An unlikely pair A photo in the Guardian of Martin Sixsmith and Philomena Lee on a park bench inspired Steve Coogan to adapt their story into a film. (Graham Turner / Guardian News & Media Ltd.)
Martin Sixsmith spent four years helping an Irishwoman track down the son she had been forced to give up for adoption, turning the story of her quest into a book: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Sixsmith, a former BBC reporter, largely kept himself out the narrative, but understood that he had “quite a grabby story.”
Then actor Steve Coogan read a companion article in the Guardian. He bought the rights to the book—sight unseen—and quickly went into production, making Sixsmith into a leading character, played by Coogan himself.
“I think all authors are delighted that somebody is interested enough in their work to want to make it into a film,” Sixsmith says. Being a character was a nice bonus.
Sixsmith is probably the only journalist to see himself played on the big screen this year, but he is not alone among reporters striking Hollywood gold lately. This year, films based on journalistic works are laced through the industry’s awards season: Coogan’s film, Philomena; Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on a Washington Post story about the butler who served eight presidents, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, about an aids-medication smuggling ring reported on by the Dallas Morning News.
More are on the way. Vanity Fair’s 1997 article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” about the security guard who foiled an Olympic bomb plot, will soon become a movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Robert Redford is also set to star in a film based on “The Old Man and the Gun,” a 2003 New Yorker piece about an elderly bank robber. And a film is being developed based on a 2012 Wired piece on John McAfee, the software entrepreneur who fled Belize in 2012 during a murder investigation.
The process by which journalism is being converted into Hollywood screenplays is being refined with each passing movie. At least two new outfits have gone into the business of mining magazine journalism material for silver screen treatment. Condé Nast founded Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) three years ago to convert the wealth of magazine articles at its disposal into films and television shows. Half a dozen employees sift through back issues in search of articles and package them for the entertainment market. And last year, two Wired writers, Joshua Davis and Joshuah Bearman, founded Epic, an online magazine initially conceived as another Byliner or Atavist, that diversified into the articles-to-movies business. It commissions what its website calls “extraordinary true stories”—narratives that lend themselves to television and film—and then tries to sell the rights, using all revenue to help fund future reporting.
“We now have 12 stories signed or so,” Bearman says. “These are stories we want to make into great nonfiction, and then make into something else.”
While the prominence and pace of the current cadre of reportorial adaptations is unusual, journalism has long provided grist for the Hollywood mill. On the Waterfront (1954), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) all started out as articles in the New York Sun, Life and New York Magazine respectively, while Golden Age screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote The Front Page) were once reporters for Chicago Daily News. The journalism/Hollywood axis crystallized two decades ago when Vanity Fair threw its first Oscar Party (1994) and launched its now fabled Hollywood Issue (1995). “The same elements that make a magazine article great—access, narrative thrust, and disclosure—are the same ingredients for a certain type of movie,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter says.
It was Bearman who played a big role in starting the current boomlet. His 2007 Wired article about a daring CIA mission to rescue six American diplomats caught up in the Iran Hostage Crisis became Ben Affleck’s Argo and went on to win last year’s Oscar for Best Picture. It’s success cleared the way for a host of films based on articles.