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The BEST Netflix Characters Based On Real People: The Reel-To-Real Connect

Key Highlights:

  • ■ The most-watched Netflix show of all time is Stranger Things 4, with Eleven (A.K.A. Millie Bobby Brown) being one of the most popular Netflix Characters. 
  • ■ Currently, Netflix has 260.28 million subscribers, of which 51% are women and 49% are men
  • ■ Audiences on Netflix spend 3.2 hours every day on average for content consumption. 

Undoubtedly, Netflix is the biggest streaming platform across the globe. The best part about the streaming giant is it’s not just a streaming platform for popular shows and movies – it is also one of the biggest content-producing platforms. 

As a Netflix Subscriber since 2017 (the platform has been accessible since 2016 in India), I’m a fan of Netflix Originals, Netflix’s autonomous content production venture. From Stranger Things and Narcos to Ginny & Georgia, Netflix Originals almost always delivers. 

Since its launch, the platform has introduced us to some of the most memorable stories, not to mention characters – and while iconic characters always have a special place in my heart, those inspired by real-life events almost always end up impressing me! And it’s just not me. I stumbled upon an interesting observation after talking to over a hundred movie buffs. 

Real-life stories have a huge fan base! People love to watch real stories with real people on screen, not just because it makes everything so much more relatable. But because it’s almost awe-inspiring to watch something really good on screen right that actually happened.

It’s surreal to watch history come alive on screen – with real people telling their real stories, especially if you are not a fan of documentaries (like me).

Today, I’m about to do something ambitious – to make a list featuring the top Netflix characters based on real people. So, without wasting time, let’s do it!

But First, Why Are Shows Based On Real Life So Damn Successful?

The question is – are films based on real events and real people attracting more people to the screen? 

After doing some research, I was surprised to come across just how successful films inspired by real-life events are at the box office. Typically, films that do really well at the box office usually get mixed reviews from critics. This could be a result of the film targeting a mass audience, or at its core, the film is perhaps a sucker for style and not substance. 

Conversely, often the more intimate, lesser known, and decidedly smaller films get rave reviews from the critics. 

As per critics, these films value subtlety and have integrity in their storytelling. In fact, very rarely do these two sections in cinema shake hands. So, naturally, it can appear that a particular film is giving up critics in favor of success at the box office – the opposite is also a possibility. 

But naturally, there is a middle ground – films inspired by or based on actual events. Now, these films are the diamonds in the rough. 

Films like Schindler’s List, Erin Brockovich, and The Wolf of Wall Street were all able to gross over a hundred million dollars while receiving rave reviews from all prominent critics. 

So, what’s so cool about such films and TV shows that appear to critics and audiences alike? It is undeniable. There is a certain quality, an aspect that appeals to the masses significantly. As a result, big names in the film industry take on multiple adaptations – to win over critics and earn money. 

Let’s Understand This Better:

To understand this trend better, there are multiple small questions that we must ask first. 

  • ■ Is there any particular formula for super-hit biopics? 
  • ■ Is it possible that actual events just happen to match the formula? 
  • ■ Could it be possible that the element of ‘truth’ attracts audiences?
  • ■ Is there something ingrained in us psychologically that makes us empathize and relate to stories that actually happened? 

So, if that is the reality, then you can argue that someone’s whole life story could hardly be called a ‘plot.’ As a result, while transforming the story into a plot that narrates a tightly structured, condensed version of the whole story, it is normal to make necessary changes in order to make the narrative work. 

Linda Hutcheon, in ‘A Theory of Adaptation,’ says that adapting a true story into a film’s plot is “a labor of simplification.” So, if that’s the case, then the story will start losing its validity due to the nature of simplification. As a result, the story’s ‘truthfulness’ is bound to be compromised for the sake of the story. 

Thus, with only a little digging, it is evident that the fidelity of such films plays an integral role in the end product’s success. 

Obviously, this leads to more questions about making a movie on a person who is either alive or in living memory. After all, changing too much of the story can lead to significant backlash from the audience, who are always quick to notice any inaccuracies in the film’s narrative. 

The Success Behind True Stories:

So, where is the success coming from? Is it a good story, or is it the compelling characters? Or does the simple fact that the film is true work out?  

To solve this issue – I watched two films with a group of 50 people. While both films had a great story and compelling characters, one was a biopic about a fictional person, and the other was based on the life of an absolute genius.  

