Here Come More Movies Based On Magazine Articles (That's a Good Thing)
In Sunday's New York Times, David Carr profiled journalists Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis, writers of long-form nonfiction magazine articles that have frequently, and increasingly, been optioned for big-screen treatment. Bearman currently is in possession of a USC Scripter Award, in fact, for the article he wrote that was the basis for Chris Terrio's script for Argo. Together, they're working on a venture called Epic, described in the Times as "a kind of online literary platform that will commission and publish big, nonfiction narratives that might also make good movies."
They are trying to build a model for long-form journalism where the revenue generated over the entire life of a story — magazine fees, sales on Audible.com and Amazon Kindle Singles, ancillary film and television rights — can be used to finance the costs of reporting.
Writers, even ones with custody of a great story, can get lost in a thicket of pitches, edits and reselling. Mr. Bearman and Mr. Davis have cracked the code a bit and have the skills to help authors exercise some control in a changed marketplace.
Streamlining the process for movie projects based on nonfiction articles could certainly lead to more movies on the level of Argo -- medium-budget true stories with middlebrow appeal. With their business overhead less of a concern, the theory goes, journalists will be better able to chase the actual stories.
So what kinds of movies are we talking about? Enough to make for quite the kicky weekend marathon, actually. And far from being a monolithic genre of based-on-true-stories, scripts based on articles very often result in a wide range of styles. For your perusal:
Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Inspired by the article "The Boys in the Bank" in Life magazine by P.F. Kluge, the Sidney Lumet film features Al Pacino in one of his very best performances, a riveting (and fairly daring, for the time period) narrative, and a prime example of nonfiction article writing made pliable by a Hollywood master filmmaker.
The Insider (1999):Whistleblowing is often a very rich topic for magazine writers, playing as it does into investigative journalism. Based on Marie Brenner's article in Vanity Fair, titled "The Man Who Knew Too Much," this true story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe in the film) taking his tobacco whistleblowing to 60 Minutes (particularly Al Pacino's Lowell Bergman and Christopher Plummer's Mike Wallace) gave director Michael Mann material to make his own Lumet-esque topical drama. Fantastic performances in this one, and a riveting story for something without much action to speak of.
Shattered Glass (2003): Almost inevitably, the story of journalistic fabulist Stephen Glass and his fraudulent march across the pages of The New Republic could only be told on film via the tesseract of a magazine article itself. Based on Buzz Bissinger's Vanity Fair of the same name, Billy Ray's film is addictive in his portrait of young, hungry journalists and the cult of personality that envelops them as easily as it does is Hollywood.
Bernie (2012): Richard Linklater's adaptation of a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth is anything but a somber account. With Jack Black in the lead as a friendly mortician accused of gold-digging and murder, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas" was molded into an insidiously funny portrait of small-town gossip and moral relativism. Come for Black and Shirley MacLaine's caustic romance; most definitely stay for all those townies.
The Bling Ring (2013): Nancy Jo Sales's Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" served as the basis for Sofia Coppola's leisurely, materialistic peek at L.A. youth culture. Riffing on the lives of vapid teens while sticking to the signposts of a crime spree that ultimately isn't all that interesting, Coppola is able to dig into characters despite there not being much character there. It's a wrangling of pure filmmaking out of a truth-based story, and it's a real triumph of adaptation.