Truth really is stranger-than-fiction, and the news breaks on something unbelievable every day it seems. Every now and then I’ll read something and think to myself, “Wow. Why haven’t they made a movie out of that?” There are a lot of astounding events of the past that have yet to receive big screen treatment. With Hollywood widely criticized for a lack of originality amid the glut of reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels, it is mystifying how these stories have not been the subject of a recent major motion picture. This is my list of ten real stories begging for movie treatment.
The Tylenol Murders
In 1982, someone planted cyanide in capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol, resulting in the deaths of seven people in the Chicago area. Most of us remember it. The case spawned a new generation of product safety efforts and tamper-resistant packaging. A man named James Lewis attempted to extort Johnson & Johnson, and even served time for it, but police weren’t able to pin the poisonings on him. In recent years, several new theories have been proposed, but the case remains unsolved.
Movie Treatment: Maybe they haven’t made a movie out of this story yet because there isn’t a resolution yet, but if they can make a snoozefest Jake Gyllenhall movie out of The Zodiac story, another case that was never solved, they could sure do this one.
The Journeys of Vitus Bering
Bering led explorations that would have made Columbus soil his funny-looking pants.
Columbus. Magellan. Bering? Most people know the first two names, but Bering is simply the name on the strait between Russia and Alaska. A pity, because Vitus Bering was one of history’s most ambitious and determined explorers. In expeditions meant to prove once and for all whether North America and Asia were connected, Bering led explorations that would have made Columbus soil his funny-looking pants. Bering led expeditions by land, across the entire Russian landmass, building towns and settlements along the way until they reached the sea. They promptly felled their own timber and built their ships with it, so their real adventure could begin. Let’s not forget, this was all through unexplored territory, in an extremely cold and inhospitable environment. Bering’s ships eventually proved that there was a strait between Asia and North America, but the Captain never made it home. He was buried in a shallow grave when he died on an uninhabited island off the Kamchatka peninsula after returning from a mission to what would eventually become Alaska. The island now bears his name.
Movie Treatment: This one screams TV miniseries. It would be a good project for some cable network to debut the same night as the new season of one of the Alaska shows – perhaps Alaska: The Last Frontier or Alaska State Troopers.
Huey Lewis versus Ray Parker Jr.
Huey Lewis reached a settlement agreement with Ray Parker Jr. in 1995 over alleged copyright infringement. The Lewis camp alleged “Ghostbusters” was an illegally appropriated version of “I Want a New Drug.” Although carefully-worded statements after the settlement point no fingers, a story in a 2004 edition of Premiere leaves little doubt that “Ghostbusters” illegally infringed Lewis’ copyright. Producers approached Huey Lewis and the News to write a song for the movie. They were already using “I Want a New Drug” as placeholder music during production, but Lewis’ camp declined. In came Ray Parker Jr., who promptly wrote a theme song with a nearly identical bass line and progression to “I Want a New Drug.” A lawsuit followed and Lewis won.
In 2014, Ray Parker Jr. sued Huey Lewis for breaching their confidentiality agreement by commenting on the settlement for an episode of “Behind the Music.”
Movie treatment: This might have to wait until all involved parties are dead. It would be a great HBO or Showtime original movie, but no VH1 or cable TV treatments, please.
The Essex Disaster
Said to be the inspiration for Moby Dick, the true story of the Essex disaster is much more complex and terrifying. The Essex, an 1820s whaling ship, was attacked and sunk by a whale, thousands of miles from land. The sinking began a survival epic for Captain George Pollard and his crew that would rival anything I’ve seen on film. Three lifeboats, separated, and each of them with a different story. The first boat of survivors was rescued after 89 days at sea. Nearly a week later, the second boat was rescued. The survivors had resorted to cannibalism in the lifeboats, and when rescued, the Captain and his crewmate were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.” The third lifeboat was found later, marooned on a remote island with three skeletons inside.
Movie treatment: A three-hour epic with a big name director and star is obligatory for a story this big, but it would be great to see it on the screen. Update: I was unaware at the time I wrote this piece that a motion picture telling the story of the Essex was already underway. In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth.
Gloria Ramirez, The Toxic Lady
You may remember this case. In 1994, a cancer patient named Gloria Ramirez went to the ER suffering the symptoms of advanced cervical cancer. A nurse noticed an oily sheen on Ramirez’ skin. Another noticed a fruity, garlic-like smell that appeared to be coming from Ramirez’ mouth. When a nurse drew blood, she noticed the smell of ammonia, and another nurse saw crystals in the vial of blood. Ramirez’ doctors and nurses were soon overcome by mysterious fumes and had to evacuate the building. Ramirez died of kidney failure a short time later. Although the health department released a report claiming mass hysteria, or mass sociogenic illness in doctor-speak, there is no consensus on why it happened. There is no known medical condition that can explain the phenomenon. One theory claims Ramirez was using dimethyl sulfoxide, a degreaser, as a home remedy for pain, and the combination of DMSO with other substances int he ER may have caused the release of toxic fumes.