You will be surprised to know what we found out – the success behind these films had nothing to do with the compelling characters or the great story. Instead, it was about how people react to an underdog’s story of overcoming all obstacles to become successful. So, it’s the uplifting narrative and relatability that attracts the masses. 

Apart from that, I also tried to find whether there is any correlation between how much people knew about a specific story and the impact such stories have on the audience’s need to go and watch the retelling of the story on the big screen. 

Needless to say, I was again surprised. It appears that doing films about stories that people are already aware of is actually an obstacle to the movie. For the movie’s success, creating an air of mystery around the plot is imperative. That way, the audience can have an unpredictable journey while watching the story unfold on screen. 

Moreover, adding big names from the movie industry to such stories only enhances the film’s chances of performing better at the box office.

Netflix Characters Based On Real People: The Reel-To-Real Connect (The Success Behind Real Stories):

While the success of TV shows and films based on actual events makes things so much better for the box office, not every real-to-reel adaptation turns out to be great. So, while compiling our list of favorite Netflix characters based on real people, we were very strict! 

Firstly, we chose our favorite Netflix shows based on or inspired by actual events. Now, what makes a show really good? Several things – but nothing more important than the plot. The plot, in turn, only holds up when the characters are good. 

As a result, choosing our favorite Netflix characters meant picking our favorite shows based on their plotlines first. So, based on intensive binge-watching sessions, reading rave reviews, and discussing with fellow critics, Gossipment presents our favorite Netflix characters based on or inspired by real people. 

1. Steve Murphy: Narcos

Without a doubt, this list would be incomplete without Narcos.

The plot follows the triumphant rise and subsequent fall of the world-famous drug lord Pablo Escobar and his multi-million drug empire in Colombia. Escobar is profoundly decent and beautifully complex, played well by a talented Wagner Moura. 

While Moura gets most of the attention from fans, I have always been a fan of Steve Murphy and even Javier Peña, to an extent, the two DEA agents working to stop Escobar from expanding his business in Colombia. 

Played by a talented Boyd Holbrook, Steve Murphy’s character is brave, vigilant, and hardcore. He is bent on catching Escobar, but his wife, Connie, has difficulty dealing with the nature of Murphy’s profession. 

In the show, we see Steve Murphy arriving at the start of the Escobar hunt during the summer of 1979. But in reality, Murphy arrived only two years before Escobar died in 1993. Yep, the real Murphy first made an appearance in June 1991

2. Princess Margaret: The Crown

I remember I started watching The Crown when two seasons had already dropped on Netflix. But for the next two weeks, I was enthralled with the multi-generational drama spanning the 20th century. 

The show starts with the death of King George VI, leading up to and following Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign. While Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, and Imelda Staunton do a great job playing the former Queen, I couldn’t take my eyes off the talented Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret in season 3 and season 4. 

While Vanessa Kirby (plays the princess in seasons 1 and 2) and Lesley Manville (plays the princess in seasons 5 and 6) do an incredible job, Carter outshines them. 

But more than the actors, it is the story of the princess – first separated from the love of her life, only to marry a man who cheats on her. Always in the shadows – but nonetheless fierce, determined to live on her terms. 

Although showrunners have dealt with some severe backlash for certain creative liberties, with some people even calling the retelling ‘false history,’ The Crown still delivers a pompous plot about royalty, taking us back intricately through the pages of modern history. 

3. Grace Marks: Alias Grace

I have always been a fan of Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, and, of course, Alias Grace. So, when a series based on Atwood’s 1996 novel dropped on Netflix, I had to watch it. 

FYI, Alias Grace fictionalized a murder in 1843 Toronto – the unpleasant homicide of two lovers, Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. While Atwood’s critically acclaimed work, The Handmaid’s Tale, uses a dystopic future to discuss present-day social injustices and anxieties, Alias Grace relies on the past to reflect upon the horrors of being the second sex. 

Netflix hired Sarah Polley (who won an Oscar for writing Women Talking) to write six seasons of Atwood’s novel. The plot follows Grace Marks (played brilliantly by Sarah Sandon) – the woman who was tried for the murders – serving time in prison. 

The real Grace Marks has always intrigued me – she confessed to being a part of the murder plan at 16, spent thirty-odd years in prison, was pardoned suddenly, and disappeared forever. In a way, it was a happy ending of sorts – Marks could leave her infamous reputation behind and start a new life. 

