12 Times Movies Influenced Real-World Legislation

Most movies are made to entertain, but sometimes films can literally change the world. These 12 times movies influenced real-world legislation proves the power of cinema. 

In Pakistan, over 1,000 females are slain every year under Islamic law in the name of “honor killings.” Prior to the 2015 Oscar-winning documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, the men behind those honor killings would usually go unpunished. Now, they must serve at least a 25-year prison sentence. 

Find out which Oliver Stone drama reopened a government investigation. Which political satire inspired the Pentagon to rethink its nuclear safety regulations? Find out why the Harry Potter franchise almost got made in the United States. Many of these landmark legislation reforms have saved countless lives around the world. 

Photo: JFK / Warner Bros.

  • Despite Oliver Stone’s loosey-goosey take on the facts in his 1991 film JFK, the political thriller did reignite America’s interest in what is perhaps the biggest conspiracy-laden crime in the country’s history. After the movie became a hit, Congress under President George H.W. Bush enacted the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Record Collection Act of 1992. The law reopened the government’s investigation into what really happened in Dallas, TX, on November 22, 1963.

    According to the National Archives, "The Act mandated that all assassination-related material be housed in a single collection in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The resulting Collection consists of more than 5 million pages of assassination-related records, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, and artifacts (approximately 2,000 cubic feet of records)."

    Stone's film pointed to the possibility of an FBI and CIA cover-up. Prior to JFK, all records concerning Kennedy's assassination were not to be made available to the general public until 2029. However, the Assassination Records Review Board, largely based on Stone's movie, declassified the records in 2017. 

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  • Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ends with the accidental activation of the Doomsday Machine. It results in multiple nuclear explosions and the end of the world as we know it. Kubrick may have been aiming for political satire, but his movie pushed the United States government to change international policy. 

    In the film, a lone, insane Air Force commander launches a nuclear attack on Russia. The launch takes place even without the consent of the United States president. Additionally, neither the president nor any high-ranking military personnel has the ability to stop the bomb. 

    The ever-perfectionist Kubrick did his research... years of it. Turns out, the real-life rules and regulations regarding nuclear detonation were not as airtight as one would expect. There actually was a possibility of accidental nuclear activation. After Strangelove hit the big screen, the Department of Defense circulated the film's source material, the 1958 novel Red Alert, to members of the Pentagon's Scientific Advisory for Ballistic Missiles. The country's top Pentagon officials saw the events of Red Alert as a real possibility.

    The Pentagon swiftly established several security measures. For example, coded switches were added to nuclear missiles. This ensured that unauthorized personnel would not have the ability to launch a missile on their own. 

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  • The Oscar-Winning Documentary 'A Girl in the River' Changed The Long-Standing Laws Regarding Honor Killings In Pakistan

    The Oscar-Winning Documentary 'A Girl in the River' Changed The Long-Standing Laws Regarding Honor Killings In Pakistan
    Photo: HBO

    Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Academy Award for best documentary short for her 2015 film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. The doc focuses on the long-standing tradition of honor killings. In Pakistan, over 1,000 females are slain every year under Islamic law if their families believe that they have been dishonored.

    The 2015 short tells the story of honor-killing survivor Saba. Her father shot her in the face and threw the 18-year-old into a river because she eloped without her family's permission. Obaid-Chinoy explained: 

    Saba was engaged to a young man and she wanted to get married to him. The family was okay with it, but the uncle was not. He decided she should marry someone else. Bravely one morning, Saba ran away from home to a local court and got married. Her father and uncle came to her in-laws' house and said, "Let us take her back to our home, and then you come take her honorably so neighbors and society don't look upon us as a family that has been shamed."

    But instead, they put her in a car, took her to a wooded area, beat her for a long time before shooting her, put her in a gunny sack, and threw her in a river. She miraculously survived.

