Culture

Peter Sarsgaard Gears Up to Make His Filmmaking Debut with Christopher McDougall's Born to Run

It's not everyday that a story about a remote tribe of Mexican Indians who have cracked the code to long-distance running eclipses interest in a star-studded superhero saga. But that's pretty much how things went down last week during pre-release media blitz for "The Green Lantern,"  when some of the most attention-grabbing headlines were generated by Lantern villain Peter Sarsgaard, who frequently went off-message to discuss his plans to write and direct an adaptation of Christopher McDougall's nonfiction bestseller, Born to Run.

In retrospect, it's hard to say whether it says more about the (negligible) quality of "The Green Lantern" or the (considerable) interest in Born to Run that the former failed to hold its star's interest, especially considering the cult of avid devotees that has sprung up around the latter. But at this point the uninitiated might reasonably ask: Why should we care about this book about indigenous joggers? Isn't that why we have National Geographic?

Yes, but Born to Run is the rare piece of nonfiction that amounts to more than the sum of its synopsis and subplots. McDougall immerses himself, participant-observer style, among the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico's remote and sweltering Copper Canyon as a kind of fitness disciple eager to learn how they're able to run long distances without rest -- even shoes. He emerges with a broader understanding of the benefits of their journey-not-the-destination approach to running as compared to the Western goal-driven no-pain-n0-gain ethos. He also roots the story in the trove of fascinating characters and fitness ephemera he discovers along the way. In the end, the book is framed around the ways in which we're more similar to the Tarahumara in our attempt to achieve transcendence by pushing our bodies to the limit. As a result, the book has found widespread appeal far beyond its core readership of running enthusiasts, similar to the way Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Into the Wild explored and captured popular imagination with extraordinary stories of the impulse to conquer nature and the forces that drive our delusions about our place in the world.

Though Born to Run builds to a very cinematic climax, in which the Tarahumara race against a team of Western-trained elite runners, the rest of the book is full of the kind of expository passages on the zen of running that would challenge even the most seasoned filmmakers. Danny Boyle maneuvered elegantly over similarly tough terrain in "127 Hours" as did Sean Penn with his adaptation of "Into the Wild." But Sarsgaard insists he's already got a plan in place for shooting the marathon running segments: Each race will take the form of a classic movie chase sequence. "There’s something out there that you’re trying to get: It’s the guy who’s in front of you," Sarsgaard told journalists last week. "And then there’s all sorts of different narratives within the run because there are different races going on. There’s the race within the race, you know? And because these races are very long -- you know, they’re 100 miles -- and stuff, there’s all the stuff that happens. So, it’s not just a boring drama about the running. We’re going to try to make, you know, a kind of wild dirt magazine sort of version of Born to Run that honors the true free spirit of what a lot of these people are like."

Sarsgaard has only recently finished a draft of the adaptation.  And though he has yet to make anything official, there has already been much speculation about whether Jake Gyllenhaal, an avid runner and Sarsgaard's brother-in-law, will commit to play the film's lead role. The two have been seen together observing several ultra-marathons in recent months. But nothing's been made official yet. Considering Gyllenhaal's recent track record in high-profile mainstream fare, Born to Run could offer a perfect chance to find his stride again.