Movie Treatment: Mulder may have mentioned this case once on the X-Files, and a story of similar design might make an interesting plot point in a science fiction movie.
The Origins of AIDS
Is it possible that the HIV virus was accidentally introduced into humans by medical science? Did polio vaccination campaigns across Africa actually function as a biological slot machine, with each inoculation representing an individual pull on the bandit’s arm? The theory maintains there was a terrible payoff — a simian virus made the leap to humans.
Movie Treatment: There’s been a documentary, “The Origins of Aids,” made about this story but it would make great subject matter for a docudrama along the lines of HBO’s “…And the Band Played On,” which spread disinfectant all over medical shenanigans in the battle against HIV in the early days. The scientists who conducted the polio campaigns are still living in some cases, so lawsuit threats would be real.
The Voynich Manuscript
This mysterious book is a 240 page “illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system.” The book, which contains drawings of unknown plants and star systems, has been dated to the early-1400s. The Voynich Manuscript has never been deciphered, and its author is unknown. Is it an elaborate hoax? Forgotten knowledge from a lost or alien society? Is it the writings of a madman? Nobody knows.
Movie Treatment: The Voynich Manuscript should have been written into a DaVinci Code sequel already.
The Cadaver Synod
This is a dark and bizarre tale from the history of the Catholic Church. In short, in the 800s AD, the papacy was the playground of the wealthy, and Pope Formosus I made some powerful political enemies in the course of cleaning up the church. Upon his death in April of 896, a new Pope, Boniface, succeeded him but died after only fifteen days. In May, Pope Stephen VI assumed the papacy and he soon lost control. In legion with some of the aforementioned enemies of Formosus, he convened a synod to put the corpse of Pope Formosus on trial. The body, dead nine months, was dressed in papal garments and propped up on the witness stand. A young church deacon stood in the shadows and provided the voice of Pope Formosus as the corpse was questioned. All of Formosus’ acts and pronouncements were deemed invalid, but his ghost would get revenge just a year later when a mob stripped Pope Stephen VI of his clothes and threw him in prison where he was strangled to death.
Movie Treatment: It’s just too bizarre not to have a movie, isn’t it? Can you imagine the size of the boycott?
The Donner Party
Most of us have heard the story of the Donner Party, an expedition of homesteaders snowbound high in the mountains and starving. After eating everything they could swallow, including the ox-hide roof of a cabin, the settlers resorted to cannibalizing the bodies of other dead settlers — even killing, so they could eat. Their rescue came after members of the party managed to walk out on snowshoes. It took three missions to rescue all the remaining survivors.
Movie Treatment: Think “Alive,” but with covered wagons instead of an airplane, and a dark edge.
Richard Jewell’s Life Story
Remember Richard Jewell, the security guy who bombed the Atlanta Olympics? You wouldn’t be alone if that’s how you remember him, but the truth is, Richard Jewell was a hero who tried to evacuate the area before the bomb went off. After an FBI leak pointed the finger in his direction, he was convicted in the media and his name and professional life were irreparably damaged. He eventually won four settlements from news outlets like NBC and CNN, and the police tracked down the real perpetrator — domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph. Richard Jewell later changed his name in an attempt to escape his unjustly tarnished reputation. We would do well to remember that although those perceived as guilty are frequently actually guilty, sometimes they are not (Gary Condit is another that comes to mind). Richard Jewell died in 2007.
Movie Treatment: “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” based on this Vanity Fair article, is planned with Jonah Hill reportedly signed to play Richard Jewell and Leonardo DiCaprio’s name has been attached as his attorney. Update: As of March, 2015, Deadline Hollywood reported Clint Eastwood was rumored to be interested in the Director’s Chair, but a deal between Warner Brothers and Fox would have to be worked out to make it happen.
L’Anse Aux Meadows
The Vikings arrived in North America nearly five hundred years before Columbus. There’s a period at the end of that sentence because it is now an established fact. Archaeological relics in Newfoundland dated to the year 1000 prove that the Vikings arrived in, and attempted to settle, North America long before the better known European explorers.
Movie Treatment: With all the interest in TV’s “Vikings,” now might be the perfect time for spinoff. New Found Land perhaps?
Also known as limnic eruptions, exploding lakes are an extremely rare phenomenon. Limnic eruptions only happen in lakes in tropical latitudes, and consist of an explosive release of concentrated carbon-dioxide from the depths of the lake into the surrounding countryside. Any living thing suffocates. Lake Nyos, a crater lake in Cameroon, smothered over 1,700 villagers in a single night in 1986.
Movie Treatment: This is one more phenomenon that made an appearance in the X-Files if I’m not mistaken. Exploding lakes could make a mysterious plot point in a supernatural or science fiction thriller.
What have I forgotten? Fascinating real stories that haven’t been made into movies yet. Please leave a comment.