Not to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, but in Keeping the Faith, Trinity Bible College goes winless for the 2004 season. One of the main characters gets hurt the night before the final game in a freakish accident, and the head coach loses his job.
That's the real-life, book version. But in the upcoming movie adaptation*, one of the main characters makes a dramatic, Willis Reed-like return to the sidelines in the final seconds of the final game and Trinity scores on a Hail Mary (the school's not Catholic, adding to the irony - it's explained in the movie). The Lions - for some reason now named the Tigers in the movie - dramatically defeat the same team that embarrassed them 105-0 the season before while also snapping a three-year losing streak and sending everyone home happy and even more full of faith. Leonard Maltin lazily but enthusiastically calls the movie a "touchdown," while Ebert writes "the race is over. Give the Oscar to Paul Giamatti."
*There's no upcoming movie version.
It could happen. Today I saw The Informant!, a highly entertaining, funny film starring Matt Damon that's directed by Steven Soderbergh. The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name - minus the cheeky exclamation point - by Kurt Eichenwald. The book details, in 600 pages, how a bizarre man named Mark Whitacre helped bring down Archer Daniels Midland, but turned out to be a massive embezzler himself, who was completely unable to tell the truth. Damon, sporting extra weight around his midsection and on his head in the form of a bad toupee, portrays Whitacre. The movie sticks to the basic plot points, but plays up the absurd aspects of the story, of which there are plenty. Some criticized Soderbergh for taking too light of an approach, saying he missed on a chance to really take on corporate corruption. It's another "based on a true story" movie that borrows heavily from its source material while also tweaking it for Hollywood purposes.
One of the books I break out at least once a month is called "Based on a True Story*. Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies." Authors Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen write about dozens of movies taken from real-life stories, many from books or magazine articles (Did you know the movie "Pushing Tin," starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as cowboy air traffic controllers - there are such guys, apparently - was taken from a New York Times Magazine article?). They dismantle the falsehoods in the movies and praise those that pay heed to the reality.
For example, Donnie Brasco, based on a book by former undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, is an entertaining drama starring Johnny Depp and a sad-sack Al Pacino, who portrays a mob guy about 45 levels below Michael Corleone. In the movie Pacino the mobster and Depp the G-Man have a paternal relationship, with Al offering sage advice to an up-and-coming fake hoodlum. Not so much in real life. And while Pacino's character is set up to be killed at the end of the movie, in real life he died of old age.
In Remember the Titans, the inspiring team wins many games in the closing seconds under the wise tutelage of Denzel Washington, including the state championship. In real life they outscored their opponents 357-45 and won the title game 27-0. They dominated. As Vankin and Whalen point out, those details wouldn't make for a very exciting final act, especially not with Disney involved.
Some writers get upset when their stories are changed like that, others don't mind.
For a few fantastic weeks in the fall of 2005, I thought I'd at least get the chance to find out if I'd care if filmmakers made dramatic alterations to Keeping the Faith. Shortly after the book came out, the wife of famed producer Lawrence Gordon emailed us, inquiring about film rights to the book. At the time we didn't realize his title actually was "famed producer Lawrence Gordon." But a quick search later, and we had visions of the big screen flashing in front of us. Gordon produced Die Hard, Predator, 48 Hours, The Warriors and Field of Dreams. She said their production company was searching for new sports ideas and that my book sounded like an intriguing possibility.
I immediately started casting. Giamatti quickly signed on in the fantasy to play the head coach. I pictured the first sitdown meeting with the screenwriter - probably at a hip cafe downtown; he'd pay - who'd want to dig for more information as he translated the book to a screenplay. Would they fly us to the set? Do they fly the authors to the set? Probably not. Could we drive to the set? Would we even be allowed on the set? Could we retire after selling the rights, or would it be only enough money to buy a new house? Could I object to dramatic changes in the real story? Does artistic integrity mean anything to anyone anymore? Would there be a cliched love story inserted into the movie, one that didn't exist in the book? Would the team mascot be a cute puppy, rescued by a player with a heart of gold? So many questions.
Never did get any answers. A month or two later, after some more back and forth, the Gordons declined to pursue the rights. Today the person in charge of dealing with film and TV rights for the book's publisher still occasionally emails, saying there's some interest, but it's never gone beyond those tantalizing emails.
Maybe someday I'll be sitting in a theater and the words "based on a true story" will appear right before a sweeping overhead shot of the fields surrounding Ellendale, North Dakota comes into focus. And if in the movie version Trinity wins a game or the star player falls for a rival team's sexy yet thoughtful cheerleader and a subplot emerges centered on a 45-year-old former rock star who found God and returns to play quarterback...if all that happened on the big screen, I'd squirm a bit in my seat. "This didn't happen in the book," I'd whisper helpfully to the people surrounding us. But I'm thinking I'd eventually enjoy the show, no matter how based in reality the based-on-a-true-story movie really is.
Just remember, the book's always better than the movie.