The Big Short is the third of Michael Lewis’ bestselling books — after The Blind Side and Moneyball — to become a film, and I’ll admit, I never expected that the first director to do him justice would be the guy from Stepbrothers. Awards season tends to be painfully predictable, but Adam McKay has served up that rare pleasant surprise. In order to do that, he had to depart significantly from conventional movie wisdom, and his producer and distributor (Plan B productions and Paramount) had to give him the freedom to do so. That they gave McKay the project in the first place suggests that they weren’t looking for the same old prestige picture. They didn’t get one, and the movie, maybe even the world, is better for it.
Whether The Big Short represents a subtle evolution in the types of non-fiction movies Hollywood makes or a great leap forward, the exciting thing about it is that it’s open source (in the sense that it’s open with its sources, not that it works on any platform). All biopics and based-on-a-true-story movies are a blend of fact and fiction. What’s different about The Big Short is that it’s consistently transparent about which is which.
Surely part of the reason that Adam McKay, his co-writer Charles Randolph, and the rest of The Big Short crew came up with an interesting solution is that they had a unique problem. Normally, trying to turn a Michael Lewis book into a feature film is your basic square peg/round hole situation. The narrative feature film, at least, the ones we’re used to seeing (and the ones that execs are used to greenlighting) is inherently geared toward fiction. The beauty of Lewis’ books is that they aren’t fiction. They aren’t even semi-fictionalized, in that they aren’t “non-fiction novels” in the Truman Capote mold, where the writer applies traditional fiction storytelling to a “true” story. (I use quotations here because if you read In Cold Blood, it’s hard to go more than a few sentences without running into something Capote invented wholesale, whether it be the thoughts of a character he never interviewed, or the feeling of the breeze in a time and place he didn’t experience.)
If you’re into that, fine, but it’s not what Lewis does. That level of artifice is missing, which makes his books feel simultaneously modern and timeless. They’re meticulously researched and cleverly structured, and they don’t use manufactured melodrama or creative liberty to try to spice up the story (or even florid prose – compare Lewis to, say, Erik Larson). The entertainment value comes strictly from lucid storytelling, choice of subject, researching the necessary backstory, and structuring it all in a way that makes it a page-turner. And he’s brilliant at it. I always burn through a new Michael Lewis title in a week or less, even if I previously couldn’t have given two sh*ts about baseball, or sabermetrics, or the offensive tackle position, or high-frequency trading, or whatever. His skill is taking something that’s interesting to him and translating it, in as straightforward a way as possible, to you. Who wouldn’t want that same quality in a movie?
The trouble is, his books end up being probably 70 percent exposition and 30 percent narrative, in a way that works on the page but doesn’t translate so easily to the scene-driven format of narrative film. Here’s Lewis talking about selling Moneyball, from the L.A. Times:
When the popular author sold his 2003 baseball analytics bestseller “Moneyball” to Columbia Pictures, the book’s primary subject, Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane, balked at selling his own rights.
“I said, ‘Billy, don’t worry. It’ll just be an annuity. People will be [spending] years writing a screenplay, but nothing will ever happen,'” Lewis remembers. “And, for years, that looked to be the case.”
The solution to adapting Michael Lewis books in the past has been to just sort of smoosh it into the traditional prestige-movie format, no matter how sloppy the fit. To take his cleverly structured non-fiction, restructure it, cut out most of the exposition, and fill it full of wholly-invented character drama. To turn Michael Lewis into Truman Capote, essentially.
From strictly a money standpoint, it’d be hard to argue that this method hasn’t been successful. The Blind Side earned $309 million worldwide, Moneyball brought in another $110 million, and both received numerous Oscar nominations. But for any fan of Lewis’ sober, unadorned prose, watching Sandra Bullock say “Nope, he’s changin’ mahne” or Brad Pitt cry about his daughter singing him a song in a guitar store is guaranteed to make you want to puke.