With the upcoming UK release of Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts later this month, I thought it would be a good idea to look at a small selection of films which are based on memoirs and biographies and what directors do to present the lives of real people on the big screen.
Eat, Pray, Love is based upon the 2006 memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert and follows the author after her divorce and her disenchantment with life. The book chronicles the journey of self discovery through Italy, India and Bali where she learns about herself and looks for a ‘balance’ in life. The book garnered mostly positive reviews and remains in the Best Seller list today. Columbia Pictures secured the rights to the story and cast Julia Roberts, Javier Barden, James Franco, Richard Jenkins and Billy Crudup while Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame directed.
Interestingly enough with Eat, Pray, Love, it was been debated whether the piece is a romantic comedy or a chick flick but as Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe admitted, “… it’s simply a Julia Roberts movie, often a lovely one.” For myself, I feel they have embodied what they set out to do when adapting a memoir. For the narrative itself should tell the story; based from the main characters point of view and not let generic conventions decide where the story is going. What a film adaptation does have to keep in mind is that whoever they cast, the audience will view the actors within all their past roles and what information we have about the actors in reality as well as anything they already understand about the role they are playing. For example, Julia Roberts is best known for playing a prostitute turned good girl in Pretty Woman and an unemployed single mother who wants to take down the bad guys in Erin Brockovich. Both these roles were highly acclaimed and centre on self fulfilment and the ability to take control of your own life. I believe her role in Eat, Pray, Love is both a pastiche on her past characters, playing on this looking for balance as well as a role made for her… again taking control of her own fate.
Next is 2001’s Ron Howard Academy Award winning, A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris. The film is based on the life of John Forbes Nash Jr. who won a Nobel Laureate in Economics. The film was inspired by the Pulitzer Prize nominated 1998 unauthorised biography by Sylvia Nasar of the same name. The story looks at the schizophrenic Nash and his delusional episodes while trying to understand the pain his condition brought to his wife and friends.
What an audience must do with a piece such as A Beautiful Mind is take into consideration the liberties that both the original author and Hollywood may have taken with the character in question.
The narrative of the film differs considerably from the actual events of Nash’s life. The film has been criticized for this, but the filmmakers had consistently said that the film was not meant to be a literal representation. One difficulty was in portraying stress and mental illness within one person’s mind. Sylvia Nasar stated that the filmmakers “invented a narrative that, while far from a literal telling, is true to the spirit of Nash’s story”. The film made his hallucinations visual and auditory when, in fact, they were exclusively auditory. (Source)
This last point therefore has to take into consideration something which a book can do but a film cannot, to some people this is the advantage of the written word but to others, this shows a further dimension that a film can add to the experience. Within a book, it is easier for the author to put across complex emotional states which happen within, this is simply done through description and internal dialogue but on screen this portrayal is much more difficult. There must be a way to visually represent these emotions; they have to keep the audience interested and do to so, the filmmakers added a visual element to the hallucinations of Nash.
The final adaptation that I am going to be looking at is David Fincher’s 2007 Zodiac, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. The film tells the story of the hunt for the ‘Zodiac Killer’ during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and it remains one of the today’s great unsolved mysteries. What I find particularly interesting about this piece is that the film is based on Robert Graysmith’s non-fiction crime novel about the killings. Graysmith was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle during the time the killings were taking place and the newspaper received cryptic notes from the killer, taunting the police. He gradually became caught up in the search of the killer and the original book details the collection of evidence that he collected during the case.
The book, has taken on many guises since it’s release. Some believe it to be a work of non-fiction, detailing the case, others see this as a crime novel (a fabrication on the story), but Graysmith originally intended the work to be a sort of portfolio against the man he believed to be the killer, Arthur Leigh Allen. The film uses the material from the book and follows the story through the eyes of Graysmith (played by Gyllenhaal). It has been pointed out that despite the story of the Zodiac killer being represented in several films, Fincher’s is the closest to the original book, using more factual information such as names and locations than any other adaptation.
What I found so profoundly interesting about Zodiac is that the audience’s reading of the film is guided by both their reading of the original story and whether they see more fact than fiction, more truth than fabrication in both the writing of the book and the script of the film. What one does have to bear in mind, is that Hollywood holds the license to dramatise any given story in any way they desire.
What the director must do when looking at a memoir or a biography is try to figure out the hook, what they can do to keep the audience interested and wanting to learn more. Film and all related mediums can been seen as a way of escapism for the audience, just read some media theory (see ‘Uses and Gratifications’), and therefore a typical audience does not want to pay for their cinema ticket to just see their reality, their lives (sometimes boring and mundane) replicated on screen. This reaches further in something like reality television, the environments are so heavily controlled (just watch something like Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!) that there does not exist a pure claim to reality behind the fabrication.