    Saba's father and uncle were later arrested. However, the young girl eventually pardoned them both. Her father did not show an ounce of remorse for trying to take the life of his daughter. "Yes, I killed her," he declared. "She's my daughter, and I wanted to kill her. I provided for her. How dare she defy me? How dare she go out without my permission? And I am ready to spend my entire life in jail because this is something I did for my honor, the honor of my family. She has shamed us."

    The filmmaker revealed in her Oscar acceptance speech that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saw her documentary and vowed to change the law regarding honor killings. In 2016, the Pakistani parliament passed a bill that denied pardons to anyone who participated in such an act. 

    “A vicious circle has now come to an end,” said Senator Farhatullah Babar. “No murderer will be able to walk away free, even if his parents or family members forgive him for killing his sister, wife, or mother in the name of ‘honor.’”

    Under the new law, an honor killer would receive at least a 25-year prison sentence. 

  • This example is a little different. The film didn't change the law; the laws had to be changed in order to get the Harry Potter movie franchise made in Britain instead of the United States.

    Prior to the production of 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, outdated British film industry child labor laws were overly strict. Child actors were limited in the number of hours that they could work in a day. The production threatened to move across the pond to Hollywood, where the child labor laws were much more accommodating for the hundreds of child actors on the payroll.  

    “The biggest problem we had to get around was the child labor laws that were there in place,” said producer Duncan Henderson. “When I read them the first time, I was like, ‘Whoa. Where did these come from?’ They were kind of odd, more than anything else. It was because they were created originally for the stage, not for movies. There were labor laws for children when they were working with theater, and of course, it worked a little bit better in theater.”

    Harry Potter filmmakers took their cause to Parliament. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair made the necessary labor law changes to keep the production and its millions of tax dollars in the UK. The legislation lengthened the workday but limited the number of days a child actor could be on-set. 

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  • After The Documentary 'Handful of Ash,' The Kurdish Government Changed The Laws On Female Genital Manipulation

    Filmmakers Shara Amin and Nabaz Ahmed spent 10 years making their 33-minute 2007 documentary Handful of Ash. Amin and Ahmed traveled throughout Kurdistan to speak with people about the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Over the years, tens of millions of girls in the region experienced the horrible pain and life-long impact of the age-old practice, which can lead to infertility and increased pregnancy issues. The World Health Organization estimates that 140 million girls worldwide currently live with the aftereffects of FGM.

    Getting people to speak about the topic was not an easy task. "It took us weeks, sometimes months to get them to talk, and in the end, it was the women that spoke out - despite the men," said Ahmed.

    Under Islamic law, huge numbers of women have undergone FGM across Muslim countries and in parts of Africa. 

    "They would just grab the little girls, take them and cut them, and the girls came back home. I can still remember I was sick, infected for three months. I could barely walk after I was cut," explained one young mother. "Some girls suffer a deadly infection and die as a result, others live in emotional and physical pain for life." 

    Three years after the documentary was released, the Human Rights Watch published an eye-opening report regarding FGM in Kurdistan. The organization pressed the Kurdish government to change the centuries-old law, which it did in 2011. In 2012, the UN passed a resolution banning FGM. Today, most countries around the world have dramatically decreased the barbaric practice. 

  • Michael Curtiz's 1928 epic disaster movie Noah's Ark depicts the biblical story of Noah from the Book of Genesis. Curtiz was a relatively green director at the time, still years away from helming his magnum opus Casablanca. He wanted to make the climactic flood scene as real-looking as possible, even ignoring pleas to use miniatures instead of actors.

    Curtiz reportedly used 600,000 gallons of water in an effort to create the biblical flood that would eliminate every species on the planet - except for the ones Noah led onto his Ark. Filming the scene resulted in real-life tragedy. Three extras reportedly drowned, while several more suffered devastating injuries.

    In the early days of Hollywood, there weren't many on-set safety protections. Noah's Ark changed that. Following the alleged fatalities, Hollywood established safety regulations that helped to protect the cast and crew. 

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