When Fiction Films Ruin Nonfiction Books

By  · Published on November 18th, 2016

Why did the authors let these light and loose adaptations happen?

There are varying levels of nonfiction in the movies. Documentaries are on one end of the spectrum, of course, and then there are dramatized works based on or inspired by true stories. Biopics and other films depicting real events are often loosely adapted for the screen, but then on the other side of the spectrum there are movies merely based on the idea of works of nonfiction literature, the result being something that has little to no basis in actuality. Depending on how serious and/or important the source material, the movie could be damaging to the significance of the book, ruining its appeal and therefore its impact. Here are eight such movies:

The Big Year (2011)

David Frankel was for a while there becoming known as the guy who makes relatively lighthearted movies out of nonfiction books. Before this he did The Devil Wear’s Prada, which in book form was already a fictionalized take on true events, and Marley & Me, which is pretty faithful to its source material. The Big Year is based on “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,” a journalistic look at competitive birders. It doesn’t make fun of its subject matter much, but by taking a comedic approach to a serious hobby and occasion it’s still almost akin to a Christopher Guest mockumentary in how it reduces niche interests to something for laughs.

Black Like Me (1964)

In retrospect, John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book of the same name is itself problematic. African Americans shouldn’t need a white person to go undercover as a black person to validate their racially based hardships. But it was a serious work in its time, and even the adaptation was accepted as substantial for its intentions when released. Unfortunately, in dramatizing this particular story, Black Like Me uncomfortably required a white actor in black face, and as with anything dramatized, the weight of the story was reduced and the deep engagement one has with the text is lost.

Bureau of Missing Persons (1933)

One of the more acceptable instances of a nonfiction book being turned into a fictional comedy movie, it’s still worth including this early Bette Davis starrer for being one of the first adaptations to do it. The source is “Missing Men: The Story of the Missing Persons Bureau of the New York Police Department,” a serious look at the missing persons division of the NYPD written by former NYC police captain John H. Ayers with Carol Bird. The movie respects the reality of such cases for the most part but it does also amplify a number of situations for slapstick gags.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Could this movie actually have harmed the cause of climate change awareness? Roland Emmerich, who was best known for another, very much made-up disaster movie, Independence Day, seemed to just be playing doomsday again here with the concept of global warming. But it’s based on Art Bell and Whitley Streiber’s 1999 book “The Coming Global Superstorm,” a legitimate warning. The main problem with The Day After Tomorrow is that it also means for its cause to be taken seriously yet exaggerates too much of the science, becoming a total fantasy and making the issue seem the same.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Decades before Emmerich made his own alien invasion movie, this sci-fi classic landed in theaters with a story inspired by accounts in the 1953 book “Flying Saucers From Outer Space.” Written by Maj. Donald Keyhoe, the source material is one of the author’s many serious efforts involving UFO sightings and the US military’s investigations into such claims, as well as possible alien encounters. Keyhoe was actually a big part of Ufology’s rise as a subject, but of course he in turn also became directly instrumental in movies like this being made, lessening the credit of the serious study.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

The story goes that Woody Allen saw Dr. David Reuben, author of the famous 1969 sex manual of the same name, on The Tonight Show, where he plagiarized a joke of Allen’s from the movie Take the Money and Run. As a supposed act of revenge, this sketch-based movie was made as a sort of lampoon of the bestselling book. Reuben in turn hated it, but not for its existence so much as for its being comedically focused on sexual failures rather than the kind of helpful advice he’d written.

Fast Food Nation (2006)

Maybe there were already too many documentaries made or in the works about the food industry at the time? For some reason Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” was turned into a completely fictionalized ensemble piece by Richard Linklater, and although its many subplots relate to real stories in the original publication, they’re ineffective in their fabrication. The book was very valuable for what it exposes and for its influence (it made me stop eating at McDonald’s and other places) and the movie presents it all too lightly.

Love & Other Drugs (2010)

Jamie Reidy’s 2005 book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” doesn’t quite throw the hardest ball at the pharmaceutical industry and its issues. It’s more of a tell-all memoir that reveals certain realities of the business Reidy worked in rather than an expose with a lot of impact. But the movie version, retitled and fictionalized, is about a made-up sappy romance more than it is an informative look at the world of Big Pharma. Anyone who might have expected to at least find interesting facts about the industry in the book is easily turned off from the idea by the focus on drama on screen.

Let’s Go to Prison (2006)

If you’re looking at hard time, Jim Hogshire’s 1994 book “You Are Going to Prison” is intended to guide you through the legal system and a life behind bars with seriously helpful tips. What won’t help you in any way is the comedy Let’s Go to Prison, which is very loosely based on that book. With some advice adapted into the plot, the movie’s ridiculous narrative follows an ex-con who takes revenge on a judge by getting the man’s son incarcerated and then reenters prison himself just to torment him. The more recent comedy Get Hard, about a man being instructed on how to survive behind bars actually seems more like a movie version of “You Are Going to Prison,” albeit still very exaggerated.

Mean Girls (2004)

Most of the movies featured on this list are bad movies, and that’s partly why they ruined their respective books. Mean Girls is actually a very smart and funny teen satire, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s based on a nonfiction book that should be taken more seriously. Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence” is a self-help book published in 2002 that is related to the now more-pressing issue of bullying. Fortunately, it’s also one of the books here to have a different name, so the association with the fiction version isn’t as apparent to a lot of readers.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012)

Fictional movies have been made out of instructional guides for years. There’s the 1935 comedy Life Begins at 40, the 1964 comedy Sex and the Single Girl, and the 1967 comedy A Guide for the Married Man, all based on the bestselling self-help books of the same names, and later popular dating manuals inspired the romantic comedies How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, He’s Just Not That Into You, and Think Like a Man. Those are all innocent because their source material is already rather light, and the books honor their tone while offering totally made-up stories. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, however, is more offensive for taking a longtime-trusted pregnancy bible and churning out the same sort of nonsense Hollywood usually offers on the subject of having a baby. The good thing for authors Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel is there’s still not much better than the book and its sequels, but the name is still fairly tarnished by this ensemble comedy.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.