- Documentary films and docu-series have gained mainstream popularity in recent decades, inspiring feature films and TV shows to adapt their narratives.
- HBO has spearheaded the trend of adapting documentaries, producing TV movies and series that draw from true stories captured in non-fiction films.
Adaptations such as
Lords of Dogtown
have replicated the style and themes of their documentary predecessors while adding their own cinematic flair.
Drawing inspiration from the documentary on the American Samoan football team’s redemptive journey, Taika Waititi’s upcoming sports drama Next Goal Wins joins the list of movies that are adapted from documentaries. Since the past few decades, documentary films and docu-series are garnering more mainstream popularity with some audiences being in sheer awe of the cinematic potential their non-fiction narratives capture. From Man on Wire walking between adrenaline-fueled archival footage and thrilling re-enactments to The Staircase drawing up the blueprint for future true-crime documentaries on platforms like Netflix, such documentaries have established a precedent dramatic enough for feature films and TV network originals to borrow from.
Since the late 1990s and 2000s, many movies and shows have served as direct adaptations of pre-existing documentaries. HBO has spearheaded this trend particularly in the television space, producing works such as the TV movie Cinema Verite that delved into the making of America’s first reality docu-series An American Family, the comedy-drama series Betty which served as a spin-off to the docudrama Skate Kitchen, among many others. In some TV shows drawing from documentaries, they also share common creative teams. For instance, the acclaimed Hulu originals The Act and The Girl from Plainville both featured producers of the documentaries that inspired their storyline.
10 The Walk (2015)
The year was 1974 when high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked on a tight-rope between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. The fascinating act of courage and sheer absurdity is revisited through police reports, archival footage and re-enactments in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. Borrowing from the documentary’s heist thriller-like presentation, Robert Zemeckis directed his own Phillipe Petit biopic The Walk with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the French protagonist. While it opened to critical and audience acclaim, The Walk could still not soar up to its precursor’s high standards even if the climatic tightrope sequence did crown it as one of the best 3D movies of the 2010s.
9 Lords Of Dogtown (2005)
Narrated by actor Sean Penn and directed by ex-skateboarder Stacy Peralta, the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys provided comprehensive insights in 1970s-era skater culture and how Peralta’s Zephyr skateboarding team pioneered the sport. While it lacked its originality and rawness, the 2005 biographical drama Lords of Dogtown retained the documentary’s stylish outlook and vintage visuals. Starring a much-younger Emile Hirsch alongside Heath Ledger and Michael Angarano, Catherine Hardwicke’s deft direction brought out some convincing performances from the rising stars. Lords of Dogtown also boasts many Easter Eggs for skating aficionados with cameos from not only Stacy Peralta himself but other icons of the sport like Tony Hawk and Johnny Knoxville.
8 The Staircase (2022)
HBO Max’ s The Staircase draws from the true story of Kathleen Peterson’s death, potentially at the hands of her novelist husband Michael Peterson. The title alludes to Kathleen being found dead at the bottom of a staircase, an event that led to doubts and suspicions around her enigmatic partner. Boasting standout performances from Colin Firth and Toni Collette, The Staircase owes its atmospheric tension to the pioneering true-crime documentary of the same name. French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade masterminded the ambitious undertaking of recording Michael Peterson, his defense attorneys, and family members. Such was the documentary’s impact that three more sequel episodes were filmed with new developments in 2012.
7 Grey Gardens (2009)
The HBO movie Grey Gardens stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as socialite-singer “Big” Edith Bouvier Bale and her daughter “Little” Edith Bouvier Bale respectively. To escape her mother’s overprotective grip, “Little” Edith resorts to modeling and cabaret dancing before leading a life of squalor in their decaying mansion of Grey Gardens. The movie then directly recreates the efforts of filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to capture the human drama underlying the strained relationship of this mother-daughter duo. The original documentary (also titled Grey Gardens) is regarded as an evergreen classic with a Sight & Sound poll ranking it as the tenth-best documentary of all time.
6 The Act (2019)
Joey King and Patricia Arquette delivered some of the finest performances of their careers in Hulu’s intense psychological thriller The Act. King starred as Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a teenager who was manipulated by her abusive mother Dee Dee Blanchard into a life of restraint and illness. The Act delves into the events that led to Gypsy taking the ultimate step to murder Arquette’s antagonistic Dee Dee. What The Act leaves from the true story is made up in the original documentary that inspired it. 2017’s Mommy Dead and Dearest took a sensitive approach in breaking down the web of lies that Dee Dee wove to gaslight her daughter.
5 Rescue Dawn (2006)
Werner Herzog is no stranger to unconventional documentaries with credits like The Grizzly Man and Into the Inferno to his name. But in the case of Rescue Dawn, the German auteur drew upon the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly to craft an epic war drama of his own. Starring Christian Bale as German-born American pilot Dieter Dangler, the movie tells his fascinating true story of survival after being shot down at Laos during the Vietnam War. Much like Herzog’s movie, the preceding documentary also took no preachy stances to justify war but rather focused more on the limits of the human spirit in times of crisis.
4 Betty (2020-2021)
Crystal Moselle challenged documentary notions with her 2018 docudrama Skate Kitchen. Featuring many amateur skateboarders and allowing them to just re-enact their everyday lives within a semi-fictional narrative, Moselle allowed such non-actors to just be themselves while also opening up the conversation on female representation in the skateboarding subculture. Borne out of Skate Kitchen’s success was HBO’s immensely well-received yet underrated coming-of-age spin-off Betty. With some of Skate Kitchen’s skateboarding girls returning, Betty fleshed out these characters more with some fictional scenarios, handheld-style editing, vibrant multi-colored wardrobe choices, and by utilizing the skate-hubs of New York City in the most authentic and unscripted manner possible.
3 Milk (2008)
Sean Penn earned a Best Actor Oscar for Gus Van Sant’s earnest biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Regarded as one of the best modern LGBTQ+ movies based on true stories, Milk covered his political career up to his shocking assassination. It drew upon majorly from the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk which in itself was based on Randy Shilt’s biography The Mayor of Castro Street. Documenting Milk’s journey from neighborhood activism to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the 1984 documentary went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in the next year.
2 The Girl From Plainville (2022)
The following entry contains mention of suicide.
Conrad Roy was just 18 years old when he died by suicide, a fatal decision resulting from a chain of text messages from his girlfriend Michelle Carter. The strange-than-fiction story behind this real-life crime and Michelle’s eventual manslaughter conviction formed the premise of the Hulu miniseries The Girl from Plainville with Elle Fanning starring as Michelle. Drawing praise for Fanning’s disturbingly chilling performance, the show also delved into Conrad’s own disturbed household and the manipulative elements of his relationship. These morally grey aspects of the dysfunctional teenage romance were deciphered in greater detail with a balanced portrayal in HBO’S equally insightful 2019 documentary I Love You, Now Die.
1 RKO 281 (1999)
Orson Welles’ directorial debut Citizen Kane might be the greatest movie ever made but the debate around its true writer continues to flare up Hollywood. While Welles conceived the epic drama with Herman J. Mankiewicz, future critics observed that Mankiewicz deserved the sole writing credits. In 1996, the Golden Globe-winning documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane brought this debate back to the mainstream with HBO building upon its claims three years later. The equally acclaimed TV movie RKO 281. Boasting passionate performances by Liev Schrieber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mankiewicz, RKO 281 picked up the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Made for Television.