One of this year’s hottest documentaries will be adapted into a dramatic retelling.
Documentaries are hot right now. They’ve been plenty popular for the last 15 years, but for a while now they’ve been more successful on the small screen, particularly streaming on Netflix. This year has seen an uptick for theatrical releases, however, with three in particular joining the ranks of the top-grossing docs of all time. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, and Three Identical Strangers are the first collective wave of notable documentary hits on the big screen that doesn’t include Disneynature or concert films in more than a decade.
And yet that’s not enough. Each one of the trio of docs is about to be supplanted, to a degree, by a dramatic retelling of their stories. For Won’t You be My Neighbor? and RBG, their subjects are naturally getting the biopic treatment, and neither could really be considered a remake. The latter’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be portrayed by actress Felicity Jones in the December release On the Basis of Sex, while the former’s Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers) will be played by Tom Hanks in next fall’s You Are My Friend.
Not so expected is the recent news, via IndieWire, that the subjects of Three Identical Strangers will also receive a retelling in “narrative feature” form. For those who’ve seen the trailer for the film, which is about triplets separated at birth who reunited by way of happenstance at age 19, the unbelievable story would seem ripe for a Hollywood take. And executive producer Katherine Butler thinks so, too. She told IndieWire, “This is an incredible series of true events that naturally lends itself to a narrative telling.”
Of course, they already did, in a “riveting” narrative-driven documentary that is filled with dramatic “reenactment” material. But also, for those who’ve actually seen the film, the claim that the tale “naturally” translates to a dramatic telling is questionable. If Butler (who as head of the production company Raw will also be involved in the remake) wants to just follow the brothers as they meet through coincidence and then become minor celebrities, that could make for a fine film. That stuff makes up only the first act of the doc. The rest might be more difficult to adapt.
I don’t want to spoil the twists and revelations that come about in Three Identical Strangers, but there’s a lot more to the story than an extraordinary reunion of triplets who hadn’t known they were part of a set. There’s an investigation into dark subject matter that’s even more shocking and grander in scope. There are pieces that take us back in time and sort of take us away from the main characters for a good chunk of the film. In a documentary format, the structure of the storytelling works, even if it can be flawed with lots of archival footage being repeated, only sometimes for good purpose. In a drama, the nonlinear structure required to keep audiences amazed may also make them more confused.
The task of adapting the story won’t be impossible. There are many options, including something more chronological, though that would kill the twists, or a film where the triplets aren’t the main characters, though that would ruin a lot of the fun of their part of the greater narrative. Something fragmented — nonlinearly bouncing around in time or involving tons of flashbacks — is inaccessible enough for mainstream moviegoers, that it would defeat the point in remaking the doc for that wider audience anyway.
Three Identical Strangers has already sold about 500,000 tickets for a domestic gross of $4.6 million, and this (plus the continuing figures) may be the extent of its reach in either format. The remake doesn’t seem to be a Hollywood studio fare — of course, one could wind up distributing the movie — and if it looks like an arthouse feature, it will attract a crowd who’ll be open to seeing the doc. Part of that crowd will appreciate the overlap and enjoy seeing the story acted out after seeing the original, just as they would want to see an adaptation of a book they’ve read. Not everyone is happy to be sold the same thing twice, however.
And when has remaking a documentary ever been a great venture? Last year, I broke down the data on recent movies inspired by or adapted straight from docs, most of which had been relative hits enough on their own. Attempts such as The Walk, Snowden, Our Brand is Crisis, and (the brilliant but sadly little-seen) Loving were anything but big financial successes. Most lost money, in fact. And if The Walk wasn’t enough of a sign to not redo docs, its director, Robert Zemeckis, has another out this fall. Welcome to Marwen may be “the most original movie of the year,” at least for a doc remake, but it’s not likely to do well.
Three Identical Strangers would have to be made rather cheaply to anticipate the potential for another flop. Maybe that can be achieved in the casting of real triplets, who would have to be unknowns since there is no triplet set of movie stars. Casting one famous actor to play all three, similar to Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, would create an unnecessary visual effects cost. Depending on how the story is presented in the remake, a name actor could fill an investigatory protagonist role.
Fortunately, most announced documentary remakes never happen. The most outrageous “stranger than fiction” stories seem to be the hardest to replicate, compared to the standard biographical fare. There’s even already another doc about identical siblings discovering each other late in life (Twinsters) that has been in development for a redo (as a TV series). Despite there being three companies collaborating to bring the tale of Three Identical Strangers “to the widest audience possible,” the odds are not in the remake’s favor.
Instead of waiting to see if I’m wrong, and this movie does get made and maybe is even successful, just go out and see Three Identical Strangers, now playing on the big screen courtesy of Neon. Or at least on CNN when it debuts there.