As more publications pursue blockbuster stories with film and television potential, producers in Hollywood and the magazine industry are taking their inspiration from successful article-to-film adaptations of the past that have achieved box office success.
Here are 25 gold-standard film adaptations of magazine articles, published over the course of half a century as cover stories, features, or breaking news, as well as direct links to read all 25 stories online.
Legacy magazines with well-known print editions dominate this list, as do the nonfiction writers that legacy magazines accept and champion. Many of these writers’ names will be familiar to readers, as will the majority of the magazines and films themselves, in many cases because celebrated journalists inspired these major motion pictures at the peak of their careers as writers and reporters. Name recognition in one industry reinforces name recognition in another, and — despite the incredible diversity of feature-length nonfiction being published today by new voices most mainstream audiences have yet to discover — institutional support still tends to elevate known veterans.
While the talents of all of the writers on this list are undeniable, there are also well-documented structural biases that account for why so many of the writers represented here are overwhelmingly male, white, or Susan Orlean. These stories belong on any narrative nonfiction syllabus on their own merit, but I hope these samples are still just the beginning, and that new filmmakers and magazine writers can start to work together far more often on a greater breadth of material, with sufficient editorial guidance and studio backing to support them.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I’ve limited this roundup to favor adaptations (loosely defined) based primarily on magazine-style features, including only a couple of films based on award-winning newspaper investigations. The list of new film and television adaptations based on popular books or podcasts, let alone reporting that has helped support the explosion in streaming documentary formats, would run even longer.
It takes time, access, imagination, and resources to be able to realize ambitious true stories like these in their original form as narrative magazine features. It would be a welcome change to see greater diversity in the production pipeline in the coming years: in the subjects of narrative stories, in the publications considered for exclusive source material, in the creative teams that are given studio support, in the agencies brokering deals, in the awards and recognition that elevate new work, and in the storytellers who are given the resources to write long.
Writers are the lifeblood of all of these industries, and will always play a pivotal role in any production that is based on a true story.
* * *
Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”
While evolutionary theory and The Bachelor would suggest that a room full of women hoping to attract the attention of a few men would be cutthroat-competitive, it’s actually better for strippers to work together, because while most men might be able keep their wits, and their wallets, around one scantily clad, sweet-smelling sylph, they tend to lose their grip around three or four. Which is why at Hustler, as elsewhere, the dancers worked in groups.
Beautiful Boy (2018)
Nick now claims that he was searching for methamphetamine for his entire life, and when he tried it for the first time, as he says, “That was that.” It would have been no easier to see him strung out on heroin or cocaine, but as every parent of a methamphetamine addict comes to learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. In an interview, Stephan Jenkins, the singer in the band Third Eye Blind, said that methamphetamine makes you feel “bright and shiny.” It also makes you paranoid, incoherent and both destructive and pathetically and relentlessly self-destructive. Then you will do unconscionable things in order to feel bright and shiny again. Nick had always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognizable.
Last week, the New York Times Magazine featured the high school basketball team the Arlee Warriors on its cover. Hailing from the city of Arlee, home to about 600 people on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, the Warriors are among the greatest Native American high school squads ever assembled, a group that blends high-octane offense predicated on three-point field goals with a frantic and suffocating pressurized defense.
The feature, written by Abe Streep, doesn’t just showcase the Warriors and its players — including Phillip Malatare, a six-foot guard who’ll be a preferred walk-on at the University of Montana next fall — it also profiles the town, the reservation (a sovereign nation comprising the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes), and a wave of recent suicides in the community. It was these suicides that prompted the Warriors’ transformation: The team wasn’t just a winner of back-to-back state titles, but rather a beacon to those that viewed suicide as a solitary option. Read more…
Above is a brief tribute to journalist Michael Brick, who died in February at the age of 41. The video features Tampa Bay Times writer Ben Montgomery reading from Brick’s 2006 New York Times story, “Dusk of the Drummer” — and it’s one of many pieces featured in a new collection, Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories, published by The Sager Group. Proceeds from the book will go to Brick’s wife and children.
In a brief note, Montgomery tells us:
When journalist Michael Brick died from colorectal cancer in February at the age of 41, he left behind a wife, three kids and a body of work that rivals the best of the best. His friends collected his stories in a remarkable anthology, along with original essays from greats like Tom Junod, Gary Smith, Charles Pierce, Amy Wallace, Michael Paterniti, Dan Barry, Chris Jones, Kurt Eichenwald and Wright Thompson. Sales benefit Brick’s family, and the book solidifies his place in American letters.
“Talk to any young sportswriter today and odds are that their introduction to both Sports Illustrated’s long-form journalism and renowned writer Gary Smith are one in the same: ‘Higher Education.’ Smith’s March 2001 masterpiece tells the tale of Perry Reese Jr., a black Catholic basketball coach at Hiland High in the predominantly Mennonite town of Berlin, Ohio. A man whose force-of-nature personality on and off the court transformed a town ‘whose beliefs had barely budged in 200 years’ and forced his players and neighbors to rethink their long-held tenets on race, religion and life.”
Gary Smith | Sports Illustrated | March 2001 | 35 minutes (8,619 words)
We need your help to get to 5,000 Longreads Members.
Ashley Stimpson | Longreads | October 2020 | 26 minutes (7,001 words)
It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.
Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.
Laurie Penny | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,360 words)
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
— Winston Churchill, unpublished memorandum
“Will Mockney for food.”
— Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. III
This is a story about a border war. Specifically, a border war between two nations that happen, at least in theory, to be precisely the same place. One of them is Britain, a small, soggy island whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising, where the government has mangled its response to a global pandemic so badly that it’s making some of us nostalgic for the days when all we did was panic about Brexit. The other is “Britain!” — a magical land of round tables and boy wizards and enchanted swords and moral decency, where the sun never sets on an Empire run by gentlemen, where witty people wear frocks and top hats and decide the fate of nations over tea and biscuits.
