The director of ‘Spotlight’ is the best suited to bring the elliptical podcast to the big screen.
When the true crime podcast Serial found breakout success, it spawned a host of imitators. Of all the programming that followed in its wake, no project was more strange or more original than S-Town. The later podcast, which like Serial was produced in part by Julie Snyder and developed by This American Life, begins its seven-episode arc as an investigation by producer Brian Reed into a potential murder.
Then the story spirals off into a maelstrom of increasingly tangential questions, conflicts, and stray observations. Each diversion serves to further illuminate the life of John B. McLemore, a misanthropic and reclusive horologist living in rural Alabama. S-Town is an impressionistic portrait rather than a whodunit, but that won’t deter filmmakers from trying to whittle its many-layered narrative into an audience-friendly feature film.
Deadline reports that Participant Media has acquired the film rights to S-Town and This American Life will also be a producing partner. No talent is yet attached, but Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Spotlight) and playwright Samuel Hunter (A Bright New Boise, The Whale) are currently in negotiations to direct and write the feature, respectively.
Podcasts have recently become the latest source of fresh IP for Hollywood developers. TV shows like Two Dope Queens have already transitioned successfully from one format to the other, and further offerings like Welcome to the Nightvale are currently in development. It’s no wonder then that S-Town, a critical and commercial hit that broke records with an astonishing 10 million downloads in only four days, is making it’s way to the big screen. However, of all the popular podcasts in recent years, S-Town will almost certainly be the most tricky to adapt.
The makers of S-Town won a Peabody Award earlier this year for their innovative storytelling, but when the series first launched in 2017, it garnered controversy for its startling plot twist and for the unwavering and uncensored gaze it directed its on subject “John B.” Many found the exhaustive probe into John’s psyche to be exploitative, and any film adaptation of John’s story will inevitably receive the same criticism.
Although podcast listeners were able to find deeper meaning concerning John’s saddening past, mental health, failed love life, and obsession with antique clocks, film audiences might not be willing to watch his story unfold without a mystery to solve or a clear through-line. If an S-Town film were to be made with its source material’s twist intact, that might alienate viewers completely at the point when it abruptly abandons its murder investigation story in favor of a more metaphysical exploration.
Fortunately, McCarthy is no stranger to tackling subject matter that puts him in danger of alienating viewers. His most critically successful film to date, Spotlight, tells the story of the nearly year-long investigation undertaken by Boston Globe reporters that ultimately uncovered a child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. Like S-Town, Spotlight‘s plot begins with an inquiry into a single allegation and quickly expands to reveal a much more elaborate and difficult truth than the one the journalists set out to uncover.
McCarthy proved with Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, that he can craft a compelling film from a much larger ensemble narrative. He and Hunter might be well suited to finding the film within S-Town, and there is no doubt the podcast has a built-in fan base who would be interested in a big screen adaptation. However, S-Town’s story remains a difficult one to tell, one that includes an unfriendly and hermetic main character, grim themes, and an oblique plot. McCarthy and Hunter may be on their way to turning S-Town into a successful film, but they certainly won’t have it easy.