Issue 1: Article—Ten Forgotten Classics

Each issue, RSL offers up that perennial internet favourite: the themed list. For the first issue, we take a look back over the past eight decades to select ten films adapted from real life that may have slipped under your radar…

1. 10 Rillington Place (1971)10 RP

What’s it about? It’s a British biographical crime drama starring the late great Richard Attenborough as serial killer, John Christie. It was adapted by Clive Exton from the book Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy.

Why (re)watch? Largely because it’s a truly chilling adaptation of a notorious real-life case. The film, which also features a memorable performance from a young John Hurt, has become a low-key British crime classic. A good example of the benefits of thorough research as the book’s author also acted as a technical adviser…

 

2. The Jolson Story (1946)Jolson

What’s it about? It’s a glossy and sanitised Hollywood musical biopic of Al Jolson, following him from humble beginnings through his ascent to showbiz royalty. It was written by Sidney Buchman, Harry Chandlee, Stephen Longstreet and Andrew Solt.

Why (re)watch? Criticised for showing Jolson performing in black-face at the beginning of his career, the film has become a forgotten classic that deserves a wider audience. Larry Parks’ turn as Jolson remains one of the great unsung performances; not least because of his flawless lip-synching of Jolson’s vocals. It is also an example of how the involvement of the real life subject can smooth over a biopic’s sharp edges (apparently Jolson wasn’t all that nice)…

3. RKO 281 (1999)RKO 281

What’s it about? The making of the great Citizen Kane, focussing on ‘boy genius’ Orson Welles’ fight to get the film finished amid William Randolph Hearst’s efforts to shut the whole project down (Kane is a thinly-veiled telling of the newspaper magnate’s life). It was written by John Logan and based on the documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon.

Why (re)watch? Well, Liev Schreiber as Welles, James Cromwell as Hearst and John Malkovich as Kane writer Herman Mankiewicz for starters. Aside from the cast, this is an absorbing retelling of how one of the all-time film classics came into being (with lashings of ego-mania thrown in for good measure). It’s a good example of how a writer can mine real life conflict to great effect…

4. Mesrine Part 1: Killer Instinct/Part 2: Public Enemy #1 (2008)Mesrine

What’s it about? It’s a biopic of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, who came to be known as ‘public enemy number one’ during his crime spree in the 1960s and 1970s, which included several daring prison escapes. It was adapted by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Jean-François Richet from the real Mesrine’s book, L’instinct de mort. Parts one and two were released separately.

Why (re)watch? Aside from Vincent Cassel’s dangerous and mesmerising turn in the lead role, this is a boldly successful attempt to dramatise a lengthy period from the protagonist’s life; packing in Mesrine’s introduction to a life of crime, as well as numerous robberies, kidnappings and murders across several continents. Not to mention, a woman or two…

5. Eight Men Out (1988)8 Men Out

What’s it about? In 1919, several Chicago White Sox players accepted bribes to deliberately lose the baseball World Series, in what became known as the Black Sox scandal. It was adapted by John Sayles from Eliot Asinof’s book, 8 Men Out.

Why (re)watch? The Black Sox scandal was a big deal, but the dramatisation eluded the big screen for a number of years until Sayles (who also directed) got the project made with a stellar cast. It’s a good example of how to handle multiple characters and demonstrates the importance of thorough research. It also highlights the need for screenwriters to ask the question: will audiences who know nothing of the true life story ‘get’ the film version..?

6. The Dish (2000)Dish

What’s it about? A remote antenna located on a sheep farm in a rural Australian town plays a pivotal role in the 1969 Apollo 11 space mission. It was written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Jane Kennedy and Rob Sitch.

Why (re)watch? This whimsical film is a good example of how quirky real life tales can provide rich source material for creative screenwriters. In this case, the story also provides fodder to explore cultural differences between the US and Australia, as well as recreating the excitement of man’s first moonwalk from a whole different perspective…

7. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)Assassination RN

What’s it about?  In 1974, a disturbed office furniture salesman, Samuel J. Bicke, plots to kill the US President. It was written by Kevin Kennedy and Niels Mueller.

Why (re)watch? Interesting true life source material offering a unique view on this period in American history, combined with a great lead performance from Sean Penn. It is also a good example of the tenacity needed to get a script made, as it took a long time to get the project off the ground (even with Penn attached). If you love your script, stick with it…

8. The Damned United (2009)Damned Utd

What’s it about? An outspoken coach’s brief but eventful time as manager of English soccer club, Leeds United, during 44 days in 1974. It was adapted by Peter Morgan from David Peace’s book, The Damned Utd.

Why (re)watch? Whether soccer makes you celebrate, shrug or snore, the drama and larger-than-life characters make this a film that can work for all. The source material here is actually a novel, which fictionalises Brian Clough’s ill-fated tenure at Leeds United. It’s a good example of how you can take a real life event and craft a compelling interpretation of how it might have played out…

9. Bound for Glory (1976)Bound for Glory

What’s it about? A biopic of Depression-era singer-songwriter and social campaigner, Woody Guthrie. Loosely adapted by Robert Getchell from Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory.

Why (re)watch? This is a good example of bringing an iconic figure to life on screen. Even though it is ‘based on’ Guthrie’s autobiography, Getchell departed substantially from the source material in order to craft a workable screen story that keeps the spirit of Guthrie alive…

10. Shadow of the Vampire (2000) SoftheV

What’s it about? Very spooky goings-on during the making of 1922 German horror, Nosferatu-Eine Symphonie des Grauens. It was written by Steven Katz.

Why (re)watch? The film stars John Malkovich (again); this time portraying film director Friedrich Wilhelm (FW) Murnau, with Willem Dafoe as actor, Max Schreck. Inspired by the strangeness that plagued the 1922 production, this is an offbeat and creepy example of how fact and fiction can merge into one…

Next issue, we take a look at some unlikely real life adaptations.