What constitutes a remake of a documentary? Would you consider Milk to be based on The Times of Harvey Milk? Rob Epstein, who directed the latter, was thanked in the credits of the former and his film was surely an inspiration. His footage was even lifted or recreated for parts of Gus Van Sant's dramatized version. But Milk was ultimately deemed an original work, at least as far as the Academy Awards are concerned.
If you were to argue the case that the biopic is based on the documentary, where then would you draw the line? Is Monster based on Nick Broomfield's first Aileen Wuornos film (he too is thanked)? Is part of Munich based on One Day in September? And speaking of films by Kevin Macdonald, is The Last King of Scotland at all a remake of Barbet Schroeder's General Idi Amin Dada? It does feature footage from the doc, after all.
There's no denying Cate Blanchett's segment of I'm Not There is lifted from D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, but it's easier to say the latter was merely used as reference. Frederick Wiseman meanwhile insinuates Stanley Kubrick stole much of the first half of Full Metal Jacket from his own boot camp film Basic Training, which was indeed used by Kubrick as uncredited research material. The later fiction film is considered solely based on an autobiographical novel by Gustav Hasford.
Occasionally documentaries are directly remade and credited appropriately, and a trend for such -- or at least the desire for such -- has seemed to be growing over the past couple years. Since I've been writing about film, the Hollywood trades have reported on projects for remakes of Murderball, Bra Boys, Chicago 10, The King of Kong, Crazy Love, Hands on a Hard Body, Young @ Heart and most recently Racing Dreams.
Some of these films are about specific subjects and events, while others are about a relatively broad subject. With the latter I continually ask, what is the point? Why not just develop an original story set in the world of go-kart racing rather than directly adapt and have to pay for the rights to Racing Dreams? It's not as if Marshall Curry's documentary has been heard of, let alone seen, by very many people, and the studio's intent is to exploit a familiar title.
Yet for specific subjects, at least those publicly and/or historically known to the world, there also seems little reason for these documentaries to directly be the source material. Why would Aaron Sorkin and Steven Spielberg's planned Chicago 7 drama need to be based on Brett Morgen's animated documentary about the same trial? There's little in the non-fiction film that isn't historical record and therefore (I believe) able to be used as source material for another, unconnected movie. Kinda like how Milk can be labeled original despite its link to Epstein's Harvey Milk film.
Over the past few days, I watched three dramatic films that are certainly based upon documentaries: Grey Gardens, Rescue Dawn and Lords of Dogtown. And while I always understood the general reason for remakes of this sort -- they're more appealing (if not more accessible) to mainstream audiences, most of which don't watch feature documentaries (for some strange reason) -- I now also understand what they can do, for better or worse, with the switch in storytelling format.
First, let's talk about Grey Gardens, a dramatization that is apparently being deemed worthwhile because of all the kudos it's granted Drew Barrymore. Acclaim will always be given to performances that spot-on impersonate a person in an exact recreation of a familiar scene, and Barrymore's study of the Maysles brothers' documentaries Grey Gardens and The Beales of Grey Gardens, from which the remake simulates shots and scenes (including the one shown above), is impeccable. However, I can imagine a number of people mimicking little Edie just as well given enough practice.
Aside from the recreated moments, the majority of the made-for-cable drama is like a prequel. And just as we may grow bored of watching Wolverine or Hannibal Lecter's origin story, it's quite dull watching the Beales get to where they end up, in the daffy and disturbing documentary that made them famous. Besides, there's little shown that we're not already told about in the Maysles version (save for the sad implication that the Maysles exploited the women). Do we really need the literal, visual flashbacks?
Rescue Dawn, directed by Werner Herzog and based on his own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is also basically a dramatization of the story Dieter Dengler tells of in the earlier film. And like Grey Gardens, it's mostly watchable for the acting, though in this, little can be deemed mimicry or impersonation -- particularly the performance by Jeremy Davies, which is arguably the film's best.
Nowadays, it's becoming more and more acceptable to include dramatized recreations of events within a documentary, as evidenced by Man on Wire, The Road to Guantanamo and a number of films by Errol Morris, going back of course to The Thin Blue Line, which is the king of the dramatization doc. And while it has a higher class of actors, I tried to imagine Rescue Dawn being edited into Little Dieter for a lengthy example of the subgenre.
But there's an interesting dichotomy involved with Herzog's two films. Rescue Dawn is completely in the moment. We have no voice-over telling us what Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is thinking through his whole ordeal. And also the film is very visual in its storytelling. The original documentary is instead quite talky, and we get the whole POW escape tale as a reflective narrative dictated by both the real Dengler, who admits to much of what he was thinking at each moment, and somewhat by Herzog in a voice-over.
There is one moment in Dengler's story that comes out much, much more shockingly and sentimentally in the documentary than in the dramatization, and that's the moment concerning his fellow escapee, Duane (played by Steve Zahn in the remake). If you ever want to believe spoken exposition can be more powerful cinema than visual representation, these two films should be looked at and compared.
And if you want the reverse, I might recommend watching the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and its dramatic remake, Lords of Dogtown, back to back. The former, an oral history of modern skateboarding pioneers, including Stacy Peralta, the film's director, is a very well made film. But it can drag and repeat itself. If you're not that interested in the sport, you can easily grow tired of all the talking heads (cockily) remembering the good old days.
For that reason, I really see why Peralta adapted his own documentary as Lords of Dogtown, for which he wrote the screenplay. Because some stories are more entertaining when presented dramatically, and some people who might be interested in Peralta's story prefer it to be portrayed by popular actors like Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch. I'll confess that, though I'm not really a fan of either version, the remake held my attention a little better. And yes, it's embarrassing to admit that, as a strong supporter of non-fiction cinema.
The main problem with a film like Lords of Dogtown is that dramatic narratives are typically forced into a familiar structure, and after watching the first film it was very clear the chronology of the second film was manipulated for conventional storytelling purposes. Not to mention the concentration on romantic and family subplots that take away from the story's historical significance. But it's really only a problem if audiences are ignorant of the manipulation involved with dramatizations, and it's an issue that affects most films based on true stories, even Milk.
After watching these films, I'm more curious about all those planned dramatic remakes of documentaries and may continue the comparative experiment for the time being by checking out Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's redo of their own documentary Party Monster, the made-for-cable RKO 281, based on the doc The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and Martin Bell's American Heart, which is somewhat like a dramatic spin-off of his own documentary Streetwise.
I can't say yet that I'm completely okay with the concept, but I'm less hateful of the idea of docs being remade. What is your stance on the issue? Are there any other doc remakes I haven't mentioned that are worth at least a compare/contrast viewing?