Adapting a Boring Book into a Fun Film

It’s impossible to count how many book-to-screen adaptations have been a disappointment. Such occurrences are often the right of poor screenwriting. If the script is well written, though, the film is typically well done. While we would guess it’s easy enough to create a great screenplay from a great book, what about creating an exciting screenplay out of a boring book? I have noticed that seemingly boring books, such as The Big Short, have been getting big screen adaptations. 

The Big Short movie, based on the nonfictional book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, came out in 2015. It focused on the housing market bubble and the extreme ramifications it had on the turbulent stock market due to mortgage-backed securities. Fascinating stuff, I know. The film adaptation, though, did very well at the box office and was awarded multiple Oscars. How did the screenwriter’s pull it off? By using some tricks that I had never seen done before.

‘The Big Short’ director Adam McKay (center) with stars Carell and Gosling.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Co-writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph were smart enough to realize that the finance jargon in which Wall Street bankers typically speak would baffle most viewers. They fixed this problem by giving very popular celebrities cameos and having them explain these terms which absolutely did the trick. Seeing Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining what subprime loans are was an amazing touch. For almost two minutes, mortgage-backed loans seem interesting. Later in the film, we see Selena Gomez turn away from her poker game and explain synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligation).

The smartest cameo, though, is chef Anthony Bourdain explaining how CDO’s work and how they are repackaged and sold by comparing the process to using leftover fish in a stew. Not only does he explain a complicated financial matter perfectly, but he helps us understand a fair amount of restaurant specials. In other moments, when an obscure finance term is used, the scene pauses and a snarky definition appears on the screen. Another factor that helps the film’s pace is Ryan Gosling’s narration and his constant speaking directly into the camera.  Listening to him talk about the stock market, you’d almost think you were watching a James Bond film.

Ultimately, it seems safe to say that McKay and Randolph’s process can be narrowed down to four steps, as follows:

Step 1: Have popular, very attractive celebrities explain complicated terms that no one understands.

Step 2:  For the difficult terms that the audience probably doesn’t know, use snarky language to make them more palpable to the general public.

Step 3: Have your narrator treat the story like the most gritty action film, no matter how slow the story gets.

Step 4: Have the narrator speak directly into the camera throughout the film. Break the fourth wall!

I applaud McKay and Randolph for pulling this off. These screenwriting techniques have never before been done but they could definitely be the start of a new trend. Perhaps next we’ll see an adaptation of The Wealth of Nations or Das Kapital. I’d love to see Kate Upon explain the invisible hand theory or watch Will Ferrell define cultural marxism. 

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