example, while the Greeks historically fought in an unbroken phalanx, they often depicted themselves fighting in a more heroic melee, as in the film. Even if it's nonsense, it's the sort of nonsense which the Spartans themselves would probably have appreciated, so that's something.
Back in the 70s, the very first "snuff" film (imaginatively entitled Snuff) purported to depict the actual on-camera murder of an actress. Despite all the controversy that was stirred up — which actually was the entire point — the murder was later revealed to be a hoax, albeit a not-quite convincing one. In fact, the distributors of the movie had actually just bought some random South American B-Movie and grafted on their own, completely different short bit of footage (the "snuff"), replacing the actual movie's ending.
That, coupled by the fact that the snuff footage looked unbelievably fake. See for yourself.
In a similar vein for the older Cannibal Holocaust, the advertising of it as real footage caused so much outrage that its director was arrested and dragged to court - on charges of murder - and once there he had not only to admit it was all a great big lie but show the actors to the judge to prove that they were all alive and well. This was further complicated because, as part of their contractual agreements, the actors were legally obligated to keep away from the public eye for a full year, in order to help hype the movie. A second deal nullifying the first had to be struck with the studio before the actors were allowed to testify.
The Last Samurai is based on an odd amalgamation of the historical Satsuma rebellion and the part played in the earlier Boshin war by French officer Jules Brunet. The "guns vs swords" plot is particularly ironic, considering that even the real "last samurai" of the Satsuma rebellion openly embraced modern weaponry for the tactical advantages it offered. The decline of the samurai class in real life came about in a much slower and less dramatic fashion and there were certainly no embittered American Civil War heroes involved.
The mockumentary Im Still Here presents Joaquin Phoenix's breakdown as fact; in reality, it was just the filming of the movie. Phoenix and director Casey Affleck simply didn't tell anyone.
Amadeus was based on an apocryphal tale Salieri, a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, went mad late in his life and confessed to killing Mozart. It is a matter of historical record that Mozart died during a long period of illness, but confoundedly, the film accepts both of these stories as true, and sets about to tell a story about how a man can murder someone else with a disease. After that premise, all the other errors on Mozart's life seem insignificant, but are still quite numerous: His mother-in-law is depicted as a harsh shrew when in fact they got along famously; Salieri being depicted as his arch-rival when in fact the two were at least respectful competitors, if not actual friends; the Requiem Mass being commissioned by Salieri (Mozart never did find out who the anonymous patron was, but we know now); and Salieri helping to compose the Requiem (it is unknown how much of the piece Mozart finished, but whoever finished it, Mozart or someone else, it certainly wasn't Salieri).
The historical inaccuracies are intentional - quite simply, Shaffer and Forman did not want to write a faithful biography of Mozart, but they used it just as a premise. You can see the research as the movie depicts a number of aspects of Mozart as accurate.
Similar to Fargo, Dude, Where's My Car? begins with the statement "The following is based on actual events" and proceeds to tell a completely made up story. In this case, however, it's a story that no one could ever believe was true, making the opening just another joke instead of an attempt to trick people.
Well, if you consider them to be the actual events happening in the heads of two loser stoners, it makes more sense.
Peter Jackson's Forgotten Silver is a truly stunning example of the trope. Jackson claimed to have discovered his neighbor was the widow of Colin MacKenzie, an early 20th century filmmaker who invented many revolutionary processes but was also extraordinarily unlucky and ended up completely obscured by history. His goal with the film was explicitly to make people think it was real, and to this end he got such notable figures as Harvey Weinstein and Leonard Maltin to participate, as well as coming up with a story, including explanations of how MacKenzie could have done so much and remain unknown, that's just plausible enough that people would want to believe it. note There is a moment that gives it away to sufficiently aware viewers: the point where the Macguffin was finally found "under the sign of Taurus" (the Bull).
The sci-fi/horror movie The Fourth Kind has, as its tag line, the claim that the movie is "based on actual case studies," and even claims to include actual footage of alien abductions. Guesswhat?
The Men Who Stare at Goats begins with an assurance, perhaps just as a weak joke, that "more of the film is true than we would believe." Which part? Sure, there was a remote viewing project in the U.S. military around the late '70s/early '80s, but it didn't work.
The movie is a fictionalization of a fairly well documented journalistic book.
