What 14 Movies Involving Real Court Cases Got Wrong

From the earliest days of the film industry, historical events have been an excellent source for movies that capture the audience's attention and interest. One genre filmmakers seem especially drawn to is the courtroom drama - perhaps because the stakes are often very high when a person takes on the legal system.

But when it comes to making projects about real-life individuals or events, historical accuracy can go out the window. Sometimes, this is due to a lack of trustworthy source material; if no verified records or eyewitness accounts exist, filmmakers may have to fill in the gaps. Other times, they might make up fictional or composite characters, change the timeline of events, or leave out facts - all in the name of dramatic license.

When it comes to movies about legal cases, dramatic license often comes into play. Let's face it - real court cases tend to be a lot duller than how they are portrayed on-screen.

  • The 2010 film The Social Network was one of the more critically acclaimed movies of the 2000s. Based on The Accidental Billionaires, a nonfiction book about the founding of Facebook, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards - including best picture - and won three, one of which was for best adapted screenplay. Although it was described as a biography, The Social Network takes more than a few liberties with the actual facts of how Facebook was created.

    The film focuses on Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. At the beginning of The Social Network, Zuckerberg, a sophomore at Harvard University, writes an insulting post on his LiveJournal blog about his ex-girlfriend Erica Albright after she dumps him. Shortly thereafter he creates a campus website called Facemash that allows visitors to see photos of female students and rate them on their attractiveness.

    Although the real Zuckerberg did insult a woman in one of his LiveJournal posts, her name wasn't Erica Albright, and it's uncertain whether she was Zuckerberg's girlfriend. Also, the Facemash website had photos of both female and male students available to be rated - not just females. Zuckerberg has also denied the suggestion made in the film that he created Facebook to attract girls, pointing out that he had already started dating his now-wife prior to creating the social media site. In a Q&A session, he claimed his real motivation was "to connect the world."

    The film also takes liberties in how it portrays Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin as an innocent victim when his partnership with Zuckerberg fell apart. The truth was far more complicated, but The Social Network ignores details like Saverin neglecting his duties as financial officer for Facebook to focus instead on his own start-up (and on partying). The movie also alters facts surrounding the arrest of Zuckerberg's mentor Sean Parker. Although Parker was taken into custody for cocaine possession, the arrest did not happen in California in 2004, as the film suggests.

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  • Denzel Washington won a Golden Globe Award and received an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his portrayal of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in the 1999 biographical film The Hurricane.

    In 1966, the real Carter and another man named John Artis were wrongfully convicted of committing a triple murder at a bar in Paterson, NJ. In 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction and granted them a new trial. However, the new jury found the men guilty and the judge reimposed their original sentences. Artis was paroled in 1981; in 1985, a New Jersey District Court judge set aside the convictions, saying the convictions of Artis and Carter "were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure." Carter was released from prison in November 1985. The prosecutors appealed this ruling, but when the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, they decided against trying Artis and Carter a third time. The conviction and subsequent appeals became a cause célèbre - in 1976, Bob Dylan even released a protest song titled "Hurricane."

    Carter succumbed to cancer in 2014; Artis passed in 2021 due to an aneurysm.

    The film focuses on the time between Carter and Artis's initial arrest and Carter's release from prison in 1985. A title card at the beginning of the film admits that some incidents were fictionalized, while some of the characters were either composites of real people or had been made up. Hence, it didn't try to present itself as being a completely accurate version of real-life events.

    However, it also glossed over Carter's background prior to his arrest on the murder charges. The film suggests Carter was honorably discharged from the military, when the truth was that he had faced four court martials prior to being labeled as "unfit for military service" and discharged. It also completely ignores the fact that the boxer had a criminal record prior to 1966; he had been convicted of three different muggings.

    The Hurricane also fictionalizes the reason Carter's first wife Mae divorced him; in the film, the imprisoned Carter asks his wife to divorce him in a noble gesture. But in real life, she divorced him because he reportedly cheated on her multiple times with some of his supporters.

