Movies That Inspired Actual Events

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Vote up the most intriguing cases of art affecting life.

Although many movies are based on real-life events, some actually caused real-life events. The following films changed history in a variety of ways, from discovering a new animal species, to inspiring defections from a totalitarian nation, to reviving a racist organization.

For those who doubt the power of film, may this list be proof.

  • Watching Disney Channel content encouraged 17-year-old Jordan Turpin to break out of her lifelong confinement. Jordan was one of 13 children, ages 2 to 29, who had been held in captivity by their parents in California. They were beaten, choked, shackled, underfed, undereducated, rarely washed, and weren't allowed to go outside save for family trips. As such, they didn't know much about the world until they watched the Disney Channel, Jordan said:

    Yeah, like High School Musical and all those other Disney channels and stuff… Those movies [where] their daughter would feel like they could talk to their mom. And we'd be like, “Oh my gosh, like… is that really how it is in real life?”

    Although she credits High School Musical and Hannah Montana for revealing a nicer existence, Jordan owes the biggest debt to Justin Bieber, especially his videos for “Baby,” “Boyfriend,” and “As Long as You Love Me.” “I don't know where we would be if we didn't watch Justin Bieber," she said. “I started realizing that there is a different world out there. I only knew one world… I was just blow-minded by how different it is out there, and I was always like, ‘I want to be out there, I want to be like that, I want to experience that, I want to do that.’”

    It was after Jordan's mother choked her for watching Bieber that she escaped out a window, leading to the release of her 12 malnourished siblings and the life imprisonment of her parents.

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  • Yeonmi Park, a famous North Korean defector, got her “first small taste of freedom” by watching Titanic. She didn't watch it the way most people did, of course. She viewed an illicit copy at her uncle's house with the windows covered. Because of constant power outages, it took months to finish. Still, as she recalled in her memoir, Titanic changed her life by planting the seed of defection (which is apt because her family hid the video under a potted plant):

    But when I was 7 or 8 years old, the film that changed my life was Titanic. It amazed me that it was a story that took place a hundred years ago. Those people living in 1912 had better technology than most North Koreans! But mostly I couldn’t believe how someone could make a movie out of such a shameful love story. In North Korea, the filmmakers would have been executed. No real human stories were allowed, nothing but propaganda about the Leader. But in Titanic, the characters talked about love and humanity. I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me.

    Another time, Park stated that Titanic “changed the way [she] saw the regime and the endless propaganda" and made her understand that she was “controlled by the regime.”

    Other black-market foreign flicks that penetrated Park's propaganda filter include Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pretty Woman, and those featuring James Bond. Possessing such films, and others from the United States and South Korea, carried a death sentence (Bollywood and Russian films carried a lighter sentence of three years). It was still worth it for her and her family/friends. A few years after trading films, Park and her family traded temporary safety for a chance at permanent freedom by fleeing to China, where the bootlegs originated. After an arduous journey that took her father's life, Park successfully defected. She is now a US citizen.

    Titanic planted the same seed in many more North Koreans, and at least one successfully defected: Jeong Kwang-il watched it under similar circumstances as Park before escaping to South Korea. He now smuggles media into his former country, continuing the cycle of North Korean deprogramming. He's not alone in that venture. Myriad defectors have sent thousands of cinematic lifeboats to the drowning nation.

    “The movie Titanic became a sensation in North Korea. I know defectors who were almost arrested for watching that movie," activist Suzanne Scholte said. “We got together after work and watched bootleg copies of Titanic…” said a former North Korean police commander (as retold by Geoffrey Cain). “We always knew life on the other side was better.”

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  • The Snake Pit's title tells all you need to know about how mental institutions are portrayed in the film, which is a reflection of how they operated in the 1940s. Suffice it to say, viewers had their consciences bitten. However, nobody was moved more than the film's promoter, Charles Schlaifer, who became the St. Patrick of “snake pits.”

