Are There Any Great Movies Based on Memoirs?

Slate's Culture Blog
March 2 2012 3:48 PM

Will There Be a Memoir Movie Boom?

beingflynn
A still of Robert De Niro in Being Flynn.

In today’s New York Times, A.O. Scott says it is hard to watch the new movie Being Flynn, which stars Robert De Niro as a sometime taxi driver suffering from mental illness, and not think, for obvious reasons, of Travis Bickle, the character De Niro played in Taxi Driver.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

But the De Niro role I was reminded of is a less iconic one: Dwight Hansen, in This Boy’s Life. Like that movie, Being Flynn is based on a memoir, Nick Flynn’s wonderfully titled and beautifully written Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. And once again, De Niro plays a troubled father (or, in This Boy's Life, stepfather) to a young man who goes on to become a writer.

Advertisement

This Boy’s Life was based on Tobias Wolff’s 1989 book of the same name, which has been credited with prompting the so-called “memoir boom”: the deluge of personal stories that might once have been turned into fiction (and, in some cases, of course, were turned into fiction, in all but name). The personal memoir (as distinguished from the autobiography of a public figure) may be the dominant literary genre of the past 20 years—but you wouldn’t know that from going to the movies: Relatively few of the dozens of notable memoirs that have appeared since Wolff’s have been adapted for the big screen. Angela’s Ashes and Girl, Interrupted became movies in 1999; Prozac Nation followed in 2001; others include Running with Scissors (2006) and Eat Pray Love (2010).

Not only are there fewer such adaptations than one might expect, but those that do exist are not terribly successful. Is there something about the memoir genre that resists cinematic adaptation? A resourceful filmmaker can adapt almost anything, of course, but I walked out of Being Flynn wondering if memoirs simply lose too much in the conversion from first-person prose to a medium in which geniunely first-person narration is very difficult to sustain.

Perhaps the best movie based on a post-This Boy’s Life memoir is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which succeeded in large part because of how creatively its director, Julian Schnabel, attempted the cinematic first-person. The protagonist—the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from something called “locked-in syndrome”—was practically trapped in his own mind, and Schnabel depicted Bauby’s thoughts and fantasies and memories as much as he showed Bauby’s external surroundings.

Have any adaptations from the “memoir boom” era been better than The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? Let me know your nominations for the best memoir movies in the comments.

Further reading: In 2007, Slate considered the “state of the modern memoir.”

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.