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.
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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.
David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (5,128 words)
The sun was beginning to set over a mostly deserted expanse of beach in Malibu, casting long shadows behind a pair of visitors as they strolled a few feet from the water’s edge. They had the innocuous, no-particular-place-to-go demeanor of average beachgoers, except for the fact that their every step was being recorded by a local news cameraman. One was a guy who was intimately familiar with being filmed, photographed, analyzed, idolized, ridiculed, and praised: John Lennon. Read more…
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 48 minutes (8,041 words)
In 1973, East Coast rock promoter Howard Stein assembled a special New Year’s Eve concert at New York City’s Academy of Music. It was a four-band bill. Blue Öyster Cult headlined. Iggy and the Stooges played third, though the venue’s marquee only listed Iggy Pop, because Columbia Records had only signed Iggy, not the band. A New York glam band named Teenage Lust played second, and a new local band named KISS opened. This was KISS’s first show, having changed their name from Wicked Lester earlier that year. According to Paul Trynka’s Iggy Pop biography, Open Up and Bleed, Columbia Records recorded the Stooges’ show “with the idea of releasing it as a live album, but in January they’d decided it wasn’t worthy of release and that Iggy’s contract would not be renewed.” When I first read that sentence a few years ago, my heart skipped the proverbial beat and I scribbled on the page: Unreleased live show??? I was a devoted enough Stooges fan to know that if this is true, this shelved live album would be the only known full multitrack recording ever made of a vintage Stooges concert.
The Stooges existed from late 1967 to early 1974. They released three studio albums during their brief first life, wrote enough songs for a fourth, paved the way for metal and punk rock, influenced musicians from Davie Bowie to the Sex Pistols, popularized stage diving and crowd-surfing, and were so generally ahead of their time that they disbanded before the world finally came to appreciate their music. Their incendiary live shows were legendary. Iggy taunted listeners. He cut himself, danced, posed, got fondled and punched, and by dissolving the barrier between audience and performer, changed rock ‘n’ roll.
“I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles.”
— Frank Black
One night not so many weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who lives in West Hollywood. This used to be an easy drive: a geometry of short, straight lines from my home in the mid-Wilshire flats — west on Olympic to Crescent Heights, north past Santa Monica Boulevard. Yet like everywhere else these days, it seems, Los Angeles is no longer the place it used to be. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the city has densified: building up and not out, erecting more malls, more apartment buildings, more high-rises. At the same time, gridlock has become increasingly terminal, and so, even well after rush hour on a weekday evening, I found myself boxed-in and looking for a short-cut, which, in an automotive culture such as this one, means a whole new way of conceptualizing urban space.
There are those (myself among them) who would argue that the very act of living in L.A. requires an ongoing process of reconceptualization, of rethinking not just the place but also our relationship to it, our sense of what it means. As much as any cities, Los Angeles is a work-in-progress, a landscape of fragments where the boundaries we take for granted in other environments are not always clear. You can see this in the most unexpected locations, from Rick Caruso’s Grove to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Chris Burden’s sculpture “Urban Light” — a cluster of 202 working vintage lampposts — fundamentally changed the nature of Wilshire Boulevard when it was installed in 2008. Until then, the museum (like so much of L.A.) had resisted the street, the pedestrian, in the most literal way imaginable, presenting a series of walls to the sidewalk, with a cavernous entry recessed into the middle of a long block. Burden intended to create a catalyst, a provocation; “I’ve been driving by these buildings for 40 years, and it’s always bugged me how this institution turned its back on the city,” he told the Los Angeles Times a week before his project was lit. When I first came to Los Angeles a quarter of a century ago, the area around the Museum was seedy; it’s no coincidence that in the film Grand Canyon, Mary Louise Parker gets held up at gunpoint there. Take a walk down Wilshire now, however, and you’ll find a different sort of interaction: food trucks, pedestrians, tourists, people from the neighborhood.
Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)
When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…
Grooming beaches to rid them of the tons of trash that careless humans leave behind is a necessary evil — but one that compromises the habitat for sand fleas who subsist on kelp, which also feeds flies, which feed shorebirds like plovers and killdeer, and so on and so on. By making beaches too clean, we’re destroying miles upon miles of natural seaside habitat, which compromises an entire ecosystem.
Lest all this cleanliness spell gloom and species doom, there is hope. As Brendan Borrell reports at Hakai Magazine, as part of a beach “rewilding” project in Santa Monica, groomers have been fenced out of a stadium soccer-field sized section. The patch was then seeded with natural plant species such as beach evening primrose and sand verbena to promote the formation of dune hummocks. The good news? The first western snowy plover LA has seen in 70 years has already taken up residence. Here’s to you, l’il birb.
Jenifer Dugan, a biologist with the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that beach hoppers, 14-legged “garbage” cleaners that thrive on wrack, have been disappearing from the coastline. “What habitat is disturbed as much as those beaches in Santa Monica?” she asks. “No agricultural practice disturbs the fields twice a day.”
On ungroomed beaches and other areas with little human impact, beach hoppers’ population can reach 100,000 individuals for every meter of beach. And on each meter of beach, they’ll devour 20 kilograms of wrack each month. “The kelp gets vaporized!” says Dugan, who has watched it happen. But when the beach hoppers, isopods, and other invertebrates that subsist on the wrack disappear, shorebirds also go hungry. That’s why barren beaches in California lose birds like killdeer and the endangered western snowy plover. Grooming can also destroy the eggs of the grunion, an unusual fish that lays its eggs in the sand at high tide.
In December 2016, the Bay Foundation, in partnership with the City of Santa Monica, erected a wooden sand fence on this section of the beach—a little larger than a stadium-sized soccer field—to keep the groomers out and encourage the formation of dune hummocks. Next, the organization seeded the sand with native plants, including primrose and sand verbena. These plants had been largely extirpated from the Los Angeles region until this project began. Remarkably, within four months of planting those seeds and putting up the fences, Los Angeles County also got its first western snowy plover nest in more than 70 years.
Over the next several years, Johnston says, these dunes could grow to be up to a meter high, providing protection from coastal storms, and they will keep pace as sea level rises in the face of climate change. Importantly, the restoration area is open to beachgoers—one side has no fence. “One of the goals was to see if a project that was a real benefit to the ecosystem and to wildlife could also benefit people,” she says. Visitors can throw their blankets on the dunes and relax in a more natural environment than near the pier amid the thrumming crowds. Interpretative signs teach them about the local flora and fauna.
As the president sucks up the oxygen from the media atmosphere, it’s easy to forget how important local journalism is right now. The regional press—the holy trinity of newspapers, alt-weeklies, and city magazines—is where we can find true stories of friends and neighbors impacted by immigration raids, fights over funding public education, and the frontline of relaxed environmental standards that will impact the water we drink and the air we breathe. We need to support their work. Read more…
In the April 2008 issue of Los Angeles magazine reporter Mark Arax wrote about Los Angeles’ beloved Zankou Chicken chain, and how one owner tore the founding family apart by murdering two of its members and killing himself. The story is a compelling mix of family dynamics, fast food and the complex American dream. It was republished in Arax’s book West of the West, and in The Best American Crime Reporting 2009. Here’s an excerpt:
This wasn’t Beirut. Mardiros put in long hours. He tweaked the menu; his mother tinkered with the spices. It took a full year to find a groove. The first crowd of regulars brought in a second crowd, and a buzz began to grow among the network of foodies. How did they make the chicken so tender and juicy? The answer was a simple rub of salt and not trusting the rotisserie to do all the work but raising and lowering the heat and shifting each bird as it cooked. What made the garlic paste so fluffy and white and piercing? This was a secret the family intended to keep. Some customers swore it was potatoes, others mayonnaise. At least one fanatic stuck his container in the freezer and examined each part as it congealed. He pronounced the secret ingredient a special kind of olive oil. None guessed right. The ingredients were simple and fresh, Mardiros pledged, no shortcuts. The magic was in his mother’s right hand.