That assurance was followed immediately by a scene of a very strait-laced military man calmly and deliberately stepping away from his desk and running head-on into a wall for no apparent reason. We find out why later on, but right at the moment it's just a jarring juxtaposition with the reassurance, since it's exactly the kind of thing that's so hard to imagine.
They both get the slight excuse that large portions of the movies were unscripted (usually stage directions along the lines of "You're stressed out after two days of weirdness; GO!") and quite often the actors had no idea what things were about to happen (or IF they were about to happen) to get more accurate reactions out of them. The events DID happen, just not quite the way you might think...
The Boat That Rocked: Although Radio Rock existed they were not a pirate radio station at all, since they had a license. However the British government didn't like the fact that they were broadcasting from outside British waters. The ending is completely made up as well; in real life the government simply banned anyone from supplying them and then arrested the crew as soon as they came ashore.
It is at least partially based on the Pirate Radio stations that sprung up in the middle part of the 20th Century, more specifically the infamous Radio Caroline. Which was notorious not just for broadcasting from a boat, but it's stubborn refusal to ever die despite the government crackdown. As well as for pretty serious mishaps such as their boats sinking (which is likely where the climax of the movie took inspiration from), or authorities from Britain and the Netherlands boarding the boats and arresting the staff. Nowadays it's a legal, land-based show and still fairly popular. Although occasionally they will broadcast from one of the old boats for special events.
For all its rather loose approach to actual events, ex-pirate DJs who were there at the time say the film does capture the flavour of shipboard life quite well.
Battleship Potemkin is a purportedly historical film that depicts a massacre that, in truth, never happened: the records are scarce and conflicting, and eyewitnesses were unreliable and confused. It is, however, known, that spirits in the city were running high at that moment, and there were several demonstrations that, by some accounts, including a British consul and The Times reporter, were put down using armed troops, but no massacre. Of course, Eisenstein wasn't making a documentary, he was making a propaganda flick, so he took really great liberties with the facts — including the massacre. It's just that doing so, he had several ideas how to edit the footage for most emotional impact, and they worked so good that he basically became a father of all modern film editing, and the Odessa Steps Massacre became firmly entrenched as a fact.
It is said that after seeing the movie, the person who was shooting at that area came to the police (he lived in USA then) and confessed about a murder.
Sunset: "It's all true, give or take a lie or two."
In-movie example: in the classic John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart told the story in Flashback to a biographer, and revealed that it was John Wayne, not him, who killed the outlaw Liberty Valance. The biographer tore up his notes at that point. His words to Stewart are this trope distilled to its essence.
"This is the west. When the legend becomes fact, you print the legend."
Bloodsport is supposedly based on an actual secret, underground fighting competition, told from the perspective of American martial artist Frank Dux. (It even shows the supposed records he set at the end.) The fact that NOBODY has ever stepped forward and claimed to have even heard of this tournament should tell you something. It's likely that Dux came up with the "to the death" angle to get around this little detail: "Of course nobody's said anything, they're all dead but me!" Disregarding all the other massive problems with the 'martial artist' Dux, he made two very interesting claims about the Kumite (the 'tournament' he 'fought' in): the fights were to the death and that he fought 52 opponents to claim the title. Think about it first: fights to the death would imply a elimination-type tournament, where the number of fights grows exponentially to the number of stages (either that or someone decided for some reason to organize a tournament where 52 other contenders had to fight only Dux); i.e., for him to have fought 52 opponents in a 'to the death' style tournament, the total number of fighters involved would have been 2^52 or 4,503,599,627,370,496. Note that this is roughly 50,000 times the current population of the entire planet Earth. However, in the movie only one of the competitors was actually killed. Death was a risk but not the price of defeat.
The epilogue of The Toolbox Murders states the film was based on a true story, though near the end of the credits the usual "this was fiction, all resemblance to anything real is just coincidental" disclaimer is shown.
After all the hijinks of Silent Movie, the end of the film displays the title card: "This is a true story."
An interesting example is Enemy at the Gates. Jude Law's sniper character was a real person, and, surprisingly, so was the Love Interest played by Rachel Weisz—but the same can't be said of the German sniper and the main plot. Soviet officials insisted the story was true, but recent reappraisals of the available evidence have led historians to strongly suspect that the whole thing was just a load of made-up wartime propaganda. The villain of the piece is a Bavarian aristocrat sniper named Erwin Konig; in reality, no conclusive evidence has been found that Konig ever even existed, let alone that he fought a sniper duel in Stalingrad.
