Bringing non-fiction books from page to screen

From scripted historical miniseries such as Killing Kennedy (pictured) to doc adaptations of memoirs, literature is making its way to screens in myriad forms. Here, Realscreen looks at what turns a page-turner into a hit series or doc.
February 21, 2014

Literature is making its way onto the screen via non-fiction nets and doc-makers in myriad ways, from scripted historical miniseries such as Killing Kennedy (pictured) to documentary adaptations of memoirs. Realscreen looks at what turns a page-turner into a hit series or doc.

Film adaptations of non-fiction literature are a staple of award-season cinema. From All The President’s Men to 12 Years A Slave, fact-based stories have left indelible impressions on the silver screen.

As cable networks look toward commissioning scripted miniseries, there are more obvious outlets for authors and their agents to pitch execs with similarly epic ideas based on works of literary non-fiction. However, documentary adaptations from a literary property are less common.

“What I’ve found is that [books] can form my broad creative thinking, but they rarely translate to a specific series or show,” says Julian P. Hobbs, vice president of scripted and non-fiction development and programming for History.

The main difference, he suggests, is that television is a collaborative process compared with the solitary act of writing. “Cable, especially in factual, has really evolved its language in how to tell stories, which is less reliant upon the written word form of narrative storytelling,” he continues. “They may share common ideas and information, but rarely do they share common storytelling techniques.”

As Hobbs notes, books and articles are secondary sources that producers draw upon to author an original series. That does not mean, however, that he is uninterested in pitches from authors and book agents. The network recently began development on a miniseries based on Benjamin Woolley’s book Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America.

The book offered a new perspective that appealed to programmers on the day-to-day life in the first permanent English colony in the Americas.

Another recent doc adaptation that brought a fresh angle to a familiar subject was filmmaker Ric Burns’ PBS ‘American Experience’ adaptation of Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which focused on how the war gave rise to new funeral traditions and forms of spirituality in the United States.

“It would be interesting if there emerges a form of writing that is closer to how one tells stories in television. Then you might see more of those are acquired,” suggests Hobbs, adding that History Films acquired the rights to an essay about the Chauvet caves for Werner Herzog’s doc feature Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

“It was written like a film,” he says. “The essay may be more the place that one would look for a direct influence on documentaries rather than long-form books.”

A recent book that takes a filmic post-modern approach to non-fiction is Life Itself, a memoir by the late film critic Roger Ebert that documentarian Steve James has adapted into a feature doc premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Hoop Dreams director became involved in the project after screenwriter and executive producer Steven Zaillian brought it to his attention. After reading the book, he was impressed by what he calls the critic’s “adventuresome life” that encompassed a battle with alcoholism, a Pulitzer Prize, a collaboration with sexploitation director Russ Meyers, the hit TV show Siskel & Ebert and an 11-year battle with thyroid cancer.

director steve james

Director Steve James

“If I hadn’t liked the memoir I don’t know that I would’ve done the film,” says James. “It’s a beautifully written book.”

Although the first part of the memoir is largely linear, focusing on Ebert’s childhood, education and move to Chicago where he became a general news reporter and later a film critic, it is not exclusively so. The chronology frequently jumps back and forth between the present and the past.

Taking inspiration from Ebert’s quote, “I was born inside the movie of my life,” James’s film also moves back and forth in time.

“I really was struck by the way in which he weaved in and out,” he says. “That was something I took as an inspiration, which led me to want to document – in a more verité fashion – his life in the present as a springboard to the past, much like he did in the book.”

However, last April – four months into production – Ebert unexpectedly passed away at age 70, two days after revealing that his cancer recurred.

Ebert gave James complete editorial freedom to author his own take on Life Itself, and before he died, encouraged interviewees to be as candid as they wanted.

Using the book as a guide, James interviewed more than two dozen people, including Ebert’s long-time friend Bill Mack, his wife Chaz, filmmakers Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese (the latter of whom also serves as an EP) and the wife of late film critic Gene Siskel, Marlene, who has rarely spoken publicly before.

“He really is, in essence, the narrator of this film and it’s drawn not exclusively but overwhelmingly from the memoir,” explains James. “I also wanted to make it unmistakably my view of Roger and his life.”

Another book-to-doc adaption set to be discussed at Sundance is The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop, which airs as a four-part miniseries on VH1 this month, premiering on February 24.

Based on advertising executive Steve Stoute’s 2012 cultural critique The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created A Culture That Rewrote The Rules Of The New Economy and directed by Cocaine Cowboys filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman of Rakontur, the film explores the broad cultural influence of hip-hop on entertainment, politics and race relations in the United States.

Stoute amassed so much visual material during the research phase – from interviews with musicians and producers to behind-the-scenes footage and commercials and music videos – that he felt like a documentary treatment was a no-brainer.

“It actually felt like it was a better documentary than it was a book,” he says, adding the book was a bigger hit with business and advertising execs than the general public. “I didn’t write the book to be a New York Times bestseller and a summer read. I wanted it to be more of a cultural guideline on how culture affects business.”

With the documentary, Stoute is aiming to branch out and reach college age students and their parents with his proposition that a ‘tanning’ effect has rendered young demographics color-blind, making ethnically specific marketing campaigns irrelevant.

Book adaptations have aided National Geographic Channels president Howard T. Owens’ reinvention of the cable network.

NGC’s docudrama versions of Bill O’Reilly’s books Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever and Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (picture) scored big ratings for the network, with the latter averaging nearly 3.4 million viewers.

“In addition to being an evocative and provocative title, Killing Kennedy also had a built-in fan base and a writer and personality in Bill O’Reilly,” he says. “Those three things lined up perfectly for what we deemed to be a special recipe and it’s worked for us.”

In both Kennedy and Lincoln, NGC opted to frame the films as thrillers – an approach that was inspired by O’Reilly’s book in the case of the Tom Hanks-narrated Lincoln. Writer Erik Jendresen (Band of Brothers) used a line from the book – “John Wilkes Booth has less than 12 days to live” – to frame the story around the period leading up to Booth’s assassination of the president.

Kennedy was originally conceived as a documentary but the network decided to take a chance on developing it as a scripted docudrama. A doc adaptation also risked blending in with several other Kennedy TV projects timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination last November.

“There are probably 30 documentaries on the JFK assassination that didn’t require underlying IP because there’s so much information out there,” says Owens. “What makes it different? Who has access to a real-life character that hasn’t talked on camera before? The cost of entry is lower. You’re not taking the bet that you are with scripted and thus you’re not so in need of an iconic title.”

NGC is now prepping Killing Jesus, again from an O’Reilly book. “Everyone is doing historical non-fiction and there seems to be a rush into that,” he adds. “We’re looking for what hasn’t been done. What are boundaries that haven’t been explored? What are stories about people that have not been told that you want to hear about? That’s what we’re looking for now from agents.”

  • This article first appeared in the January/February 2014 edition of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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