Who else besides Taika Waititi is capable of turning a sports documentary into what is sure to be a heart-breaking comedy? The remake of the 2014 nonfiction film Next Goal Wins is just one of many Waititi projects in development, but due to its subject matter and the adaptation process, it stands out among the other works in the filmmaker’s hands.
That this story caught Waititi’s attention is notable considering the other high-profile and high-budget projects on his plate (including another Thor movie for Marvel Studios and a part of the Star Wars universe). More notable is the fact that it will be an adaptation of an already-existing movie given that remakes of documentaries are rarely successful.
Next Goal Wins tells the story of the American Samoa national soccer team in their journey to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. After a devastating 31 – 0 loss to Australia in 2001, the team was viewed as one of the worst in the sport. The documentary follows the addition of American-based, Dutch-born coach, Thomas Rongen, the development of the team as they adjust to their new leader, and the rise of a decades-long underdog.
The real underdog in this situation, though, is the film itself. Successfully adapting a documentary into a narrative film requires navigating several factors: the actual events and story, creative license, and the initial film’s interpretation. Unlike movies “inspired by a true story,” documentary adaptations must walk the fine line of remaining accurate to real events while dramatizing to tell a compelling story.
Finding this balance is difficult. For every announcement of a documentary adaptation or remake, only a seldom few see their way through to production. Even the most popular and successful documentaries stall out in the process of developing a narrative rehash. And those that do reach distribution often grapple with the legacy of their source material’s success, rarely reaching equal critical feedback.
Robert Zemeckis’ two documentary-inspired films are a case study into the perils of documentary adaptations. Welcome to Marwen (2018) and The Walk (2015), based in part on the very popular highly acclaimed documentaries Marwencol (2010) and Man on Wire (2008), respectively, had wildly different narrative results.
Welcome to Marwen turns a tender documentary about grappling with trauma through art into an eerie spectacle of motion capture and reiterated emotions. The Walk, meanwhile, takes the images and information already widely known about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers and uses digital technology to reimagine that walk from his perspective. Where The Walk works with the images and emotions of its inspiration, Welcome to Marwen tries (and fails) to reinvent them.
Often the documentaries chosen for a remake are popular and critically-acclaimed, setting the narrative film up to fail in comparison to its predecessor. And that’s beside the point of them having a level of redundancy. When adaptations are done well and perform well, they are the exception, not the rule.
Already the choice to remake Next Goal Wins is promising since it is not an incredibly well-known story and the documentary isn’t as famous as, say, the Oscar-winning Man on Wire. It has a 100-percent score on Rotten Tomatoes but with only 30 reviews as opposed to Man on Wire‘s 100-percent score with 158 reviews.
Ideally, a documentary-inspired narrative should deepen or complicate our understanding of the subject; there should be a conversation between the two films. Seeing one film should make you want to watch and interrogate the other.
In the case of Next Goal Wins, filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison had to work to gain the trust of their subjects before embarking on their film. The duo had to prove they intended to celebrate the team for continuing to play, not sensationalizing the 2001 loss, and their results carry that sentiment. For the narrative remake to be successful, it needs to show similar respect to the real people behind the story and take a new approach or perspective that was unexplored in the original.
While we do not know exactly how Waititi will bring something fresh to the retelling of this story, recent casting news (including the possible addition of Michael Fassbender as Rongen) indicates that their process is paying respect to the real individuals who are the subjects of both films. Casting calls have gone out for Fa’afafine actors (a recognized gender identity in Samoan culture) to play defender Jaiyah Saelua, and original documentary filmmakers Brett and Jamison are among the producers for the remake.
Knowing Waititi’s filmography, we can reasonably predict he will bring out the humor in this dramedy to make it stand apart from the original. But will humor and Waititi’s growing platform be enough to overcome the innate obstacles of remaking a documentary into a narrative?
Next Goal Wins is more than just a film about a soccer team. It is about personal identity, cultural identity, and national pride. This underdog story deserves to reach a wider audience, as long as the remake brings something new to the table. Considering Waititi’s recent high-profile work, his platform might just be the one capable of retelling this story, doing so respectfully and successfully.