The Seven Percent Solution states that it is the "true story" of what happened during Sherlock Holmes's legendary "Great Hiatus" from 1891-94. Then the title card goes on to state, "Only the facts are made up."
The film adaptation of The Hunt For Red October inverts this by providing a disclaimer at the beginning of the film to the effect that "According to repeated statements by both Soviet and American governments, nothing of what you are about to see ever happened." The audience is quite pointedly left to draw their own conclusions.
Done in-universe in The Debt, which drives the plot.
The majority of the film JFK is entirely made up, with the only real events being the assassination and the Clay Shaw trial (which was an affront to justice). Perhaps the worst was that of the crucial 'smoke from the Grassy Knoll', none of the rifles used would emit any visible smoke. Oliver Stone had to have a special-effects man blow smoke out of a bellows in order to get that effect (and yes, many, many people have made jokes about him literally "blowing smoke").
Most of the film's facts are taken from the writings of Jim Garrison, who is also the central character in the film. Almost every expert on the Kennedy assassination - even those who believe in a conspiracy - believe Garrison to be unreliable at best and insane at worst.
The 2012 film The Devil Inside - a horror film centered around demonic possession - is said to be based on actual events; the film even ends on a cliffhanger saying the murders that took place in the film are still under investigation and directing viewers to a website for more information. The home video release includes a quote: "the movie The Vatican doesn't want you to see." (And apparently quite a few movie critics, who considered it a candidate for worst film of the year.)
The Possession is said to be based on a true story, but there's one glaring problem: there wasn't a little girl involved, and she wasn't possessed by the dibbuk, a Hebrew demon that lived in a box that was said to be cursed. The box was bought, but the dibbuk possessed a man, who has claimed that he couldn't sleep and severed the fingers of himself and his roommates while under the possession of the demon.
More accurately: a person bought a box. And that's where the facts ended.
The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain bills itself as being based on a true story. It's actually based on a local legend, which has been totally discredited. Especially egregious when the film ends with a shot of the modern residents of the village rebuilding the mound that had supposedly been built by their ancestors.
As Daniel Handler found out when writing A Series Of Unfortunate Events, people will accept anything labeled as "based on a true story" as true, no matter how outlandish it is. Never mind that the series involves at various points a four-year old movie director; a bikini made of lettuce; eagles used as transportation; a village dedicated to worshipping crows, a hotel designed to look like it's underneath a lake, and a sawmill that will employ a baby to bite pieces of wood and pays people in chewing gum and coupons. Yet people still criticize the movie (which is more obviously a comedy than the books) for disrespecting the memory of the (entirely fictional) Baudelaire children!
In the 1970s, the book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail (retitled Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the United States) claimed to reveal the truth about a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that was hidden in various Renaissance paintings. It was later revealed to be completely fictional, but not before hundreds of thousands of people had been conned.
An anagram of "Baigent", one of the authors of HBHG
resources on the Grail yet many people seem to squall about the book being "ripped off" without ever noticing its acknowledgment within the book that apparently ripped it off so entirely. The ideas posited in Holy Blood, Holy Grail were essentially used as a MacGuffin in the story, as various Holy Grails so often are. The mistake Dan Brown made was the same mistake the authors of Holy Blood made, which was claiming it was all based on fact instead of what could amount to Epileptic Trees.
This is part of the plot in Mike Nelson's Death Rat! (by Mike Nelson), where the main character, an author who "doesn't look the part" of an adventure novelist, hires a handsome lunkhead to pose as the author of his eponymous book. Trouble is, said lunkhead didn't read the book first and sold it as a true story: a true story featuring a 6-foot-long rat.
Lucian's True Story is a very old example of this. The clue to it not being what it says it is, is the fact that it is the earliest known story about a trip to the moon. It ends with a promise that the protagonist's further adventures will be described in a sequel, which is also a lie.
It's also a wonderful piece of satire. Lucian was apparently annoyed by contemporary historians who reported just about everything they heard or read as facts, in response he wrote a "true" story that was as ludicrous as he could imagine.
