Do you find it strange that non-fiction books aren't adapted very often into documentaries? Recently, we've seen a few such films that worked really well as translated, including Man on Wire and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Compared to fiction, however, non-fiction best-sellers are not as regularly turned into feature films. We could think the reason is that documentaries are best when they follow a story in real time, as the events occur. But not all do this, and certainly neither of those docs based on books mentioned do so. Yet they're still quality works.
Freakonomics, which is based on the hugely popular book by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, offers some reason for why and how a non-fiction literary work should not be adapted. It is a mixed bag, though, in that it oftentimes is successful, mainly when it is more inspired by the source rather than simply based upon it.
The reason that Freakonomics is so up and down is partly due to the fact that it's an anthology film made up of segments directed by different "all-star" documentarians. These include Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Oscar-nominees Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) and acclaimed filmmakers Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Seth Gordon (King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). One of the film's producers, Chad Troutwine, previously worked on the fiction anthology Paris, je t'aime, and like that, as well as a majority of anthology films, there is at least one bad apple in the bunch.
Spurlock's very literal lift of the book's chapter on baby names and how or how not they ultimately affect a child's success in life is just lazy filmmaking. Real world examples from the text are cartoonishly staged with actors and motion graphics in a way that makes the accounts appear made up. And even though the director does have some man-on-the-street interviews, they don't bring anything new to the topic. The people also seem to have been plucked from a short radius over the course of about an hour.
Now, of course someone who hasn't read the book is going to find the segment fascinating. I read Freakonomics recently, and so much of what is in the film -- not just in Spurlock's chapter -- is very fresh in my mind. Does the literalness of the information make for bad cinema? Not necessarily, as Jarecki's very brisk piece on the controversial link between abortion legalization and lowered crime rates shows. But I can't see the 4 million or so readers of the book needing these illustrative supplements to what they've previously read. Then again, lots of people prefer the most faithful adaptations of fiction works, so I could very well be wrong.
I had greater appreciation for the two segments that expanded beyond what is in the book. Gibney's adaptation of a chapter on cheating among Sumo wrestlers opens the scope to relate the wrestlers to the U.S. financial scandals of Bernie Madoff and others. It's a predictable direction for the maker of films about Enron and Jack Abramoff, but you can't fault him for his interests. Gibney also takes a look at corruption in the Tokyo police department that almost veers off track, but at least it is a fresh course. And reflective references to the book itself are interesting, as this segment presents a Japanese journalist who claims to be influenced on Freakonomics, and it addresses the fact that cheating in Sumo stopped following the book's revelation, albeit only temporarily (this reminded me of similar after effects of The Cove).
Ewing and Grady's final section, which deals with a study into how financial incentives may influence students' schoolwork, is the most rewarding, and I don't believe solely for those of us familiar with the book beforehand. That they were allowed to explore a topic not adapted at all from any of the chapters -- though still focused on Levitt's field work -- allows for new territory overall. It's a completely different breed of documentary from the rest of Freakonomics, focusing on observation over the communication of information.
Interestingly, their segment is very similar to the duo's earlier film The Boys of Baraka, though their ability to find and objectively spotlight entertaining characters appears to be improving (as are their films in general). There is no indication that the two boys Ewing and Grady follow throughout the study are as much incentivized by their potential cinematic fame as they are from the money offered to them for good grades -- a rarity lately with docs centered on teens, and I wish we were given more time with these kids.
A film version of Freakonomics couldn't have offered more than that single non-adapted section and still be considered genuinely based upon the book. Yet at the same time I wonder if Troutwine and company couldn't have made a different movie more spun-off from the text, something that would have been based on the continued or separate work of Levitt and Dubner rather than on what so many people have already read. Perhaps something akin to Food, Inc., which uses the writings -- and interview testimonial -- of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser as a springboard rather than an absolute source.
With a familiar title to people who've read the book or not, Freakonomics should be a great success, and like its source it is swift and easily digestible. None of it will likely provoke discussion, though, as all the information is glided through so quickly and entertainingly that it doesn't seem to be anything more substantial than interesting yet trivial data. Even the abortion stuff seems glossed over enough here that it won't offend as much as the original article that introduced Levitt's controversial theory.
One aspect of Freakonomics I'm surprised isn't brought up more given that it's a film primarily about incentives, it is very fitting that due to the production model of this adaptation all the filmmakers, as hired talents, were paid substantially more than documentarians are used to. Despite my feeling that the film of Freakonomics is an unnecessary work, if this kind of project allows for the directors involved to make more important documentaries in the future, I have to be thankful that it was made.