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Remaking Reality: How Documentaries Became Hollywood Fodder

on October 14, 2015, 3:30pm

By now, you’re probably aware of the perils of watching The Walk. Robert Zemeckis’ intentionally vertigo-inducing IMAX 3D feature about daredevil Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers has been making audience members sick since it opened in select theaters on September 30th.

What’s receiving less attention is that the viewing experience can be just as harrowing for documentary lovers as for those who aren’t good with heights. The notion that Man on Wire, the excellent 2008 doc on which The Walk is based, needed to be re-imagined as a big(ger)-budget Hollywood fairy tale was bound to induce nausea on its own. No matter how fantastic and dizzying those three-dimensional high-wire shots are, no matter how impressive it is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s charisma and skill almost make up for the overbearing narration and the questionable French accent with which he delivers it, The Walk can feel sickeningly unnecessary if you have any familiarity with or fondness for the source material.

While it’s still too early to declare it a trend, the dramatic reinterpretation of documentary films is slowly becoming a common practice in Hollywood. 1998’s Party Monster: The Shockumentary influenced Macaulay Culkin’s 2003 comeback film, Party Monster. The 2001 doc Dogtown and Z-Boys begat the 2005 drama Lords of Dogtown. Werner Herzog’s 2006 drama, Rescue Dawn, was based on a screenplay that came out of his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Arguably, 2008’s Milk was loosely based on 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk, though it went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The Maysles brothers’ 1975 Grey Gardens was remade into an HBO film in 2009. Now, of course, we have The Walk.

I suspect that part of the reason for the flashy fictionalization of documentaries is that audiences love the idea of true stories a lot more than they actually love true stories. As the popularity of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces — both before and after Frey confessed to Oprah and the rest of the world that he’d embellished and fictionalized large portions of his “memoir” — and the proliferation of highly scripted reality television demonstrate, most of us are intrigued by something that promises to be true to life. We just still want it presented with a relatively safe and recognizable narrative formula.

It’s an understandable impulse. Real life is messy, random, and often meaningless, and a big part of art’s appeal is that it tries to impose structure and meaning on our ridiculous existence. Documentary film, though it helps to bring some narrative structure to real-life events, might just be too real for most mass audiences to truly enjoy in all but its most stylized forms. Given that, it’s just as understandable that filmmakers and film executives would see both artistic and financial potential in taking a doc, tying it up in a nice three-act structure, and bringing it to a wider audience.

Perhaps the bigger driving force behind this pattern, though, is the same thing that’s behind the nonstop onslaught of remakes, franchises, and various other re-imagined stories that dominate our current landscape. We don’t just like stories based on real life; we like stories that are based on anything whatsoever. From ancient Greek mythology to Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye’s belief that all of modern Western literature has a direct link to the Bible, human beings have always felt the need to retell, rework, and build upon each other’s stories. As we move toward a more secularized society with little common source material to play with, it makes sense that we’d turn to the stories we find in art and pop culture in an effort to construct and reconstruct a new mythological foundation.

If that’s the case, the more pressing question surrounding The Walk and other re-purposed stories isn’t “why?” but “what does this offer?” As Gus Van Sant’s near shot-for-shot Psycho remake painfully demonstrated in 1998, the simple regurgitation of ideas is about as aesthetically appealing as the regurgitation of dinner. While Grey Gardens earned praise for its performances, particularly Drew Barrymore’s Little Edie, it also left a lot of people wondering what its point was. Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, on the other hand, works well as a companion piece to Little Dieter Needs to Fly because the filmmaker was looking to accomplish different things with a similar source. The Walk falls somewhere in the middle, doubling down on Man on Wire’s recreated walk footage but doing little to change or augment the story beyond making it a bit cartoonish. At the very least, though, it brings Petit’s tale to an audience that wouldn’t have necessarily watched it under other circumstances. Maybe it’s a step forward after all.

And, if you want to get precious, it could also serve as a metaphor for the remake: a delicate balancing act filled almost equally with the potential for failure and triumph that, for whatever reason, people just can’t seem to resist.

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