There are some that actually believed that Kensukes Kingdom really was based on Michael Morpurgo's childhood. Made all the worst by the epilogue, where he writes about "himself" going to meet Kensuke's grandson after writing the book. Really, Michael?
James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Oprah (who had plugged the book for Oprah's Book Club) first denied the idea that the book was false. Then she tried to claim that essential truth was more important than factual truth, which honked off the general public until she finally rescinded her recommendation and verbally castigated the author on her show.
Though this is more Very Loosely Based on a True Story than a great big lie as Frey made massive embellishments in order to get the book published, but the story does have truth to it if widely stretched.
German author Karl May (1842-1912) is best known for his stories about 'his' travels through the American West and the Middle East long before he actually visited the US and the Orient in person. (Today that's no longer a major issue, but some of his contemporaries took it less well at the time.)
House of Leaves plays with this, with the framing manuscript claiming to be a critical analysis of a documentary that the editor of the manuscript assures us doesn't really exist, about a photojournalist who documents footage of his very strange house...
There's a story that still pops up every once in a while, based on a pamphlet written by a woman in the 19th century, detailing the horrific abuse she supposedly endured at the hands of the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Apparently she was held prisoner inside the temple and used as a sex slave, until one day she managed to escape by jumping out of an upper window into the Great Salt Lake and swimming to safety. For those unfamiliar with local geography, the temple is at the center of the city, and the lake is more than 30 km away.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses has two prefaces, both written by the author. The author's preface is called the 'Editor's', and claims all the letters in the book are true, he's just edited out boring bits. The publisher's preface warns it's all false, but in a deliberately ridiculous way — the "publisher" claims the story obviously can't be true because nobody in this country, in this oh-so-enlightened era, would ever behave as these characters do. (So the real message is that yes, the story itself is fiction, but it's a satire on how people really do act.)
Then there's the Holocaust memoir "Angel at the Fence." The author really is a Holocaust survivor, but the parts about his future wife secretly meeting him and sneaking him food were pure fiction. Oprah was fooled by this one, too.
Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird was a fiction book that was supposedly based on the author's Real Life war experiences in German-occupied Poland. Which turned out to be false; i.e., the couple who took care of him as a boy alongside other Jewish children that they protected, were depicted as abusers and rapists. (They were pissed when they found out, logically.)
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl claims to be a true story, only with a few names changed. Given that the title character exercises clairvoyant powers, it's reasonable to assume that he did not exist by any name.
Similar to the James Frey controversy, JT Leroy was actually the pen name of a middle-aged woman, Laura Albert, whose fictional persona was of a young transgendered prostitute. Albert even hired her sister-in-law to make public appearances dressed up in drag in order to portray a post sex change Leroy. (Try not to think about that one too hard.) Her first novels about underage gender dysphoric sex workers from the Deep South were presented as being at least vaguely autobiographical. Of course, it should be noted that even though it's Based On A Great Big Lie, this doesn't stop The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things from being really, really good.
Anthony Godby Johnson'sA Rock and a Hard Place is the memoir of a young boy whose Abusive Parents molested him and sold him to their friends for sexual purposes, until he contracted AIDS. Eventually, he ran away and was adopted by a social worker named Vicki Johnson. However, none of it actually happened; authorities and reporters (including Keith Olbermann, who was one of the "kid"'s biggest supporters at first) became suspicious when they realized that Vicki Johnson was the only person who had ever seen the boy, and that Johnson had pretended to be him while talking to them on the phone. A New Jersey traffic engineer realized that the supposed author photo was one of him as a boy, and the person who took said photo was his former school teacher... Vicki Johnson.
Armistead Maupin, one of the many authors taken in by the hoax, wrote The Night Listener about the experience. However, it's a roman a clef, and the first-person narrator, a Maupin stand-in, says several times that he's been known to embellish the truth. Very good book about this trope. (''A Rock and a Hard Place," on the other hand, isn't very well-written, particularly once you realize that its author is NOT an 11 year old.)
The case was so polemic that it inspired a rather popular episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In it, a literary agent is killed for discovering that the ill and secluded female teenage author he sponsored didn't exist, but was the invention of two con artists that made themselves pass as her "foster parents". The "girl", just like Tony Godby Johnson, had written a best seller based on her horribly abusive bio parents.
