If war correspondents followed the military’s ranking system, Marie Colvin would have been a highly decorated Sergeant – a committed and fearless first-responder with her sights (whatever was left of them) always set on the next hot zone. This same constellation of qualities also happens to accurately describe Charlize Theron (among Hollywood’s most ego-less and emotionally intrepid actresses) who has emerged as the lead contender to play Colvin in an upcoming big-screen adaptation of Marie Brenner’s posthumous profile of the journalist in Vanity Fair.
The project, which is still in its infancy, offers a rare opportunity for an actress to let loose with her most badass self, crisscrossing warzones on motocross bikes while effectively making genuine strides to better the lives of the civilians caught in the crossfire of the world’s most brutal conflicts. Producers Basil Iwanyk and Peter Lawson, who have just recently begun to assemble the project’s creative team, will face their first and most crucial challenge in finding a screenwriter who excels at rendering the cortisol-spiking tension involved in following a character to the center of a concussive conflict as well as the nuanced storytelling necessary to convey the emotional fallout Colvin suffered in the wake of her decision to lead life on the front lines.
Unlike her fellow displaced countrymen and women in the military and the international press corps who accompanied her to battle fronts across the Middle East, Africa, Chechnia, Kosovo, and Sri Lanka, Colvin was not driven by the usual fear-blinding intoxicants of adrenaline, power, or even the thrill of being first. Colvin was the rare war reporter guided by a sense of responsibility to bear witness to the atrocities being committed around the world and to communicate what she saw with honesty and humanity. Her commitment to exposing high-level corruption along with everyday truths of life under siege took a stiff toll on her personal life, leaving her with three failed marriages, the loss of an eye covering a firefight in Sri Lanka, and suffering from ongoing bouts of post traumatic stress disorder. This caveat is only relevant due to the temple to testosterone that is Iwanic’s filmography (think: “The Expendables” “Clash of the Titans”). This is a job for a Waldo Salt caliber writer, capable of crafting a singular character whose inner life isn’t drowned out by the dramatic events exploding around her. Two viable candidates worth considering: Mark Boal and Hossein Amini.
Though news of Colvin’s death delivered a sobering jolt to those who followed her bylines and her colleagues in the international press corps, the subsequent slew of obituaries give only an abbreviated glimpse at the fascinating and fearless life she lead. It ultimately took Brenner’s exhaustive reporting and expansive narrative to draw Hollywood’s attention to this remarkable woman’s singular story.
Long-form magazine journalism has always been a reliable source for iconic filmmaking. But that resource has come under threat recently, as outlets with the resources to support this kind of in-depth storytelling have dwindled dramatically: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic are among the last publications still publishing the kinds of beefy narratives that make the best movies. Film and long-form journalism have long had a fruitfully symbiotic relationship. Magazine pieces provide the blueprints for stranger-than-fiction screenplays populated with ripped-from-the headlines characters, and Hollywood has rewarded enterprising journalists with a financial windfall often needed to fund long-term projects and deep-dive reporting.
Unlike book adaptations, films inspired by journalistic pieces rarely yield an expanded readership for the article upon which it was based. This is partly because the magazines have long disappeared from newsstands by the time the related movies hits theaters. So, in the spirit of celebrating the long tail of long-form magazine writing, we’ve tracked down five of our favorite reported stories ever to be adapted for the big screen. We’d be interested in hearing how reading these pieces might inform your impressions of their cinematic offspring, and vice-versa. Also, feel free to weigh in with your article-turned-movie.
1. The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night by Nic Cohn; New York Magazine, June 7, 1976. Rock journalist Cohn’s participant-observer account of the birth of the urban disco scene in a Brooklyn nightclub.
Cinematic spawn: “Saturday Night Fever.”
2. The Man Who Knew Too Much by Marie Brenner; Vanity Fair, 1996. This profile of tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand who finds an unlikely ally in an enterprising "60 Minutes" producer in exposing a corrupt multibillion dollar battle plays out like a modern David and Goliath parable.
Cinematic Spawn: “The Insider”
3. Orchid Fever by Susan Orlean; The New Yorker, January 23, 1995. This profile of an eccentric Florida plant dealer obsessed with cracking the genetic code to a rare species of orchid offers a granular portrait of an esoteric world and the impassioned oddball foraging through swamps in search of the botanical Holy Grail.
Cinematic Spawn: “Adaptation”
4. Shattered Glass by Buzz Bissinger; Vanity Fair, September 1998. Bissinger, a sports journalist, delivered this exhaustively reported profile of journalist Stephen Glass offering the definitive blow-by-blow of his journey from The New Republic’s golden boy reporter to disgraced plagiarist.
Cinematic Spawn: “Shattered Glass”
5. The Return of Superflyby Mark Jacobson; New York Magazine, August 7, 2000. This sprawling narrative captured the hustle and flow of the 1970s drug trade, riding shotgun alongside the Mack Daddy of Harlem heroin pushers.
Cinematic Spawn: “American Gangster”