4. Anna Sorokin: Inventing Anna

Netflix’s Inventing Anna is a limited miniseries with each episode starting with a significant disclaimer, if you remember, “This whole story is completely true. Except for all the parts that are totally made up.” 

Of course, Inventing Anna is a real story, except for all the creative liberties showrunners typically take for dramatic purposes. 

New York Magazine actually broke the internet in 2018 with a story by Jessica Pressler about Anna Sorokin. Sorokin was allegedly a German heiress who stole from financial institutions, banks, and some of her friends between 2013 and 2017 to launch the Anna Delvey Foundation, an exclusive, members-only club. 

This is why I have always been a fan of Anna (she is on Instagram even now!). It turns out that Anna was actually born in Russia and raised in Germany – a QUEEN who was able to fool the New York high society. While New York’s rich and powerful bowed to Anna, she was able to obtain over $ 275,000

Interestingly, Anna’s parents told the publication that in spite of their daughter’s massive claims, there wasn’t any trust fund. Moreover, ‘Delvey’ wasn’t really a family name. 

Netflix’s Inventing Anna was actually inspired by the extensive reporting of journalist Jessica Pressler. The character of Vivian is loosely based on Pressler herself – the journalist who is investigating Anna’s story throughout the show. The chic Netflix drama tells Sorokin’s story – but through the eyes of people who thought they knew her – or maybe they actually knew her! 

Reportedly, Netflix paid a solid $320,000 to Sorokin for adapting her story into a show. Sorokin later told Insider that she doesn’t even want to watch the show – classic Anna! 

5. Robert Kardashian: American Crime Story: The People v.s. O.J. Simpson

Before Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, we had O.J. Simpson’s trial, and Netflix agreed. So, when American Crime Story: The People v.s. O.J. Simpson dropped on Netflix; we knew it was meant for greatness. 

American Crime Story’s first season shows the largest pre-internet event of the 90s – the trial of O.J. Simpson. American Crime Story Season 1 not just won the love of audiences across the globe but nine Emmys! Spanning 10 episodes, the captivating plot narrates the scandalous and intricate details of an event that had taken the world by storm at the time. 

While Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Simpson is meticulously crafted, it is David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian who stands out in this powerfully resonant season. Robert Kardashian has always stood out – he wasn’t just Simpson’s attorney. He was Simpson’s best friend and went to jail every single day to lift his spirits. 

Keeping the morality of right and wrong aside, Kardashian was the epitome of how a friend in need is always one indeed! 

6. Thomas Shelby: Peaky Blinders

I remember I started watching Peaky Blinders during the Pandemic. At the time, I was studying First World War poetry as a part of my English major. Naturally, the show was based at a time when the world was reeling from the impact of one war and anxiously anticipating another one. 

The interwar years were perhaps one of the most anxiety-ridden periods in the 1900s. Apart from the show’s connection to history, it was all just really good, with all seasons debuting to rave reviews from fans and critics alike. 

The best part? It’s based on real events! Yes, Peaky Binders does take creative liberties with history, making changes to the real story about the actual gang and their specific motivations for dramatic reasons. 

While Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Shelby (my absolute favorite) and his family infiltrate 1920s high society in Birmingham, England, the real Peaky Blinders were active during a different timeframe – the 1880s, to be specific. 

More than the real-to-reel connect, it is Thomas Shelby’s story that made me fall for the show – how Shelby is a war hero who uses his cunning intelligence and outsider status to make major power moves not just in Birmingham but beyond. Thomas is not just calculative, he is stylish – he is also fine with killing people for power or revenge. 

After all, being the face of the gang, Thomas embodies basic philosophies and the appearance of the real Peaky Blinders gang. In fact, the show’s creator, Steven Knight, said that he created the show based on the stories he heard from his dad about “men who were immaculately dressed, wearing caps and with guns on in their pockets.

7. Valery Legasov: Chernobyl

Chernobyl is one depressing show – there’s no doubt about it. 

Craig Mazin, showrunner of The Last Of Us fame, created the miniseries in 2019. The show is a detailed, vivid, not to mention compelling retelling of the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union. 

With only five episodes, the miniseries delicately presents the unfortunate tale, with the pilot episode being an intense recreation of the danger itself. The plot intensifies with the remaining four episodes covering the investigation and the government’s subsequent failure to reply. 

