Philip Kennicott: Divining movies from works of nonfiction

When it comes to film adaptations of popular fiction, no one expects much fidelity. But what about films made from nonfiction? A handful of documentaries, and one big-budget action film, owe their origins in whole or part to substantial works of nonfiction. Can this be a happy relationship?
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hollywood has been so promiscuously unfaithful to good literature that critics hardly bother to mention the huge disconnect between films and the books that inspired them. Of course, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" is only minimally faithful to Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Who would ever have thought otherwise? It's almost as if the relationship between film and fiction is overtly hostile, a battleground on which filmmakers prove that there's no anxiety of influence constraining their creative license.

But what of movies based on nonfiction?

There are at least four films in circulation today that take their original source material from substantial works of nonfiction. On April 21, PBS will broadcast Robert Kenner's "Food, Inc.," an enlightening and stomach-churning exposé of the industrialized business of food production. It not only grew out of a planned collaboration with Eric Schlosser, author of the book "Fast Food Nation," but has inspired its own book, a collection of essays called "Food, Inc.: A Participant Guide."

"The Art of the Steal," a polemic about the magnificent but troubled Barnes Collection of postimpressionist art in Philadelphia, was built substantially on research in John Anderson's excellent book "Art Held Hostage." "What's the Matter With Kansas?," which opened in D.C. on March 19, is a reverie based on Thomas Frank's powerful indictment of cultural politics in Kansas. And then there's "Green Zone," a straightforward fictional shoot-'em-up "inspired by" Washington Post journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran's best-selling "Imperial Life in the Emerald City."

They are all very different films, with different trajectories and different relations to the books that ground them. Their directors, for the most part, describe the process that led from book to screen in terms similar to directors working with famous novels: The book, they inevitably say, must be set aside, so the film can come to life.

But writers and filmmakers also describe a less contentious process, as if there were a third person in the room when nonfiction text is being kneaded into nonfiction film, a third party to whom both authors and directors owe a higher fidelity. Call that third element truth, the message, or the cause -- in any case, it seems to make allies, not adversaries, of authors and filmmakers.

John Anderson may have had the least to gain when he sat down with "Art of the Steal" director Don Argott and producer Sheena M. Joyce. His book, "Art Held Hostage," had appeared in 2003 and was a substantial work of reporting and historical research. It detailed the life and cultural ambition of Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical mogul who assembled an astonishingly rich collection of art that became a flashpoint for competing cultural interests after his death. But, as Anderson says, since the book's publication, the saga of the Barnes Collection had advanced several chapters at least. And he had already given an option on the book to another director.

"Don and Sheena couldn't have paid for the rights to 'Art Held Hostage' if they wanted to," Anderson says. But he gave them an interview anyway.

"My attitude going into this was, 'If I don't like them, or they ask stupid questions, I'd go along but I wouldn't get terribly involved with it,' " he says.

He found them to be smart, he liked their questions and tenacity, and he agreed to appear in the film, even though he had no financial relationship with them. The rewards were mostly collateral: The film drew some renewed attention to his book, and (he hopes) may inspire his publisher to bring out an updated version. But mostly, the benefits had to do with The Cause, not Anderson's career. The film advanced the argument of Anderson's book, in stronger and more strident terms, to a wider audience.

That was fine by Anderson. Since he first published "Art Held Hostage," he had grown more passionate and more convinced of the central claim made in Argott's film: that wealthy and vested Philadelphia cultural forces were out to "steal" the Barnes Collection for tawdry purposes.

* * *Like Anderson, author Thomas Frank also appears in the film based on his book. He is a minor but recurring character in Laura Cohen and Joe Winston's "What's the Matter With Kansas?," a quiet meditation on places and characters in his book. Frank's argument, made as the nation was still parsing the so-called Red State/Blue State divide that emerged after the Bush-Gore election, was a touchstone cultural analysis that continues to resonate. Frank put his finger on a contradiction -- Kansans' romance with cultural conservatism was working against their own economic well-being -- that shifted the terms of political and social debate.

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