The Little Things: True Stories That Might Have Influenced The Movie

The Little Things is not based on a specific true story, but the investigation in the film resembles several real life decade-long hunts for serial killers.

Denzel Washington in The Little Things
Photo: Warner Bros. / HBO Max

This article contains The Little Things spoilers. You can read our spoiler-free review here.

Despite what those looking for clear answers after that ending might hope, The Little Things is not based on any specific true story or serial killer investigation. It was a 1993 screenplay penned by writer-director John Lee Hancock. However, there are similarities to several well known cases. The film even mentions the Night Stalker, aka Richard Ramirez, all while stopping short of naming names or committing to a specific lethal predator in its own yarn.

This is by design. In a recent interview with The Wrap, Hancock said “the whole reason I wrote the script” was to lean into the ambiguity and frustration of criminal investigations. Yet several ongoing serial killer investigations during the time of his writing raises questions about whether this intent was partially influenced by two open-ended searches for serial killers.

In the near 20 years between the script’s first draft and the film’s final edit, one of those cases has been closed; the other remains open; and both continue to fascinate, frustrate, and horrify investigators, family members of victims, and a specific type of crime buff. The kind, who, like Jared Leto’s Albert Sparma in The Little Things, can’t let the little things go.

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The Zodiac Killer

The Little Things is neither a retelling nor an allegory of the Zodiac Killer investigation, but there are many similarities and seeming influences. The opening sequence of the new film shows a woman driving while singing along with the B-52’s hit “Roam.” Right down to the camera’s close-up of the driver, the moment works as a blatant tribute to the scene in The Silence of the Lambs where we follow Buffalo Bill’s next victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), and the giddy abandon she puts behind her rendition of Tom Petty’s “American Girls.”

But it also recalls the nearly disastrous incident which happened to Kathleen Johns on March 22, 1970. She was 22-years-old, seven months pregnant, and driving her 10-month-old infant daughter when a man on the highway flashed his lights, encouraging her to pull over because he claimed one of her tires appeared to be loose. After he said he’d tighten the lugnuts for her, he drove off. But as soon as Johns got back on the road, the wheel nearly fell off her car, leaving her disabled.

The man returned, offering to take her to a service station. But after 90 minutes of driving past gas stations without stopping, Johns realized it was a kidnapping and she jumped with her daughter in her arms out of the car at a stop light. She then flagged down a passing car and truck. Later she said she believed the man who abducted her matched a police sketch of the alleged Zodiac Killer.

All we see of the driver in the opening scene of The Little Things is his boots, which thus becomes a central lead in the case. Footwear similarly looms large in the Zodiac mythology. Only one witness is on record attesting that the Zodiac serial killer, who stalked Northern California in the late ‘60s, wore Wing Walker Boots, but the emphasis of this claim has grown in importance over the years thanks to Robert Graysmith’s book, Zodiac, which is the basis for the 2007 David Fincher film of the same name. That 1986 book and subsequent film also are crucial in coloring the popular imagination of “the killer who got away with it,” with both works heavily suggesting Arthur Leigh Allen was the Zodiac based on circumstantial evidence.

Allen was a loner who, after receiving an other than honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, worked briefly as an elementary school teacher. He was eventually fired, however, after allegations of sexual misconduct with children. Afterward he worked a series of odd jobs. A friend reported in 1971 that Allen had told him about wanting to kill people and adopting the name “Zodiac” three years earlier, before the Zodiac began taunting authorities and the press with his astrological title. The police took out a warrant on his home and continued investigating him on and off over a 20-year period with multiple warrants and interviews.

At the end of David Fincher’s Zodiac movie, the last glimpse we get of Allen is at his job as a hardware store clerk. This is not unlike how The Little Things introduces Jared Leto’s Sparma as a refrigerator repairman who begins catching local law enforcement’s attention. And like Allen, a search of Sparma’s home (albeit illegally in The Little Things), as well as a police interrogation, prove inconclusive.

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The biggest similarity between Zodiac and Sparma is that neither made it to trial. Allen died of a heart attack on Aug. 26, 1992. According to the film Zodiac, it happened very shortly before he was about to be brought into custody. However, recent DNA tests of saliva on letters the Zodiac Killer sent to authorities appear to suggest Allen was not actually the killer.

The BTK Killer

Early in The Little Things, Det. Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) and Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) discuss the rituals and depravities of the killer they’re chasing. It’s a busy evening for the murderer. The latest of the victims had been knifed, and their bodies had been moved, gagged, and bound. 

Baxter goes on to say the killer is very organized, and there were no wasted motions. The victims underwent extreme torture. There are love bites, but no rape and no sodomy. The suspect kills for sexual pleasure. After one murder, the killer apparently returned to a victim’s house, moving the body, shaving, her legs, and then posing her. “He brings beer and milk, and throws himself a little party,” Deke adds.

In this sequence, The Little Things seems to drop elements of the MO of Dennis Rader, the “BTK killer.” The acronym stands “bind, torture, kill,” and he gave the title to himself. He also shared Sparma and Zodiac’s penchant for taunting police. Rader committed 10 murders, mostly women, between 1974 and 1991, all while maintaining an on and off correspondence with the police. Rader posed the nude body of one of his victims in bondage positions in a church, and took pictures before burying her in a ditch.

Additionally, when Hancock first wrote The Little Things in 1993, “the BTK Killer” was still at large, eluding the police for decades, even as he taunted them via correspondence. But in 2004, Rader’s crave for fame became his undoing as he began corresponding with local media and television stations after a decade of silence. Eventually, Rader sent in a floppy disk in one of his media-seeking taunts of police, unaware that authorities could search the disk’s metadata to find deleted documents. This led authorities to begin investigating Dennis Rader. He was arrested in February 2005.

Other Possible Influences

Jeffrey Dahmer also posed the bodies of his victims and took pictures. It isn’t a new thing. Jack the Ripper, who also infamously vanished into the ether after getting away with five grisly murders, and The Boston Strangler also posed victims. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “leaving a victim’s body in an unusual position is a conscious criminal action by an offender to thwart an investigation, shock the finder and investigators of the crime scene, or give perverted pleasure to the killer.  … posed bodies are more likely to include sexual assault, often in serial murders… when a body is left in an unusual position, binding is more likely.”

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Baxter’s listing of the “love bites” could also be a nod to Ted Bundy, who was convicted, partially on the basis of bite mark evidence he left during the Chi Omega sorority house murders at Florida State University in 1978.

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