Movie Memoirs: How Do You Adapt a Memoir for the Screen?

With true stories increasingly leant on in both movies and TV in recent years, movie memoirs have practically become a genre all on their own. These movies will typically be adapted from a book and depict the true story of the protagonist‘s life as told from their perspective.

But how do you write a memoir movie? And how do you go about the tricky processing of adapting a memoir into a screenplay? We take a look at the tricks and tropes of writing a memoir movie screenplay, as well as taking a look at some examples.

What is a Memoir? Why Adapt One?

A memoir is a nonfiction work in which an author reflects on their own personal memories. Different from an autobiography, a memoir focuses on a section of the author’s life, as opposed to the entirety.

A memoir is not simply an account of one’s life, though; it is not akin to a diary with no emotional arc. Through retrospection and reflection, an author makes sense of life events and emotions. 

What makes us want to read these memoirs? Curiosity? Compassion? Perhaps a memoir describes an entirely unique experience, such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or 127 Hours.

Perhaps it offers the perspective of a charming thief, like in Catch Me If You Can. Or maybe it gives a glimpse into an underrepresented or unfamiliar community, such as in Hillbilly Elegy. All of these possibilities are reasons to read a memoir—and to adapt it to film.

When writing a movie memoir, it is crucial that a screenwriter capture the original author’s story, as well as the author’s voice. Memoirs are distinctive just as individual people are.

  • The first-person narrative allows for readers to gain an intimate awareness of the author’s experiences and the thoughts and emotions in reaction to them.
  • These experiences are often extreme, tense, endearing, and tragic, and despite being crafted within a memoir, they are not artificial in the way that a fiction screenplay is. 

Translating the author’s perspective within the story is crucial. What is their point of view? How does it influence the story? Why is it important? Ask yourself these questions when writing the script.

Catch Me if You Can (2002) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Choosing a Memoir to Adapt

There are lots of memoirs out there. Which do you choose? Look for memoirs that grasp your attention, that make you feel a range of emotions, and then determine why they do so. 

Your choice may be as personal as the memoir itself. You need to be passionate about which one you choose, almost as though you are picking a roommate. You’re going to live with this person, this story, continuously and intimately for a while. So choose one you can stand to be with. 

The memoir adaptation is similar to writing a documentary script in that research is crucial. Be familiar with the text; know it inside and out, know all the small details and nuances. Be familiar with the author, the geography, the dialect, the history. This will help you construct a script that is in line with the original memoir.  

Of course, if the memoir is an already published work, then obtaining legal rights to the story is important. Unless a memoir has run past its copyright, you’ll need to have the rights to adapting the story.

However, it’s important to note that a memoir doesn’t have to be a New York Times bestseller for you to adapt it. It could be a memoir of a family member, friend or someone with an unpublished story of their life. Regardless, it’s crucial to get permission for adaptation from the author in question.

Hillbilly Elegy a Ron Howard Film | Amy Adams & Glenn Close | Official Trailer | Netflix

Where Memoir Adaptations Succeed

Memoir adaptations have the advantage of already having a substantial narrative for the script. The story is already written. One challenge that defines the adaptation, however, is how much of what is written actually makes it to the screen. What details are included? Which are excluded? 

Good memoir adaptations manage to trim down the story without compromising the important details. Given that memoirs cover parts of an author’s life in great detail, it is impossible to include everything when bringing one to the screen.

It is critical to be considerate when excluding pieces of the story so as to avoid damaging the message or integrity of the story. It is a true account that an author was brave enough to share, not an opportunity for extensive creative liberties. 

This involves boiling the story down to its essence. The memoir might be gargantuan in size and scope. However, it’s still possible to trim down the essence of the story into a beginning, middle and end.

Furthermore, it’s possible and imperative to boil the story down to its core message and theme. What does this person’s story say? Even if the memoir covers a lot of ground, what is the core theme running through everything?

This is where your skill and role as a screenwriter comes in. You’ll need to identify and tease out the theme at the heart of the story you’re adapting. A memoir movie is just like writing any other movie in this sense, it must have a clear arc, theme and narrative structure. Your job in adaptation is to fit the existing story into these structures.

Examples of Movie Memoirs

Let’s take a look at some examples of movie memoirs. Where do they succeed and fail in the adaptation of their source material?

1. Catch Me if You Can

Catch Me If You Can (1/10) Movie CLIP - Substitute Teacher (2002) HD

Catch Me If You Can is an example of a successful memoir adaptation. It follows the original text closely, making only slight changes in order to shorten the story to an acceptable length and capture the viewers’ attention.

A memoir is true as the writer remembers it. This truth is crucial. The memoir movie Catch Me If You Can inevitably leaves out and alters some details from the book, but not at the cost of jeopardizing the truth of the story.