One is a real place. The other is a fascinatingly dishonest, selective statement of fact, rather like describing how beautiful the countryside was in the antebellum American South. A truth so incomplete it’s worse than a lie.
Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die. The U.K. is unique among modern states in that we not only buy our own hype, we also sell it overseas at a markup. “Britain always felt like the land where all the stories came from,” an American writer friend told me when I asked why she so often sets her novels in Britain. Over and over, writers and readers of every background — but particularly Americans — tell me that the U.K. has a unique hold on their imaginations.
Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die.
That hold is highly profitable. Britain was kept out of recession last year by one industry: entertainment. Over the past four years, the motion picture, television, and music industries have grown by almost 50 percent — the service sector, only by 6. So many shows are currently filmed in England that productions struggle to book studio space, and even the new soundstages announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2018 will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand. As historian Dan Snow pointed out, “[O]ur future prosperity is dependent on turning ourselves into a giant theme park of Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards.”
There is hope: the statues are coming down all over Britain, starting in Bristol on June 7, 2020. Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a monument to slave trader Edward Colston, who is remembered for how he lavished his wealth on the port city and not for the murder of 19,000 men, women and children during the Middle Passage. In Oxford, students demanded the removal of monuments to Cecil Rhodes, the business magnate and “architect of apartheid” who stole vast tracts of Africa driven by his conviction in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons. In Parliament Square, fences have been erected to protect Winston Churchill himself, the colonial administrator and war leader whose devoted acolytes include both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Young Britons are demanding a reckoning with a history of colonial conquest, slave-trading, industrial savagery, and utter refusal to examine its own legacy.
Meanwhile, the economic disaster of a no-deal Brexit is still looming and Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, putting further pressure on an already-struggling National Health Service. Under Boris Johnson’s catastrophic leadership, or lack thereof, there are no signs of changing tactics on either. Fantasy Britain is having a boomtime. Real Britain is in deep, deep trouble. Read more…
Ever since Black and Latino Americans created hip-hop at south Bronx block parties during the 1970s, this highly original, uniquely American music has continued to evolve, while simultaneously taking root in countless countries throughout the world.
As cultural critic Harry Allen once said: “hip hop is the new jazz.” But like jazz, hip-hop is more than music. It’s a culture. “’Hip-hop,’ once a noun,“ Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New Yorker, “has become an adjective, constantly invoked, if rarely defined; people talk about hip-hop fashion and hip-hop novels, hip-hop movies and hip-hop basketball. Like rock and roll in the nineteen-sixties, hip-hop is both a movement and a marketing ploy, and the word is used to describe almost anything that’s supposed to appeal to young people.“ Beyond marketing and corporatization, hip-hop culture has always included dance, rap, fashion, design, stretching language, reclaiming public spaces, and its creative, genre-spanning approach has allowed artists to represent their lives in a world that often ignores or misrepresents them. In the San Francisco Gate in 2003, Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k To Sleep described hip-hop culture as “assembled from spare parts, ingeniously and in public. Paint cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles transformed subway trains into mobile art galleries. Playgrounds and parks became nightclubs; turntables and records became instruments. Scraps of linoleum and cardboard became dance floors. Verbal and manual dexterity turned kids into stars, and today’s artists grew up listening to the first strains of the musical form.” As Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, put it, hip-hop culture is “naturally interdisciplinary” and composed of “mix signifiers, we break everything down to bits and bytes and rebuild something new.” I love the description.
“I think one of the reasons these stories are so popular — and they’ve been very popular since long before whatever true crime boom we’re currently in,” Rachel Monroe notes while discussing her book Savage Appetites, on our cultural fascination with crime, is that “they’re very emotionally engaging.”
“Whenever we’re telling these stories,” Monroe continues, “we’re participating in that emotional, social, political conversation, whether we want to admit it or not.”
For all that we can stream entire seasons of docudramas in a single day, true crime stories often take years to report out and get right. Whether the person facing the facts of any given case is a staff writer or a law enforcement official, even full-time, invested professionals can lack the bandwidth or the resources to investigate every life story that crosses their desks, with the undivided attention each of those lives deserves.
Mark Obbie | Longreads | March 2020 | 45 minutes (12,427 words)
The three young men sauntering down a city sidewalk showed no signs of alarm as a thin man in a dark hoodie hopped out of the passenger side of a gold Honda minivan. They did not flinch as the man rushed toward them on foot while the van, its windows heavily tinted, continued on past.
This neighborhood on the northeast side of Rochester, New York, has ranked among one of the poorest and most violent in the United States. But it was the trio’s home. A year earlier, one of them, Lawrence Richardson, had been jumped and knifed nearby after exchanging insults with a group of guys he didn’t know. He hadn’t looked for that trouble, and the same was true today. Richardson and Cliff Gardner, his coworker at KFC, had spent the afternoon preparing to look for better jobs. On the city’s southwest side, they stopped at the Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit where Richardson had worked for a year on anti-violence and community-improvement projects, and where he still volunteered now and then. After encouraging Cliff to create a résumé, Richardson suggested they catch a bus to the northeast side, where Richardson had grown up. He wanted to introduce Cliff to Kenny Mitchell, his best friend and fellow Teen Empowerment youth organizer.
The three hung out at Mitchell’s second-story apartment, then walked to a corner store for some snacks. They were just returning to Kenny’s when they encountered the van and its passenger.
Moments later, three calls hit 911 operators in quick succession. Callers described a chaotic scene with two bodies crumpled on the ground while a third, trailing blood up the stairs to Mitchell’s apartment, lay at the feet of his panicked father.