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  • Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who believes he was fired by his firm due to an AIDS diagnosis in the 1993 film Philadelphia

    After Beckett was turned down by multiple attorneys, Joe Miller - a homophobic Black personal injury lawyer - agrees to represent Beckett in his lawsuit against his former employer. Miller and Beckett bond during the course of the trail, resulting in the former revising some of his previous views on homosexuality. Beckett collapses and is hospitalized during the trial, which ends with a judgment in his favor. He's awarded more than $5 million in damages, but passes shortly after the verdict is returned.

    In 1996, the family of Geoffrey Bowers sued Tri-Star Pictures and the film's producers and screenwriter, claiming it was based on Bowers's life and that they had been promised payment for the rights to his story. Bowers had sued his former employer, Baker & McKenzie (then the world's largest law firm), alleging he had been fired because he had AIDS. Bowers testified at the trial but passed in 1987 before any verdict was returned.

    The filmmakers claimed Philadelphia was based on numerous sources, one of which were reports about the Bowers lawsuit. They also claimed there had never been any contract between the filmmakers and Bowers's family. However, the plaintiffs' lawyer argued that the film contained more than 40 plot points that Bowers's family had shared with producer Scott Rudin.

    Director and co-producer Jonathan Demme told Rolling Stone that the script had been inspired by Juan Botas, an artist friend of his who succumbed to AIDS in 1992:

    We looked for a story for a long time, and we decided it would be pointless to make a film for people with AIDS. Or for their loved ones... They don’t need [a] movie about AIDS. They live the truth. We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS.

    And in 2018, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner told The Hollywood Reporter that several people had served as inspirations or consultants for the script, which he began working on in the late 1980s:

    In those days, if you lived in New York City as I did, and if you worked in the movie business as I did, you were surrounded by people who were facing HIV and AIDS. Notably, there was a wonderful guy named Tom Stoddard who founded Lambda [the Legal Defense and Education Fund]. He came on as a consultant fairly early on... Ron Vawter, who ended up being an actor in the movie, was, in some ways, a consultant. In the making of Philadelphia, we had at least 50 people who had HIV/AIDS participating in the movie, so I was surrounded by it... 

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  • Erin Brockovich Wasn't A Kansas Beauty Queen, And Donna Jensen Didn't Get $5 Million In Damages
    Photo: Erin Brockovich / Universal Pictures

    In the early 1990s, a legal assistant named Erin Brockovich discovered that Pacific Gas & Electric was covering up the fact that its facility had tainted the groundwater in Hinkley, CA, with high levels of a toxin called hexavalent chromium. The ensuing lawsuit was settled in 1996, with the plaintiffs being awarded more than $330 million in damages. The story became the feature film Erin Brockovich, with Julia Roberts winning the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of the crusading legal assistant.

    The real Brockovich commented that the film was 98% accurate. One of the few incorrect details had to do with her having won a beauty queen title in Kansas. She was originally from that state, and reportedly director Steven Soderbergh thought it would be a "cute" idea if she won a beauty contest in her home state. But as Brockovich explained in a 2020 interview with Vulture:

    I think [the film] had me as Miss Wichita, but it was actually Miss Pacific Coast.

    More significantly, the film deviated from reality when it focused on the character of Donna Jensen. At the end of the movie, Jensen receives a check for her portion of the settlement, which was approximately $5 million. 

    But there is no Donna Jensen - her character was a composite based on several people - one of whom was a woman named Roberta Walker. Although she wasn't legally allowed to disclose how much money she got in the settlement, in 2013 she told the PBS News Hour that the outcome of the lawsuit hadn't been as positive as the film made it out to be:

    We didn’t bring a giant to their knees obviously; we just woke them up - woke up the dragon.

    Walker explained that her portion of the settlement had allowed her and her husband to build a new house on a hill overlooking Hinkley. When they originally tested their well water at their new location, it was not contaminated with hexavalent chromium. But when they retested the water, the toxin had returned - a result that led the Walkers to look to move out of the area.

