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Is The Little Things Based On A True Story?

The crime-investigation thriller is one of the most inexhaustible genres in all of cinema. Every year brings its own handful of takes on the format, from straight-faced noir throwbacks to challenging subversions to eccentric infusions of comedy and even romance. And every time a big crime thriller movie rolls around, the same question arises: Where did this story come from?

In the case of "The Little Things," written and directed by John Lee Hancock and released in January 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max, that inevitable curiosity is compounded by the film's sheer attention to detail. The very title refers to the need for police investigations to keep track of every little bit of information they come across, as explained by deputy sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon (Denzel Washington) in one scene. As Deacon and Det. Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) try to make sense of the string of murders plaguing Bakersfield, CA, the amount of minutiae of investigative work the movie delves into becomes almost overwhelming, all the way up to its maddening ending.

So, did Hancock come up with it all by himself? Or is the screenplay of "The Little Things" ripped from a real-life case? The truth, befitting the movie, is somewhere in the middle.

The Little Things is an original story loosely inspired by real-life detective work

When John Lee Hancock wrote the first draft of the screenplay for "The Little Things," all the way back in 1993, he was operating within a very different film industry, in which mid-budget adult thrillers were still all the rage, with "The Silence of the Lambs" having won the Best Picture Oscar just the year prior. It was also a different time for L.A.: The city was still in the process of recovering from the Night Stalker murders of the mid-'80s, and a feeling of paranoia still hung in the air.

In an interview with GQ, Hancock cites that atmosphere as one of the things that motivated him to write "The Little Things." He then goes on to explain the research process that went into the writing: "I worked out the story first and then I was put in contact with a friend of a friend who was a homicide detective for L.A. County Sheriff's, named Stan White. He took me under his wing and took me everywhere with him." Hancock then spent around a month watching and taking first-hand notes on real-life detective work, which allowed him to give "The Little Things" all its grit and texture. The 2019 shoot was also aided by two LAPD consultants. Even though the forest of "The Little Things" itself is fictional, the trees, so to speak, are not.

Additionally, Den of Geek has speculated that Hancock may have drawn from several different real-life cases, including the Zodiac Killer and the BTK Killer, given the similarities between those cases and the killer's M.O. in "The Little Things." Really, there was no shortage of real-world criminal inspiration to be found around Hancock, especially in the '90s.