Kon-Tiki hits American theaters this week, months after it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. It’s a narrative retelling of Kon-Tiki, the 1951 Academy-Award winning documentary directed by Thor Heyerdahl about his voyage across the South Seas in a raft of his own creation. Here are some other compelling real-life stories caught on film…that were then scripted and remade.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
In 1997, Werner Herzog made Little Dieter Needs to Fly for German television, a documentary about a German-born American pilot named Dieter Dengler who was shot down and captured in the Vietnamese War but later successfully escaped. About a decade later, Herzog wrote and directed Rescue Dawn, based on the events of Dieter.
Party Monster (2003)
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato produced and directed Party Monster: The Shockumentary in 1998, based on Disco Bloodbath by NYC club kid James St. James, which focuses on the life and murders of fellow club kid and horrifying sociopath Michael Alig. The duo remade it as a narrative film in 2003, with Seth Green and Macauley Culkin as St. James and Alig respectively, in Oscar-worthy performances.
Major Hollywood types had been trying for years to make a biographical film about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was the first major openly gay politician in America — and ultimately murdered by a colleague who was acquitted in a kangaroo court. SFO native Robin Williams tried for years, but Sean Penn got the title role and won the Oscar for 2008’s Milk. Until then, the only other film about Milk was The Times of Harvey Milk, directed in 1984 by Rob Epstein. (It won the Oscar for Best Documentary.)
Grey Gardens (2009)
The made-for-HBO drama about Jacqueline Kennedy’s cousins who fall into mental illness and hoarding in their crumbling beachside mansion demanded and required remarkable performances from Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange (as Little Edie and Big Edie, respectively). But it’s not nearly as shocking or fascinating as the classic 1973 documentary of the same name.
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
Long-haired skater boys attract a certain element to the box office (teens of both genders), but there was really no reason to remake the joyous Dogtown and Z Boys, about the birth of skateboarding in California in the ’60s and ‘70s.
Steven Spielberg’s stark, minimal thriller about the terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics and the elite special-ops team that tracks them down almost feels like a documentary, and it owes a heavy debt to Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning 1999 doc One Day in September.
American Heart (1992)
This is an intimate movie about a dad who gets out of jail and tries, heartbreakingly hard, to connect with his streetwise son and kick the bottle. It’s deliberate, personal, and feels like it’s based on a play, but it’s actually a reworking of some of the stories told in Streetwise, a 1984 documentary about homeless Seattle teenagers.
RKO 281 (1999)
In 1999, HBO dramatized the legendary battle faced by Orson Welles in trying to get his masterpiece Citizen Kane completed, facing adversity from his studio (and the person his film was very obviously attacking, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst). Citizen Kane’s story had been told before, though, in the 1996 American Experience episode The Battle Over Citizen Kane.
The King of Kong (2014?)
In a truly mind-bendingly meta film experience, plans are underway to remake the humorous documentary The King of Kong, which concerns two grown men fighting for the world record in Donkey Kong 30 years after that game came out, with a script and actors…as a mockumentary. Huh.
Quantum Hoops (2014?)
And here’s another upcoming remake of a documentary. Ben Stiller is producing a movie based on the 2007 documentary movie Quantum Hoops, about the brilliant but not-so-athletically-gifted team at Caltech, aiming to win a single game and break a 240-game, 21-year losing streak. Sounds like that would make an excellent movie. Again.