We’re not sure why it seems so hard to adapt a memoir to the big screen. Though hundreds of movies made each year are adapted from novels and short stories, relatively few are built from memoir — despite the fact that the form has been at least as popular as novels in the last two decades, and may be more beloved by the general public. So why are there so few memoir-to-movie deals? And why are the ones that do exist often not very good?
After seeing the film adaptation of Nick Flynn’s great memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, slapped with the anesthetized title Being Flynn, Slate‘s David Haglund wonders “if memoirs simply lose too much in the conversion from first-person prose to a medium in which genuinely first-person narration is very difficult to sustain.” It’s true — film is a third-person medium, not perfectly suited to portraying interior life. Plus, while we might slog through a poorly written novel on account of a ripping story, for us at least, a successful memoir has to rely even more on great line-by-line writing — a really beautifully written one can get us to care about the writer’s most petty grievances — and that may be difficult to translate to film. While the reviews of Being Flynn are mixed so far, we got to thinking about the few really great films adapted from memoirs. Click through to see our picks, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorites — or why you think the form is so hard to adapt — in the comments.
Persepolis (based on Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi)
Unlike many autobiographical tales, Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic memoir about coming of age as a progressive girl in Iran managed to wholeheartedly maintain its brilliance on the big screen. While the graphic form undoubtedly made it easier on the filmmakers — they had gorgeous art direction built right in — the movie was true to the book, entertaining to the last, and evocative without being preachy. We recommend both formats highly.
This Boy’s Life (based on This Boy’s Life , Tobias Wolff)
Tobias Wolff is one of the best at conjuring up believable, lovable young men in crisis, and his 1989 memoir may be his best showing. Though we think the book far more subtle and skilled than the film (as we are wont to do), we still find the movie incredibly acted and satisfying, with a young Leonardo DiCaprio stealing the show. Also, we quite like this.
An Education (based on An Education , Lynn Barber)
Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay adaptation of this British memoir, has has described the book (and film) as being about “a suburban girl who’s frightened that she’s going to get cut out of everything good that happens in the city. That, to me, is a big story in popular culture. It’s the story of pretty much every rock ‘n’ roll band.” Maybe that’s why it was one of our favorite films of 2009. Or maybe that was all Carey Mulligan. Either way.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (based on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death , Jean-Dominique Bauby)
Jean-Dominique Bauby was at the top of his field as the editor-in-chief of French Elle and father to two boys when a rare condition made him lose all functionality save in his left eye. He wrote his best-selling memoir, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, by choosing letters blink by blink — and died two days after its French publication. All we can say is, the film does justice to his amazing story.
The Motorcycle Diaries (based on The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey , Che Guevara)
Ernesto Che Guevara’s exuberant pre-revolution travel diaries were expertly turned into a coming-of-age story by director Walter Salles, who characterized the film, outside of any political implications, as being about “a young man, Che, falling in love with a continent and finding his place in it.” The movie is just as romantically exhilarating and idealistic as it must have been to be 23 and wandering around South America with your best friend and your motorcycle.
October Sky (based on Rocket Boys , Homer Hickam)
This film, the adaptation of NASA engineer Homer H. Hickam, Jr.’s bestselling and widely beloved memoir of growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia in the ’50s and dreaming of the stars, is one of our all-time favorite nerd triumph tales. Both the story of a very personal journey (a young man pushing back against his terrifying father, not to mention figuring out girls and thermodynamics) and an important global one (an American way of life that’s beginning to die, and another that’s being born), both the memoir and the film are a little predictable, a little conservative, but warm and wholesome and wonderful.
127 Hours (based on Between a Rock and a Hard Place , Aron Ralston)
Even if you haven’t seen the film or read Ralston’s harrowing account, you know what happens — unless you’ve been living under a rock, that is (we couldn’t help ourselves). Though this story, being completely and totally insular — one man trapped alone for five days — seems like it would be almost impossible to adapt, the formidable Danny Boyle does right by Ralston’s story, filling the screen with stark sameness punctuated by tantalizingly lush memories, and James Franco is at his absolute best.
The Pianist (based on The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945 , Wladyslaw Szpilman)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of this incredible memoir about survival and the power of music, written immediately after WWII and suppressed until 1999, is among the best of his career. The film feels personal for Polanski, of Jewish and Polish descent himself, and you can see his emotional involvement in every detail. Not to mention that Adrien Brody is absolutely phenomenal. In 2003, the film won Oscars for Best Director (Roman Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood) and Best Actor (Adrien Brody), and no one was surprised.
My Week With Marilyn (based on The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me: Six Months on the Set With Marilyn and Olivier , Colin Clark)
Though some people have had mixed feelings about this movie, we think its moments of luminosity earn it a place on this list. The original memoir by Colin Clark, who worked as an assistant on Sir Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, is mostly a love letter to the fabulous Marilyn, breezy and somewhat light on story, and the film follows suit for better or worse. However, in our opinion, any amount of breeziness in the film is carried by Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh, who completely deliver.
A Mighty Heart (based on A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl , Mariane Pearl)
Mariane Pearl’s heartbreaking memoir tells the full story of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. The film tells the story powerfully, but the best thing about it is Angelina Jolie, whose performance, one of the best of her career, is an homage to the real-life strength and perseverance of Mariane Pearl.