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.
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.
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.”