  • The movie, for example, alters Frank Abagnale’s relationship with his father, making him a more prevalent character in Abagnale’s story.
  • The movie also dramatizes Abagnale’s confession to his lover Brenda Song in order to add tension.

Neither of these, however, are severe changes to the story. Even Abagnale himself said that the film is 90% accurate and that he “thought [Spielberg] did a good job of staying very, very accurate”.

Specifically, Spielberg wanted to convey accuracy in certain aspects of the story, such as in the relationship dynamics and the scams carried out. Whilst he changed other details.

As a screenwriter, you may not achieve 90% accuracy. But you should aim to respect the original story as much as possible and retain the truth at the core of the story, even if some of the details might change. This truth is at the heart of adapting a memoir, changing elements to fit them into a screenplay, but not bending the truth of what the author is conveying.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly | Official Trailer (HD) - Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow | MIRAMAX

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an extraordinary memoir movie that manages to capture the rarities and triumphs of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life as told in his memoir.

Director Julian Schnabel uses the visual advantages of film to depict Bauby’s descriptions of his physical condition, immersing the audience in Bauby’s medical experiences and paralysis. The film also includes a more thorough exposition of the spelling system Bauby uses to communicate with his partner, Celine.

While Bauby is consistently hopeful throughout the book, the movie makes this hope difficult for viewers to feel since the audience is repeatedly confronted with Bauby’s physical condition and its severity. 

Overall, however, these changes in tone and presentation don’t detract from the central emotional truth of the story. Instead, they serve to educate the viewer on Bauby’s form of communication and to foster a tenderness for the central character.

Visually Representing Emotions

It is important to take into account the challenge of visually representing an author’s emotions.

In the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Schnabel explores Bauby’s imagination and memories, offering a stark contrast between his life before the accident and after. The movie also explores Bauby’s emotions by offering Bauby’s internal dialogue amidst the conversation between the other characters. 

  • Bauby’s internal thoughts are spoken through voice-over narration. There is an abundance of screenwriting advice discouraging the use of voice-overs.
  • In this case, however, the voice-over narration is not only effective but necessary.
  • It is effective because it allows the audience to hear Bauby’s beautiful words spoken aloud, and it is necessary because Bauby cannot speak due to his paralysis. 

As you decide how to approach your adaptation, choose the techniques that work for your vision. Don’t feel bound by conventional wisdom.

Schnabel also had to consider his depiction of Bauby’s condition carefully. Without a deliberate, creative approach, the movie could have felt stilted in how it portrayed Bauby’s condition and method of communication. It is crucial to have a strong idea of how the story will look on screen and to be resourceful with the challenges presented by a text. 

Consider what the story will look like on-screen versus what it sounds like in the text. How will you address the challenges of making internal thoughts come to life visually?

You want to aim for scenes that have the same atmosphere and tone as the text even if you have to show things that aren’t specifically described in the original memoir. You have cinematic tools and visual storytelling techniques at your disposal and it’s important that you use them.

3. Hillbilly Elegy

What Is Hillbilly Elegy Based On? The True Story Behind The Movie | Netflix

In contrast to the more successful memoir movies above, Hillbilly Elegy perhaps struggles to convey the same story as the book it’s based on.

Director Ron Howard chooses to leave out original author J. D. Vance’s theoretical ideas and explorations and strictly focuses on the family’s personal story. Doing so excludes much of the political discussion and economic context that gives Vance’s story meaning and depth. It reduces Vance’s family story to something akin to melodrama and takes away the essential reflections on the societal structures that controlled his life.

You will have to make choices when adapting a memoir to film. Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy ultimately chooses to tell a story from a narrower perspective. You will need to decide on your perspective, and strive to ensure that it does not conflict too strongly with that of the original text.

What Hillbilly Elegy gets right is its portrayal of the characters, specifically Glenn Close’s performance as Mamaw Vance.

  • Close was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, crediting her ability to keep the emotional pull of Mamaw’s character on the screen.
  • Close met some of Vance’s family members when filming, helping shape her understanding of Mamaw, who despite being frail from illness has a bold, commanding presence. 

It is important to capture the essence of the characters in the memoir. Research and distillation are critical. What makes the characters who they are? What are their motivations, their losses, their accomplishments? These can typically be easily drawn from the text, but without research, you cannot tell what they look or sound like, or what their physical movements are like.

When adapting a memoir, a screenwriter may have to use sources other than the text itself in order to create a character on screen that will resonate. 

4. 127 Hours

127 Hours (1/3) Movie CLIP - Trapped (2010) HD

127 Hours, the film adaptation of Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place, is creative in its depiction of Ralston’s story. While hiking through the Bluejohn Canyon in Utah, Ralston falls and is physically trapped by a boulder for 127 hours. 

