Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. While cyberterrorism, shark attacks, bank robbery or illegal car racing seem to be the stuff of moviedom, made-up movies can’t hold a torch to many real life dramas. The world outside the theatre moves to its own rhythms and climaxes, so next time you fall in love with a movie for going against the grain or taking a bold step with the plot or characters, check whether you really have to thank some clever scriptwriter or the fates themselves.
Any writer knows ideas can come from the unlikeliest of mundane sources, and if there’s high drama, grisly death or a dash of sex appeal, all the better. High-powered producers and movie studios then step in to buy rights options (if you’ve done something amazing they’ll even ask you for ominous-sounding ‘life rights’). Few options ever reach screens, but audiences who are wowed by the ones that do often have no idea they really happened. As the following list shows, movies based on articles can take many forms – from the general concept to the fine details and individual characters, but each film on it had a prior life in print.
1. Argo (2012)
In the late 70s, CIA operative Tony Mendez orchestrated a fake Hollywood movie as a cover to sneak US embassy staff out of Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, you might not know that’s the premise for Ben Affleck’s critical and commercial smash Argo. Writer Josh Bearman came across snippets of the story from different sources and spent hours on the phone with the principal players including spook Tony Mendez (whom Affleck plays), and the 2007 Wired story The Great Escape was the result.
2. Die Hard 4.0 (2007)
An example of how an article can be retooled to suit a franchise. David Carlin’s May 1997 story A Farewell to Arms (again for Wired) was about the new paradigm of cyberhacking and its potential for international terrorism. It was the perfect backdrop for a new Die Hard film – what better hard-bitten cop was there to take on terrorists? The threats to transport, communications and financial systems from the article became the plans of villain Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), and everyone’s John McClane (Bruce Willis) cleaned house with smirk firmly intact. Did the writers see a theme about the old methods trumping the new, or did they just run out of ideas?
3. Top Gun (1986)
“It’s Star Wars on earth,” the late uber-producer Don Simpson told his partner Jerry Bruckheimer. They were sitting around their Paramount Pictures–based offices and Simpson was reading about a Miramar, San Diego-based Navy fighter pilot training school in California magazine, Top Guns, by Ehud Yonay. Keeping only the premise of the school and trading on the confidence and sex appeal of the pilots, Top Gun became one of the films that defined the brash, cocky 80s, Tom Cruise’s career went into the stratosphere and the US Navy said flight training applications went through the roof.
4. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
A young man walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn on August 22, 1972 and calmly told the manager he was robbing it. But before he and his partner could make their getaway, a chance call to the branch from another Chase office tipped off the cops. FBI, reporters and police descended, the standoff lasted throughout the night and a media sensation erupted. The sparse, clinical prose of P.F. Kluge’s account of the drama (Life Magazine’s The Boys In The Bank) describes the second robber as ‘a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or a Dustin Hoffman’. Prophetic or what?
5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Wikipedia page describing Hunter S Thompson’s masterwork of gonzo journalism says ‘The novel lacks a clear narrative and frequently delves into the surreal’. And how – when your opening line is ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold’, you need a director as crazy as you are. What few people realize is that Thompson’s book began as a two-part story in a 1971 Rolling Stone magazine, hazily recounting Thompson and a colleague’s trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race that quickly descended into madness.
6. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
A unique twist in the ‘based on’ canon. British rock writer Nik Cohn’s 1976 New York Magazine article Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night told the story of Vincent, a young Italian-American Brooklyner with a dead end job surrounded by racial and family issues who becomes the emperor of his world at the discotheque every Saturday night. The movie, with John Travolta as renamed hero Tony, was so successful it became the focal point of the entire disco movement. It wasn’t until 20 years later Cohn admitted he’d made the whole thing up, having only recently arrived in the US and knowing nothing about New York nightlife.
7. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
As well as buying the rights to 1955’s The Fast and the Furious simply to use the name, Universal Pictures bought a 1998 Vibe magazine story by Kenneth Li Rafael called Racer X. Snarling youths racing cars had been an American staple since Marlon Brando sneered ‘whaddaya got’ in The Wild One, but Rafael’s article was about a new subculture – young men staging illegal street racing meets with customized Japanese imports. The article ends by explaining how many racers take out speedometers – ‘when you know how fast you’re going you’ll slow down,’ says an interviewee. Now that’s a movie.
8. Blue Crush (2002)
Writers we’d now call hipster and folksy like E Annie Proulx and Susan Orlean were once beloved in Hollywood. In Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending take on Orlean’s article The Orchid Thief, no les than Meryl Streep herself played the intrepid reporter. But before seeing herself on screen, Orlean chronicled teenage girls living in small-town Hawaii in Life’s Swell as they lived, breathed and slept local surfing competitions. It didn’t take long for an enterprising producer to realize young women in bikinis in a feel good underdog story would sell itself, and Blue Crush gave the story a Hollywood sheen.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
In the early 1980s the LA Times ran several articles about men in South East Asia who’d died in the middle of nightmares, nobody apparently wondering if they were related. In one, a 21-year old Laos man had kept himself awake for almost a week by hiding a coffee machine in his closet, terrified to sleep. When he finally crashed (hard), screams and the sounds of struggle from his room disturbed his family, who found him dead. His cause of death was never ascertained and only one man saw a pattern in the articles and wondered what might be scaring people literally to death in their sleep – director Wes Craven.
10. Jaws (1976)
Years ago, Jersey Shore was home to a different kind of horror. 1916 saw a spate of shark attacks along the New York and New Jersey coasts that prompted a media frenzy, and as fishermen hunted the ‘Jersey man-eater’ and swimmers left the water in droves, reporters and photographers descended. It popularized the media image of the shark as an evil killer and inspired author Peter Benchley for his 1974 novel Jaws. It didn’t make it into Spielberg’s film, but police chief Brody tries to convince Amity Mayor Vaughan to close the beaches by saying ‘The Jersey beach! … 1916! Five people chewed up on the surf’.