While Jared Harris does an incredible portrayal of Valery Legasov, I feel conflicted to talk about – he is a favorite, no doubt, but then I can’t deny having some reservations about making him my favorite. As per the show, Legasov was a good man, reluctantly becoming a hero when it was needed the most. 

But in reality, Legasov was a party man for the most part of his life, right through most of the relief practices. So, he didn’t actually start working as a heroic scientist at Chernobyl but rather as a dedicated addition to the Soviet.

Having said that, he did do some good towards the end of his life inspite of being a deeply flawed man. Not to mention he also said the iconic “technology must be protected from man” to a Ukrainian journalist in a taped interview. 

But the miniseries is brilliant, with every scene crafted expertly to paint a dystopic, crumbling world – the discomfort that you feel on watching the show is evidence of that. Also, the show won not one but 10 Emmys!

8. Queen Charlotte: Bridgerton

I could have written about Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, but then the Queen made her first appearance in Bridgerton, and while Bridgerton is fictional, the story features real historical figures. 

And while King George III is a close second, I am simply in love with Queen Charlotte – she is one strong woman! 

TBH, we have all been obsessed with Bridgerton since it premiered on Netflix in December 2020, including the opening credits for the show’s first season, honoring the late Brian Nickels, the show’s stunt coordinator. 

The show has become one of the most-watched Netflix shows of all time – when Queen Charlotte’s mini-series dropped on Netflix, it only made the franchise even more popular. The best part? Queen Charlotte’s story about her bittersweet marriage to King George III is true. 

The King was one of the only British monarchs to never take a mistress and was devoted to his wife for the most part of his life. Moreover, he did suffer from serious bouts of illnesses, first between 1788 and 1789 and then in 1810, before becoming permanently insane in 1810. 

Interestingly, after the King’s permanent insanity, the Prince of Wales became Regent officially, and Queen Charlotte became her husband’s guardian and stayed so till her death in 1818 – she stayed by his side, loyal till the very end. That last scene in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story? Yep – no wonder – it made all of us cry. 

9. Jonathan Groff: Mindhunter

Set in the ‘80s and ‘70s, Midnhunter follows Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff, two FBI agents, who have been asked to interview different serial killers and solve open cases to pioneer the Behavioral Science Unit and the department’s criminal profiling practices. 

In any media-friendly landscape where crime shows based on true events are exploitative, Mindhunter manages to stand out for its historical context, curious atmosphere, and cerebral nature. 

The best part? The interviews, especially Cameron Britton’s interview, were a standout. FYI, Britton earned a critically acclaimed Emmy nomination for playing the notorious serial killer Ed Kemper. 

While the series is technically fictional, the plot walks on a line drawn carefully between reel and real. But that doesn’t make Groff any less real! Unfortunately, David Fincher, the showrunner, recently confirmed that there wouldn’t be a season 3 of the hit series. 

However, I am confident you will have a great time binge-watching the first two seasons. Plus, it has some of the best Netflix characters based on real life. 

The Netflix Characters Who Stayed…

And that’s a wrap on our favorite Netflix characters who stayed with us – compelling characters, great narratives, and fantastic storytelling. Of course, all three need to come together to create something that will stay with you forever. And the characters I have talked about in this blog will stay with me forever. 

Interestingly, throughout my research and subsequent analysis, what has remained constant is how audiences love films based on real events. But the audience doesn’t want to watch a documentary – as a result, altering the story here and there for dramatic purposes is fine. 

What I am trying to say here is that people want to look back at the times gone by. Yes, they are fine with the film transporting them back to a different era significant in history. But they don’t want the actual story – they want the feels!

The truth is that the audience will accept the movie as long as it starts to look right. If you have noticed that the stories that get told are all easily digestible, structured well, and highly formulated into bits and pieces of fiction, all carefully disguised underneath a layer of ‘Truth.’ 

It just needs to be true enough to suspend your disbelief – underneath all that honesty, it’s just another classic Hollywood movie waiting to earn money at the box office.

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Barsha Bhattacharya is a senior content writing executive. As a marketing enthusiast and professional for the past 4 years, writing is new to Barsha. And she is loving every bit of it. Her niches are marketing, lifestyle, wellness, travel and entertainment. Apart from writing, Barsha loves to travel, binge-watch, research conspiracy theories, Instagram and overthink.

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