  • Similarly to Bauby’s story in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Ralston’s is one of physical limitation.
  • Director Danny Boyle uses flashbacks and daydreams to break up the film and allow for some action to occur.
  • Boyle also uses fast-paced camera shots and quick cuts, which contrast the static nature of the film, but succeed in conveying Ralston’s frantic mentality.
  • The visuals allow for the tension, fear, and desperation of the story to translate through the screen. 

127 Hours is a testament to visual creativity and storytelling. Despite being primarily in one claustrophobic location, the dialogue, camerawork, and editing all contribute to making the film compelling and cinematic. 

The film is also truthful to the original text. Ralston stated that the film is “so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama”. Boyle accurately portrays Ralston’s experiences, from Ralston’s reflections on his life to his video camera, to the gruesome, graphic way he ultimately amputates his arm.

5. Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia (2009) - I Love You, Julia Scene (10/10) | Movieclips

Julie & Julia is a particularly inventive movie memoir, as it adapts two different books by two different authors into one cohesive narrative.

  • Nora Ephron’s screenplay is based on two books: My Life in France by Julia Child and Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell.
  • Both are memoirs but the latter is one documenting the author’s daily experiences cooking each of the 524 recipes in Child’s two-volume cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The movie is clever in how it uses the latter memoir as a springboard to explore the former. It’s an inventive approach to tackling a story that has many layers and characters that are present if not physically then symbolically (as Julia Child is through her recipes).

To have the portrayal of Julie Powell attempting to master Julia Child’s recipes without the context of Julia Child herself might seem alienating. And so by paralleling Julie’s story with Julia’s own story, we get context. Furthermore, we get the satisfying feeling of getting our teeth into two separate narratives, each meaty on its own.

Julie & Julia shows that you don’t have to be linear in how you tell your movie memoir. By using a parallel narrative, Nora Ephron enriches the story of two women, separated by time and space but connected through something else, cooking.

Having a Unique Voice

When it comes to memoir adaptations, the director and screenwriter will inevitably influence the story. It is important to make this influence count – how are you going to contribute to the story?

For example, in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel focuses on a different side of Bauby’s story that sets the film apart from the book.

  • While Bauby is sarcastic and humorous in the book, the film is laced with grief and pain, heightened by the way in which Bauby’s physical frustrations are shown frame by frame.
  • The movie is, in some ways, more graphic than the book. The scenes of Bauby in the hospital are jarring and visually uncomfortable, and this image does not exist in the book.

Schnabel’s choices are factual; he represents Bauby in a medically accurate way. But his interpretation is different enough that the film stands apart from Bauby’s original memoir as an individual artistic piece. Schnabel’s departures from the original narrative contribute an alternative look at the story, contributing to audiences’ understanding of Bauby and his remarkable tale.

As a screenwriter, make your mark on the story. This doesn’t have to be a mark that detracts from the original author’s voice. But more, it will add to that voice and support it. Accuracy is important, but so is creativity. Do research, consult the author if possible, and find an interesting take on the memoir.

Perhaps most importantly, ask yourself this question: why should audiences watch the film instead of just reading the book?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly | ‘This Can't Be Life’ (HD) - Mathieu Amalric | MIRAMAX

In Conclusion

Memoirs are rooted in an author’s retrospections on real-life events. They are reflections on experiences in which the author found meaning and depth.

Choose a memoir and an author you enjoy or find interesting. You will be spending lots of time working with the text and the story. So, do not back yourself into a corner by choosing a memoir you do not find intriguing. 

Furthermore, you will have to cut out parts of the memoir when adapting it to the screen. Make sure these cuts remain true to the source material, and that you are not compromising the message of the story in excluding information.

Prioritize determining how you will visualize the story. Your job is to communicate the author’s emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Make sure that the emotion and message are not lost in the transition from text to screen. 

Most of all, be creative in your approach. Some stories are difficult to adapt, and it takes an ambitious attitude and an imaginative approach to bring the story to life visually. But this creativity is at the core of your screenwriting abilities, turning a ready-made story into something well-suited to the screen.

Don’t rest on your laurels, thinking you have it easy because you already have the story in front of you. Instead, employ the screenwriting tools at your disposal, exercising the best of what a visual adaptation can bring.

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This article was written by Reese Collins and edited by IS staff.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Memoirs: How Do You Adapt a Memoir for the Screen?”

  1. Thanks for the useful tips about crafting a script out of an authors memoirs. I found the bullet points have key information that other sources do not touch on. Such as the necessity to use a voice over narrative and the overwhelming need to for a clear visual understanding of how to show emotional elements of the story. I really like how the article uses various movie clips to illustrate points about how writing can be depicted in film. I was reminded that the writer must their own voice to convey the overall them; which can be different from the original text. It is a challenge to take on story already told and put it in a fresh, relevant script that visually displays emotions.

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