The book The Third Eye by 'Lobsang Rampa' is... Well, difficult to classify. It allegedly tells the experiences of a Tibetan lama, but subsequent inquiries eventually revealed that it was written by a plumber from Devon called Cyril Hoskin who had never been to Tibet in his life. When challenged about this, Hoskin subsequently insisted that "Rampa" was a walk-in spirit that had taken over his body. (As shown by the "Talk" page on his Wikipedia article, some people still believe this.) What prevents this from being a straight example is that to all appearances, Hoskin appears to have genuinely and sincerely believed it himself; whether he was Lost In Character or out and out schizophrenic is a mystery for the ages.
The Flashman books are all supposedly based on rediscovered memoirs written by the title character. This device (coupled with the impressive amount of research George Mac Donald Fraser put into every volume) led more than one critic to believe they were the real deal.
The book Michelle Remembers, perhaps the most (in)famous alleged written account of Satanic Ritual Abuse, though helping to stir up the SRA witch hunt of the 80s/90s, has now been widely discredited. Mostly by many healthy doses of Fridge Logic - for example, a supposedly nonreligious 5-year-old having the presence of mind to rebuke Satanists with a cross, an 81-day ritual that summons the Devil himself during which none of the Satanists apparently need to eat, use the bathroom, or show up at work, and a fatal car wreck that strangely didn't turn up in a newspaper that reported on wrecks of even less serious nature at the time. One of the worst parts is that the titular Michelle (who later divorced her husband to marry the psychologist she was relating all of this to) blames her involvement in the abuse on her mother, who died of cancer when Michelle was 14. This article gives a detailed analysis of the book.
Michelle Remembers was hardly the only book that factored into the "Satanic Panic" of The Eighties. Two other books that led the scare were Laurel Rose Willson's Satan's Underground (under the name Lauren Stratford) and Mike Warnke's The Satan Seller. The former spoke of being brought up as a "baby breeder" by a Satanic cult, giving birth to babies to be used in sacrifices or snuff films, while the latter was about serving as a "Satanic high priest" before coming to Christianity. Both books wereexposed as frauds by the evangelical magazine Cornerstone, which pointed out that the dates and events given by the authors didn't line up with school and hospital records, among other inconsistencies. Willson later reappeared as "Laura Grabowski", claiming to be a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a victim of Dr. Josef Mengele; this, too, was exposed as a fraud when a Jewish group investigated her claims.
The prologue to the original novel of The Phantom of the Opera has the author going into great detail about the "research" he did about the Opera Ghost, including digging through archives and interviewing some of the characters, claiming the story to be true. Two bits are verifiable: there was indeed an underground lake under the Paris Opera House and there was allegedly an accident in 1896 involving a falling chandelier that killed one person. Oh, and of course the real opera house provides the setting. But the rest is fabrication.
What fell in real life was the counterweight of the chandelier, not the chandelier itself. Still, many of the book's characters are No Celebrities Were Harmed versions of real people who lived in Paris at the time. Some scholarly fans have claimed that everything in the book save for the Phantom himself was based in real experiences, though that most likely is still a gross exaggeration.
Horace Walpole originally passed off The Castle of Otranto as an antique manuscript penned by an Italian clergyman. At the time he wrote it, supernatural tales were regarded as embarrassing products of ignorance, not entertainment, and Walpole probably feared for his credibility if his name were attached to literature's first Gothic novel.
Several books purporting themselves to be the Necronomicon have been published over the years, cashing in on the infamy of HP Lovecraft's spurious text on things Man Was Not Meant To Know.
Many Cthulhu Mythos stories are told in the form of diaries, discovered manuscripts, and obscure ancient texts. Faux scholarship is part of the fun.
A children's book called The Pushcart War claimed it was based on a true story. While certain events are implausible (like attacking trucks with pea-shooters), it's theoretically possible...until you realize that the copyright date is before the time that the events in the book supposedly take place.
The book was presnted as a history written long after the events described therein. Interestingly, its publishers update the "historical" time frame with each new edition. It was originally published in 1964 describing events in 1975. Later releases said 1986 and 1998. The most recent version says 2029.
