Morgan Spurlock & Eugene Jarecki Talk About Turning Books into Movies

By Maryann Yin 

From releasing through iTunes a month before its theatrical opening to the ‘Name Your Price’ promotion, the Freakonomics documentary has made headlines for months. To find out more about the making of this book-based-movie, this GalleyCat correspondent interviewed two of the six directors Morgan Spurlock and Eugene Jarecki.

Both directors are published authors and seasoned filmmakers. Jarecki directed The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Why We Fight. He also wrote The American Way of War.

Spurlock appeared on Media Beat this year, talking about Freakonomics and his breakout hit, Super Size Me. He explained: “I read more law in the course of making this film than a criminal would.” He wrote Don’t Eat This Book and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? to accompany his documentary films.

E=Eugene Jarecki

M=Morgan Spurlock

Q: What drew you to the Freakonomics documentary project?

E: When I originally read the book Freakonomics, I had been very moved and intrigued by one particular section of the book which was the section of the book about the potential links between abortion law and America and crime rates; a very controversial chapter that had caused a lot of stir when the book came out and also provoked my thinking a lot. So when the idea of being part of this team making Freakonomics emerged, it was seeking to do that chapter on screen that interested me in the project.

Q: Were there any particular difficulties you encountered in translating book to film?

M: I think when you’re dealing with any type of book, there’s so much material that you ultimately have to cut out because you just can’t translate everything into a movie; it’s impossible. So, I think that’s the hardest thing when you have this steak, realizing that once you take away the fat there’s still more steak that has to be cut away. So, what part of the steak do you lose because there’s good information no matter how you cut it. There’s good bits and pieces that you want to try to put in there. What you just try to ultimately do is whittle it down to the tastiest bit that you can and that’s what we did.

Q: So you got yourself a good porterhouse out of it?

M: I think we got a good filet–a good thick-cut filet out of it.

Q: Many people I encounter have this opinion that when it comes to book-based-movies, the book is usually better. Can you share your thoughts about that?

E: Yeah, I think that’s because the books that get selected to be converted into film are books that have become incredibly dear to people. So, I don’t want to see Willy Wonka made into a new movie.

(A) I love the original book, but then I love the original movie so that’s a little contradictory. Sometimes, there are times we don’t want to see a movie re-made either. Most of that has to do with original loyalty. When something moves us, we’re intrigued to see more of it. People read Eat, Pray, Love and then they go, ‘Wow, a movie’s coming out.’ On the one hand they’re excited about it, but on the other hand they have this sick feeling, ‘I’ll bet it’ll ruin the book.’ What do they mean by that? They mean it will trespass in an area that has become dear to me.

(B) They’ll take figments of my imagination and make them real. Now all of a sudden, the character is no longer a fictional little boy who goes to a chocolate factory. It’s a boy played by a bad actor, who either does or doesn’t look like what I had in mind. Or a woman now played by Julia Roberts, but she was totally different in my mind says the person who may not like that film. I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but I know that’s the dynamic people engage in.

I don’t think that’s something inherent about the problem of books and movies. Rear Window the movie, which is an unbelievable movie in the eyes of most people who see it, was based on an original short story. It’s a Wonderful Life, arguably the greatest American film, was originally based on a short story called The Greatest Gift. There are legions of examples of great films that have come from books. Sometimes great books, sometimes not-great books; there are likewise crappy films that have been made from great books. There are crappy films that have been made from bad books. What I think people are noting from that phenomenon is that conversion is a kind of black magic art. It’s a black art that is tricky and perilous and sometimes wonderfully rewarding.

Q: Having been a published author in the past, are there any book project plans for the future?

M: Yeah, I’m always working on projects where I try to have an outside world beyond just the film because there’s only so much you can put into a movie. Just as when something’s lost when you translate a book to a film, in terms of information, there’s always a lot more information you can convey going back the other way which is what we did with both Don’t Eat This Book and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?.

Q: Are there any plans to make the follow-up book, Superfreakonomics into a film?

E: Not that I’ve heard of.

Q: In general, what’s next for you?

M: Well, we’ve got a few. We’re working on a TV series right now that’s going to premiere on AMC called Committed which is a special where we follow four filmmakers into the Toronto Film Festival. Two first-time filmmakers, two established filmmakers, and we kind of see the festival through their eyes. All the drama, all the intrigue, all the excitement, all the nervousness of what’s going to happen when you unveil this thing for the first time. Will you sell it? Will they like it? Will you get to call your mom and tell her you’re going to be gainfully employed after this? It’s a great show.

We’re also in the process of publishing a graphic novel that I co-wrote with a guy named Jeremy Barlow, who’s a great writer. It’s called Supersized the Dark Side of the Fast Food Culture. There were so many people after Super Size Me came out that wrote and told me stories about their fast food experiences, either dining there or being employees there. So, we’ve created this anthology of fast food horror stories that are told in a very crypt-keeper fashion that I think people are going to dig.

E: I never talk about that until they’re done, but I have two films in production. One will done in January and come out on HBO in February. The other one is a film that will come out theatrically in the early Spring.