From Memoirs to Movies

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012) author Cheryl Strayed’s first-person memoir of her 1,100 mile-hike from the Mojave Desert through California, Oregon, and the border of Washington State— has been adapted into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and it’s all anybody can talk about.

Out in theaters today, the movie is projected to be a smashing success that matches that of the book, which reached No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list and was the first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

This made us wonder: What does it take for a memoir to become a movie? Does the book have to be a bestseller before movie executives even consider the purchase of rights for the film?

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Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2006) chronicles Elizabeth Gilbert’s trip around the world after her divorce and what she discovered during her travels. The book remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for a whopping 187 weeks, spurring Columbia Pictures to purchase movie rights for a film starring Julia Roberts.

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Journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997) describes what the author’s life is like after a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. The book received phenomenal reviews, sold the first 25,000 copies on the first day of publication, and continued on to become a number one bestseller across Europe. The success prompted a film of the same name featuring Mathieu Amalric as Bauby.

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Clearly, how well the memoirs performed in sales played a big part in their transformation into films, but money isn’t the only factor—Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. The critical acclaim was enough to push for a film to be made, following the anecdotes and stories of the author’s impoverished childhood and adulthood in Brooklyn, New York, and in Limerick, Ireland.

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However, An Education (2009)—journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir of her teenage lover affair with a suave, older man—was not a bestseller, nor did it win any notable awards. Screenplay writer Nick Hornby simply stated that Barber’s story appealed to him because Lynn was “a suburban girl who was frightened that she was not going to get a cut out of everything good that happens in the city,” essentially likening her story to that of “pretty much every rock ‘n’ roll band.” The film version of the same name went on to be nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Carey Mulligan.

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Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Placeabout how Ralston was trapped by a boulder in an isolated slot canyon in Blue John Canyon— was also made into a film (starring James Franco) for similar reasons. Director Danny Boyle, fresh from his previous film, Slumdog Millionaire, “wanted to do a film where [he] could follow an actor the way Darren Aronofsky did with The Wrestler, and 127 was [his] version of that.” Boyle wanted a powerful and intimate film, and Ralston’s one-man story resonated with him above all others.

In both cases with An Education and Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the memoirs were chosen not because of their ability to fly off bookshelves, but for reasons far deeper. They are unbearably honest and display the unbreakable strength of the human spirit, proving that it’s not always about the money or accolades—sometimes, a book’s message just has to strike the right emotional chord.   

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