Lorenzo Carcaterra's Sleepers purported to be a nonfiction account of how he and three of his friends were sent to reform school for a year, where they were viciously abused by the guards. A decade later, two of the friends killed one of the guards but were acquitted of murder because they were prosecuted by the third friend, who intentionally lost the case with the help of a false alibi provided by a priest. However, none of the details provided by Carcaterra corresponded to any real-life murder case that has been identified, and Carcaterra's records from the Catholic school he attended in his youth have no indication of him ever having been sent to reform school, or even being absent for as many as four consecutive weeks.
No real murder case on Manhattan has been found to correspond with the one featured in the book but Carcaterra states in the opening that it didn't take place on Manhattan in real life. The book also claims the school records for Shakes and his friends were altered before the trial to make it seem like they hadn't been gone for any long period of time. This doesn't mean the story is true though.
Go Ask Alice, a rather infamous anti-drug book, offers the compelling tale of a young suburban girl who is sucked into the world of drugs and eventually ends up dead. Ostensibly the real diary of a teenage girl, it was, in fact, entirely fabricated by "editor" and youth counselor Beatrice Sparks. Sparks has also released a series of other "true diaries" in the same vein as Go Ask Alice, but dealing with different subjects, such as AIDS (It Happened to Nancy), and teen pregnancy (Annie's Baby, among others). It was also debunked on Snopes.
Also infamous was Jay's Journal, which was about Satanism. It was such a lie that Sparks got sued by the real Jay's family (actually, a boy named Alvin Barret). They also wrote a book about how horrible and false Jay's Journal was and sponsored a rock opera based on their testimony.
Happens in-universe in Albert Sanchez Pinol's Pandora In The Congo. The protagonist writes down a murder suspect's story of what really happened when he went to Congo with two noblemen. No, he didn't murder them. They were killed in a war with an underground race called "tektons." The suspect then blocked off the passage connecting the tektons' underground world to ours, Saving the World, and returned to civilization alone. The story is published and everyone believes it, leading to the suspect going free. Except not a word of it is true and he really did murder the noblemen.
Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust was written by Misha Defonseca. She said when she was 4, her Jewish parents were sent in a concentration camp during World War II, she crossed whole Europe to go back home, and she was alone with wolves during the travel. A movie was done in 2007, based on the novel, and "Misha" confessed after that her name was Monique de Wael, she wasn't born a Jew, her parents were arrested because they were members of the Belgian Resistance, and she was simply sent to her grandfather. Monique invented the story because of her passion for wolves.
You can argue that the surprising part is that the lie was exposed only after the movie was released. There was a small conference by a Polish Holocaust survivor, years before the movie was done. He exposed the book as a lie, just because Jews in Poland didn't have to wear yellow stars on chest, but blue ones on the arm.
The Princess Bride claims to be an old satire by S. Morgenstern, which was abridged by William Goldman, who adds little biographical details, stories about legal battles over the sequel, etc. S. Morgenstern, of course, never existed, and William Goldman wrote the whole story himself. Unfortunately, this leads people who have only seen the movie to try to find the "unabridged" version, which doesn't exist.
Goldman adds to this mythology as the novel is reissued in new editions. Basically, publishing the unabridged version (or Goldman's own sequel) has been stymied by a vengeful pack of Florinese lawyers fighting over the unspeakably complicated Morgenstern estate.
Amusingly, at least one library lists the novel under the "S. Morganstern" pen name, and gives its length as five hundred pages.
The main advantage this book has over libraries, and indeed all of its almanackian predecessors, is that all of the historical oddities and amazing true facts contained herein are lies, made up by me. And it is this astonishing innovation that allows each entry to contain many more truths than if it were merely factual.
Bravo Two Zero, the memoirs of former SAS trooper and Gulf War veteran "Andy McNab", ended up becoming a severe embarrassment to the British Army thanks to this trope. First, another member of the squad — Chris Ryan, now a minor TV personality in the vein of Ray Mears — chimed in with his own memoir, painting McNab as a veryUnreliable Narrator and blaming him for the mission's disastrous end. Another SAS veteran flew out to Iraq in 1993, retraced as much of the squad's route and interviewed as many witnesses as he could find, and discovered that both of them were equally guilty of inflating their stories. If they were exaggerating for the sake of a good story this would be bad enough, but they were apparently less than truthful during their debriefing sessions as well. Unfortunately, by the time this became generally known there were half a dozen other "true accounts" of the SAS in the Gulf War that showed equal regard for fact-checking. Peter Radcliffe, then-Regimental Sergeant Major of the SAS and the only Gulf War veteran of the Regiment to publish his memoirs without a pseudonym, devotes an entire chapter to the whole wretched business.