    Schlaifer visited mental hospitals across the US, joined a mental health advocacy group that testified before Congress, served as an adviser to the surgeon general, and authored a report on institutional reform that became the 1963 Community Mental Health Act.

    After winning at the federal level, Schlaifer targeted state regulations, leading to more mental health reforms. He had the most success in New York, where he chaired the Health and Mental Hygiene Facilities Improvement Corporation and the Facilities Development Corporation, which oversaw the construction of health care centers.

    During a 1952 congressional hearing, The Snake Pit was referenced multiple times, and Sen. Edward John Thye praised Schlaifer and an associate for bringing mental health to the big screen:

    You two gentlemen here are responsible for writing this story that brought this matter of the Snake Pit to the motion-picture industry, and you have conveyed a message to the people that has brought the people forth asking that something be done about it rather than drawing a curtain to try to hide a mentally deficient child or person who has had a mental disruption, the person whom in the old days we termed a crazy person.

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  • The Thin Blue Line is essentially a filmed criminal investigation, and one that actually served justice. It presents the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison) for killing a Dallas police officer, despite key witnesses giving contradictory testimonies.

    Videographic proof of witness perjury, combined with the film's popularity, freed Adams. Director Errol Morris explained the process:

    I… liked the idea that I had done everything wrong, and I actually, in the process of doing everything wrong, had accumulated real evidence. Sections of the movie were submitted as evidence in federal and state court… There are moments in these interviews that made the difference between this man spending the rest of his life in prison and his release.

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  • Actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan couldn't escape the influence of movies, so much so that one almost ended his life. On March 30, 1981, Reagan was shot in the armpit by a man who wanted to impress Jodie Foster after becoming obsessed with her character in Taxi Driver. John Hinckley Jr. watched the film as many as 18 times, memorized the script, and began dressing, drinking, and thirsting like Robert De Niro's character Travis Bickle, which culminated in him attempting to assassinate a politician just like Bickle does in the movie.

    Right before the shooting, Hinckley wrote a letter to Foster, which ended with:

    By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I'm asking you to please look into your heart and at least give the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your love and respect.

    Reagan survived, but his press secretary, James Brady, sustained an injury that took his life 33 years later, and Hinckley was hospitalized after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. Foster said that the incident influenced how she approached future roles; director Martin Scorsese stayed mostly silent; and screenwriter Paul Schrader denied culpability by stating that the people who would commit violence because of a movie already exist: “I didn’t create them.”

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  • 'WarGames' Fascinated Reagan And Led To Computer Security Legislation
    Photo: MGM/UA

    During a weekend retreat to Camp David in June 1983, US President Ronald Reagan watched the newly released hacker-thriller WarGames. The film's co-writer Lawrence Lasker arranged the screening, which was so successful that, a few days later, Reagan interrupted an important White House meeting with members of Congress to talk about WarGames. Rep. Vic Fazio, who was in attendance, described the scene (as reported by Lou Cannon): 

    “It was really funny… I was sitting there so worried about throw weight [a measure of a missile's lifting power] and Reagan suddenly asks us if we've seen WarGames. He was in a very good humor. He said, 'I don't understand these computers very well, but this young man obviously did. He had tied into NORAD!'” [Cannon's exposition:] Reagan continued with his impromptu review by saying he had found a little bias in the casting of the high school teacher in the movie as “a wimp.” Then he turned to Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said with a smile, “They portrayed the general as this slovenly, mean, unthinking guy.”

    According to journalist Fred Kaplan, Reagan ended the interjection by asking Vessey whether what's portrayed in WarGames - a civilian hacking into NORAD that almost sets off WWIII - could actually happen. Vessey looked into the scenario and responded that it could. Fifteen months later, Reagan issued NSDD-145, the first presidential directive on cybersecurity. 

    Although it's not possible to draw a direct line from WarGames to Reagan's legislation, it did influence a different piece of legislation passed by Congress in 1984. Dubbed the Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the bill specifically references WarGames, calling it “a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”

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