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  • Adapted by Aaron Sorkin from his own play of the same name, the 1992 film A Few Good Men centers around the court-martial trial of two US Marines accused of murdering William Santiago, a fellow Marine. Although the motive is widely believed to be revenge, naval lawyer Joanne Galloway is convinced Santiago perished after the two defendants carried out an order for a type of violent extrajudicial punishment known as a "code red."

    Another naval lawyer, Daniel Kaffee - known for his preference to negotiate plea deals - is assigned to defend the two Marines. They reject his attempt to get them to accept a plea deal, confirming Galloway's suspicion that they had been executing a "code red" and hadn't meant to take Santiago's life. She convinces Kaffee to call Colonel Nathan Jessup, the base's commanding officer, as a witness. Under questioning, the contemptuous Jessup finally admits he'd ordered the "code red." The charges are dropped against the two defendants, while Jessup and Santiago's platoon commander is detained.

    A Few Good Men was inspired by an actual incident that took place at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1986. Sorkin got the idea from his sister, a military lawyer who represented one of the defendants in this real-life "code red" incident. Unlike in Sorkin's script, the victim of the real-life hazing survived.

    Or did he? Conflicting reports exist about what happened to the real-life victim; some state he choked to death on a stick his attackers placed in his mouth, while others state he survived. What is known is that 10 defendants were charged in the real-life court-martial case; Sorkin reduced this number to just two. Of the 10 real-life defendants, seven reportedly accepted either "dishonorable" or "other than honorable" discharges, while the other three stood trial after (depending on the source) either pleading innocent or refusing to enter pleas at all.

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  • William Jennings Bryan was a successful lawyer with a long career in politics - he served both as a US congressman and as secretary of state, and was a three-time presidential nominee. He was also an evangelical Christian who opposed the teaching of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in schools. He argued that if children were taught "survival of the fittest," they would eventually stop caring about the neediest members of society.

    Although he hadn't tried a case in more than 35 years, he agreed to be the chief prosecutor in the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial" that saw John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, go to court for violating Tennessee's state law banning the teaching of evolution in a state-funded school (the first law in any US state to do this). Although the prosecution was victorious, Bryan's own reputation took a huge beating from his performance during the trial.

    The trial generated a huge amount of interest - it was the first one to have a live radio broadcast of the proceedings. In fact, more reporters covered it than any previous trial in American history.

     Inherit the Wind began its life on Broadway in 1955. The stage play was adapted into a film in 1960. In it, John Scopes is given the last name of Cates, while William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow are renamed Brady and Drummond, respectively. The authors of the play claimed it was not meant to be a 100% accurate retelling of the trial or of the real-life individuals involved in it. 

    The play and the 1960 film adaptation differ from the real-life events in multiple ways. Neither of them mention the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union, even though the organization was looking for a way to challenge the Butler Act (the Tennessee law Scopes was charged with violating) and placed ads in newspapers looking for a teacher who'd be willing to admit they'd taught evolution at a school in Tennessee.

    In the movie, Cates is jailed and remains there throughout the trial, while in real life, Scopes never spent any time in jail. The real Scopes wasn't engaged, nor did he have a girlfriend at the time of the trial. So, the character of Rachel Brown in the play and film is fictional.

    In the movie version, the residents of Dayton, TN, were shown to be very welcoming to Brady, while showing hatred and contempt toward Drummond. In truth, Darrow was treated quite well by the residents. He was quoted as saying that, despite having religious views that were vastly different from the majority of Dayton's residents:

    I have been treated better, kindlier and more hospitably than I fancied would have been the case in the north, and that is largely to the ideas that southern people have and they are, perhaps more hospitable than we are up north.

    Additionally, in the film, Drummond threatens to quit the case. This never happened. Finally, Inherit the Wind has Brady fall dead while attempting to make his closing arguments. That is pure dramatic license. The real Bryan succumbed to a stroke on July 26, 1925, five days after the verdict against Scopes was reached.

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