Kathryn Stockett's The Help, about a white woman's relationships with two black maids in the 1960s is an inversion of this. The book is fictional, but black maid Ablene Cooper is suing the author because she claims one of the maids, Aibileen Clark is meant to be her. She was once the nanny for Stockett's brother. Cooper claims that the character has an uncanny resemblance to her, right down to a gold tooth.
Liza Marklund co-authored a whole series of books together with a woman calling herself Mia, detailing the abuse and persecution Mia and those close to her suffered from her Muslim ex-boyfriend. The events in the books were claimed to be completely true with only names and places changed to protect those involved, and Marklund spent years using the books as proof in political debates. In 2008, Monica Antonsson wrote a book proving that the books about Mia are almost completely fictional. After trying to claim that Antonsson was lying, Marklund changed her tune and claimed the books were never meant to be taken as fact and were clearly fiction all along.
Jordanian author Norma Khouri wrote Forbidden Love, a memoir detailing her life in Jordan and her friendship with a Muslim woman who was murdered by her family in an honour killing for meeting a Christian man in secret. When an Australian literary critic did some digging and discovered that Khouri had not been in Jordan at all during the book's timeframe (and even got certain locations in Jordan wrong and misrepresented their legal system), the publisher hastily recalled the book. Khouri admitted to taking some liberties with original story, but maintains that the book is still Based on a True Story, despite all signs pointing to the contrary.
Done for satirical effect by The Report from Iron Mountain, a '60s counterculture book written by Leonard Lewin as a Stealth Parody of Vietnam-era military think tanks. Posing as a leaked document written by a "secret government panel", it claimed that war was a necessary part of the economy and served to divert collective aggression, and that society would collapse without it — basically, the plot of Metal Gear Solid 4. Therefore, in the event of peace, they recommended that new bodies be created to emulate the economic activities of war, including blood sports, the creation of new enemies to scare the people (including alien invaders and environmental destruction), and the reinstatement of slavery.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic tract claiming to be the records of a meeting by a Jewish cabal plotting to Take Over the World. In reality, it was written by the Okhrana, the Secret Police of Tsarist Russia, as a tool for starting pogroms with and otherwise convincing people that anything other than reactionary Christian monarchy was directly authored by Satan, and was later carried into western Europe and the US by White Russians in the wake of Red October. It was exposed as a forgery by The Times of London in 1921, which revealed that large sections of the book were cribbed wholesale from a 19th century anti-Napoleonic tract. Even so, it was made part of the school curriculum in Nazi Germany, and anti-Semites to this day cite it as "evidence" of a Jewish conspiracy.
It was better received in Japan, where in World War II they began strongly encouraging Jews to immigrate in hopes of convincing them to use their influence to help the burgeoning nation. To this day there are some Japanese who see The Protocols as a handy blueprint for success (not that there aren't any of the usual bunch of anti-Semites that claim The Protocols are proof of Jewish domination in Japan; it's that Japan, a nation with little Jewish history, tended to view anti-Semitic conspiracies in a completely different light).
The Things They Carried seems to be an account of a squad in the Vietnam War... until near the end, where it's revealed that the entire thing was playing fast and loose with the truth, and spends the rest of the book failing to moralize in that vein.
Square One TV's Mathnet (a Dragnet parody) always started with the same narration - "The story you're about to see is a fib, but it's short. The names are made up but the problems are real."
Lie to Me inverts this with a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, stating that the events and characters of the series are entirely false. While nothing like any of the episodes has ever happened in real life, Lightman is based off of a real-life person, Dr. Paul Ekman.
Reality Television can be prone to this. While all of Reality TV is Based On A Great Big Lie to some extent—the "characters" are presented with carefully crafted situations, and many reality show participants mostly understand what kind of "role" they are supposed to play for the cameras—some shows go farther than others in fabricating reality.
House Hunters, on HGTV, which purports to show people looking for new homes, in fact often shows people who have already closed on their new homes, and sometimes shows them visiting homes that aren't actually for sale.
