Fictional characters are frequently based on actual people with varying degrees of looseness, but the more outlandish a character is, the harder it becomes to believe they have any origin in the real world. However, even comic book superheroes and cartoon animals can be adapted from human beings past and present, and sometimes real-world villains end up transferring their particular brand of evil to the realm of the make-believe.
Reality is best described in shades of grey, not black and white, and it’s rare to encounter historical or contemporary figures who truly meet the qualifications of a movie villain - but not unheard of. Sometimes, these individuals need to be heavily adapted before they’re ready to haunt the silver screen, but there are also those who need to be toned down, lest they appear truly stranger than fiction.
By the time John Nettleship realized that his former student, J.K. Rowling, had based the villainous figure of Professor Severus Snape on him, Snape was already a household name - and all of his friends and family had already figured it out. As Nettleship recalled:
I was rather distressed about this but [my wife] Shirley said "I'm afraid so: I realised that a long time ago but I didn't dare tell you."
Nettleship instructed Rowling in chemistry at Wyedean Comprehensive School in the '70s, and he sported Snape’s iconic center-parted black locks to go along with an intimidating disposition. Nettleship, who passed in 2013 while the Harry Potter saga was still unfolding, sounded proud of his alter ego:
I guess I was rather like the Professor Snape character in the books - demanding, wouldn’t suffer fools gladly, exacting. I don’t know if she was actually scared of me. She was a somewhat timorous child, but what she especially detested was chemistry. I don’t know how much of it was the subject or the teacher.
Rowling, for the record, insists that Snape was actually inspired by three different people, but it’s clear that the character’s strongest features, including his physical traits, were borrowed from Nettleship.Surprisingly real?
Stephen King is famed for his literary references, but he’s not averse to linking his horrific fictions to the horrors of the real world, either. Such is the case with Misery, in which the frightening figure of Annie Wilkes - memorably portrayed by Kathy Bates in the film adaptation - is based on a real-life killer who was, if anything, even more villainous.
Genene Jones was a nurse working in Bexar County Hospital’s Pediatric ICU in the early '80s when babies under her care started perishing at a far higher rate than expected. After being accused of causing the casualties herself, Jones resigned and moved on to another hospital, where several babies suffered strange respiratory issues but recovered. Then, she was caught in the act of administering a powerful muscle relaxant to a 14-month-old, causing a fatal seizure, and the entire ordeal came to light. Known as the “Angel of Death,” Jones’s crimes became national news in 1984.
Apparently, her motivation was not to actually complete the crime, but to bring the infants to the edge of life and then save them - a twisted ideology that caught the attention of many, including King, who released Misery in 1987.Surprisingly real?
Anthony Hopkins may have brought Hannibal Lecter to life, but the character was created by author Thomas Harris, appearing first in the novel Red Dragon and then more famously in 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs. As Harris himself would reveal later in life, Lecter had a very real, very direct inspiration, and it came in the form of an equally disturbed incarcerated doctor.
While working as a journalist, Harris encountered a man known as “Doctor Salazar” in a Mexican prison who had reportedly saved the life of another inmate who had been shot. Harris soon learned that the man, who he recalled as “a small, lithe man with dark red hair... and... a certain elegance about him,” was Alfredo Balli Trevino, and that he’d been imprisoned for carving his lover up into pieces.
Harris describes being unsettled by his conversation with Balli Trevino, a trait that definitely survived the adaptation process. The doctor’s identity, and role in the inspiration of Lecter, wasn’t revealed until 2013, four years after his demise.Surprisingly real?
Ursula of The Little Mermaid was based, visually speaking, on ground-breaking drag performer and entertainer Divine, but the similarities are more than just skin-deep. Though Divine, known off the stage as Glenn Milstead, passed before the film was released, long-time friend and collaborator John Waters agreed that the entertainer would have been honored by the villainous homage, stating “When I was young, all I wanted to be was a Disney villain. My idol was the stepmother in Cinderella.”
It was actually the film’s lyricist, Howard Ashman, who suggested that animators model Ursula after Baltimore icon Divine. Also hailing from Baltimore, Ashman had met and worked with the performer, and knew that Divine offered the blend of brazen and unabashed femininity the cartoonists were looking for.Surprisingly real?