Modern-day real life stories that have captured the heart of Hollywood


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Modern-day real life stories that have captured the heart of Hollywood

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Superhero blockbusters. Brightly-colored fairytales. High-speed car chases. These are just some images conjured up when we think of Hollywood movies.

Every once in a while however, everyday individuals will become the inspiration for a motion picture and their stories will go on to entertain hundreds of thousands of cinemagoers.

With the help of IMDB and Box Office Mojo, CNBC takes a look at the people who've inspired such movie adaptations as "Erin Brockovich", "Wild" and "Catch Me If You Can".

—By CNBC's Alexandra Gibbs, featuring box office figures from Box Office Mojo

  • Wild

    In 1995, Cheryl Strayed embarked on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) with not an ounce of training or hiking experience. Having dealt with the passing of her mother when she was in her early 20s, along with divorce and family tensions, Strayed chose to hike over 1000 miles on her own from California's Mojave Desert to Washington State.

    Fast forward to the 21st Century and Strayed wrote a memoir about her trek and what drove her to do it – an account that inspired Hollywood to take her story to the big screen in 2014, with actress Reese Witherspoon taking on the lead role. The movie received a number of award nominations, while the memoir became a New York Times bestseller and has since inspired thousands to embark upon the PCT.

    • Global box office gross: Over $52.5 million
    Actress Reese Witherspoon (L) and writer Cheryl Strayed attend The 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton on January 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.
    Mark Davis | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
  • Catch Me If You Can

    By the age of 21, Frank Abagnale had written $2.5 million in fraudulent checks and took on a number of fake identities including an airline pilot. For his crimes, Abagnale went on to serve prison time in Sweden, France and the U.S. – serving a total of five years inside.

    Abagnale did make a change for the better however, having now associated himself with the FBI for over 40 years, lecturing at the FBI Academy and for the FBI's field offices; as well as teaching seminars on how to reduce exposure to fraud, according to Abagnale & Associates website.

    Abagnale did co-write a book about his past experiences, an account which was picked up by Hollywood and turned into the award-winning 2002 movie "Catch Me If You Can", featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. Abagnale did however go onto admit that parts of the book and movie had been exaggerated or changed for audience purposes.

    • Global box office gross: Over $352 million
    Leonardo DiCaprio with airline stewardess surrounding him in a scene from the film 'Catch Me If You Can', 2002.
    DreamWorks SKG/Archive Photos | Moviepix | Getty Images
  • Erin Brockovich

    After being hired by Masry & Vititoe as a file clerk, divorced single mother Erin Brockovich was helping out on a real estate case when she came across medical records which would become valuable in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E); according to Brockovich's website.

    Brockovich began her inquiry into exposure to Chromium 6 in ground water in the Californian town of Hinkley. Brockovich and lawyer Ed Masry went on to win a $333 million settlement with PG&E over claims of toxic exposure in 1996, Reuters reported.

    Brockovich's work and backstory went on to be adapted into a biographical film featuring Julia Roberts as Brockovich – a movie which scored Roberts a number of Best Actress awards in 2001. Brockovich meanwhile went on to host her own TV series, become an author and set up the Erin Brockovich Foundation, which aims to fight environmental, corporate and health injustices.

    • Global box office gross: Over $256 million
    2000: Julia Roberts And Aaron Eckhart Stars In The Movie Erin Brockovich.
    Getty Images/Handout | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
  • The Pursuit of Happyness

    2006 saw the release of "The Pursuit of Happyness" in book and movie format, an autobiography about Chris Gardner, who went from being a homeless single father to a successful businessman and millionaire.

    The novel, which looks at Gardner's transformation and how he balanced being a father, having a job and homelessness, picked up interest in Hollywood with Will Smith playing the lead– a movie which received several award nominations. Despite dealing with homelessness for almost a year, in 1987 Chris Gardner founded the brokerage firm Gardner Rich and is now an entrepreneur, philanthropist as well as an author.

    • Global box office gross: Over $307 million
    Actor Will Smith and stockbroker Chris Gardner attend the UK premiere of the movie 'The Pursuit Of Happyness' held at the Curzon Mayfair on January 8, 2007
    Chris Jackson | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
  • Spotlight

    In the early 2000s, investigative journalists from The Boston Globe published a series of articles looking into Catholic Church abuse cases. The investigation also uncovered how the Church dealt with the misconduct and moved those who were accused, to other parishes.

    Not only did the newspaper's coverage garner national attention and win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, but the investigation also encouraged other victims to come forward.

    The events were adapted into a movie and won the 2016 Oscar for Best Picture, a film featuring actors like Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton. The production firms behind the movie and The Boston Globe went on to unveil the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which helps raise awareness about investigative journalism.

    • Global box office gross: Over $88 million
    Michael Rezendes, Director Tom McCarthy, Actress Rachel McAdams, Sacha Pfeiffer, Ben Bradlee Jr., Actor John Slattery, Marty Baron and Actor Liev Schreiber attend the 'Spotlight' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
    Alberto E. Rodriguez | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
  • Hidden Figures

    2016 saw the book, and shortly after, the film release of "Hidden Figures", a non-fiction piece examining the lives of African American female experts – including Katherine Johnson, the late Mary Jackson and the late Dorothy Vaughan – during the 20th century. Professionals who worked at NASA and helped achieve the organization's success in the Space Race: a spaceflight competition between the U.S. and USSR.

    The author of "Hidden Figures", Margot Lee Shetterly researched the history of NACA and NASA's "human computers" – a group of female mathematicians, scientists and engineers, who helped out with the organization's space programs. The movie adaptation was released worldwide in 2017 and won the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

    Shetterly has also become the founder of The Human Computer Project, a digital archive that tells the stories of NACA and NASA's female experts from the 1930s to 1980s.

    • Global box office gross: Over $230 million
    Actor Mahershala Ali, writer/director Theodore Melfi, actors Saniyya Sidney, Kimberly Quinn, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons accept Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture for 'Hidden Figures' onstage during The 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards
    Kevin Winter | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
  • The Big Short

    In 2016, "The Big Short" – which stars actors Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Steve Carell – was a Best Picture Oscar contender, after it brought the story of the build-up of the U.S. housing bubble and crisis to the big screens.

    The BAFTA and Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay was adapted from Michael Lewis' "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" – a nonfiction book which looked at a group of people who were able to predict and bet against the subprime housing market before the financial crisis struck. While some of the names were changed in the movie, characters were based off of such financial experts as Michael Burry and Steve Eisman.

    • Global box office gross: Over $133 million
    Steve Carell is seen on the set of 'The Big Short' on May 20, 2015 in New York City.
    Ignat | Bauer-Griffin | Getty Images