Breaking Amish, which became a big hit for TLC, purported to show five young people, four Amish and one Mennonite, who had left their communities and were coming to the big city for the first time. In fact they had all been living in the secular world for years, one for over a decade. Two of the cast members that were shown going on their "first date" on the show had really been involved for years and had a child together before the show started recording.
A&E apparently pre-places items in the Storage Wars lockers for the cast members to find. Rooting through random storage lockers turned out not to make sufficiently compelling TV.
The British TV series The Only Way is Essex (think the English Jersey Shore) at least is honest and describes the show as "real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way". In other words they admit that what they're actually showing is amateur improv.
To promote Platinum Weird, Dave Stewart (from the Eurythmics) and Kara DioGuardi claimed that the songs were originally by a lost-to-history 1970s band of the same name, sung by (the fictional) Erin Grace. VH-1 even did a mockumentary on the fake band.
In a subtle example, Tom Lehrer introduces "The Irish Ballad" on the album Tom Lehrer Revisited as "An ancient Irish ballad which was written a few years ago."
Camper Van Beethoven originally claimed their Cover Album of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk was a series of lost recordings they made while snowed in on a retreat in 1987, which they remixed and added some overdubs to for it's release in 2002. The band later admitted it was entirely new recordings: they wanted to see if they could get along in the studio after reuniting, but didn't want to write new songs, and decided the results of the experiment would be better received if they passed it off as some old forgotten demos instead of a new studio album.
Parodied in, of all things, a children's playground rhyme. You know, the one with the first verse that says, "I stand before you to stand beside you to tell you a story I know nothing about..." then goes into non sequitor with verses that contradict themselves in the same line and finally ends with, "if you don't believe this lie is true, just ask the old blind woman, he saw it too!"
William Shakespeare bent Artistic License to the snapping point when writing some of his history plays. The real Macbeth, for instance, defeated a young King Duncan in battle to win his throne.
Although a lot of it can be justified as him having to please the monarchy at the time.
Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci is probably one of these: Leoncavallo said it was based on a court case that his father, who was a judge, presided over, and further claimed that he had the document to prove it. However, no such document, or indeed any corroborating evidence, has ever been found. It is now generally believed that Leoncavallo played the "true story" card to evade the charge of plagiarism.
Hudson Soft's Tengai Makyou comedy Role-Playing Game series is purportedly based on a Western author's writings about Japan. Said author and his writings never existed, although they are genuinely inspired by the largely- to entirely-fictitious accounts of life in Japan that used to be popular in the West. This one is very tongue-in-cheek and not at all intended to be taken seriously, though.
Similarly, the US/Europe release of Fatal Frame/Project Zero is advertised as being based on a true story. Charitably, it could be said to actually be based on something that might, at one time, have been an urban legend in Japan.
At the start, Armed And Dangerous says that it was based on a true story. Considering that this game includes a tea drinking robot, miniature black holes, and a land shark gun, among many other things, this was probably not supposed to be taken seriously.
This is actually parodied in the episode "Arrgh!" of SpongeBob SquarePants. SpongeBob and Patrick quickly come to believe their pirate quest is a scam (and that Mr. Krabs has gone Cloud Cuckoo Lander) finding out the treasure map is just a game board they used earlier in the episode. Chance kicks in as they do find the treasure according to the map (the game board) with the remarks of SpongeBob saying "It really IS based on a true treasure map!" The Flying Dutchman comes in to take his treasure back, willing to share with SpongeBob and Patrick. But much to the dismay of Mr. Krabs, he only gains a piece from the game board, and gets told that "But it's based on a REAL treasure chest!"
It's notable that this is Laser-Guided Karma, as it was a fight over the treasure (Patrick and SpongeBob wanted their shares, Krabs wanted it all) that woke up TFD in the first place.
Tex Avery was fond of this trope. Drag-Along Droopy began with the disclaimer; "This is an absolutely authentic account of the grazing land battles of the sheep and cattle wars of the early west. We know this story to be true. It was told to us by—A TEXAN!"
The Ren & Stimpy Show episode "Son of Stimpy" (A.K.A, "Stimpy's First Fart") began with a voiceover declaring that "this is a true story that we made up".
One Woody Woodpecker cartoon (a parody of Dragnet) begins with "The story you are about to see is a big fat lie. No names have been changed to protect anyone."