While print journalists are usually restricted to writing fairly short articles or the occasional long-form piece for their publications, once in a while they stumble across a story that might take volumes to tell. Some of these pieces might tell us about an interesting figure we might not otherwise have heard of, or shed light on a previously unknown facet of history, or have the potential to bring down a politician—a president, even. And in some cases, the story might just be worth telling for its own sake. Quite a few of these non-fiction accounts tend to find their way into the hands of producers and other major Hollywood players and, with the right star or director, end up as blockbusters. The following reporters are just a few who saw their accounts turned into critically and commercially successful films.
6 Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – All the President’s Men
All the President’s Men isn’t just a good work of political reporting, but one of the single most important in the history of investigative journalism. It was born from articles that were key in bringing the Watergate scandal to light, ultimately leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Then reporters for the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein stumbled across the beginnings of the scandal in the spring of 1972, when the duo covered the first break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. In time, the journalists would learn that the burglaries—intended to gather information from hidden microphones—had been commissioned by figures high up in the Nixon administration, who in turn were trying to cover up their involvement. Investigations eventually led to the arrest and convictions of 48 government officials, including Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, and Attorney General John Mitchell.
Two years following the book’s publication, All the President’s Men was made into a docudrama by director Alan J. Pakula, starring Robert Redford as Woodward and Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Frank Wills, the Watergate security guard who initially discovered the break-ins, portrayed himself in a bit part. That year, it won Academy Awards for Art Direction, Sound, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Jason Robards).
5 Mark Bowden – Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
The seeds for Black Hawk Down were sown in 1993, when Bowden covered the battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, which saw the deaths of 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis. The battle erupted during a joint mission by Army Rangers and Delta Force operatives to locate and extract warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, when local militia fired upon and brought down two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, stranding their surviving crew in the heart of the urban centre and resulting in a day-long skirmish. Two of the American dead, Delta Force snipers Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, were killed while defending injured Black Hawk pilot Michael Durant and received posthumous Medals of Honor; Durant was captured by the militia and released over a week later.
Black Hawk Down was published in 1999, and its film rights were purchased by producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The resulting adaptation in 2001 was directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and featured an ensemble cast, reflecting the multiple perspectives Bowden used in his narrative. It won Academy Awards for Editing and Sound, but was criticized for what was seen as an inaccurate portrayal of the Somalian people as well as diminishing the roles of Malaysian and Pakistani soldiers, among other concerns.
4 Susan Orlean – The Orchid Thief
Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief started out as an article in The New Yorker, focusing on Floridian horticulturalist John Laroche, who was arrested in 1994 for poaching the rare Ghost Orchid in hopes of reproducing and selling the flower. Orlean’s account is the most unusual included in this list, as its ensuing adaptation was not a mere dramatization of the events it covered but an examination of the very processes of adaptation. Fittingly, it was called Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Her) and starring Nicolas Cage as real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as well as his fictional brother Donald.
Adaptation depicts Kaufman’s semi-fictional struggles, following the success of his work on Being John Malkovich, to adapt Orlean’s The Orchid Thief for the big screen. As his writer’s block deepens, Kaufman finds himself turning the book into a thriller and entwining Orlean herself (played here by Meryl Streep) in Laroche’s escapades. The film was critically acclaimed, currently holding a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Chris Cooper won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Laroche; Cage and Streep were also nominated for their roles, but lost out to Adrien Brody and Catherine Zeta-Jones, respectively.
3 George Crile III – Charlie Wilson’s War
Though the book itself was not published until 2003, George Crile III, a reporter and producer for CBS news, began researching what would ultimately become Charlie Wilson’s War as far back as the late 1980s. The account’s central figure, Charlie Wilson, was a former U.S. Navy officer and a Texas state representative, and who in the early 1980s became interested in the cause of the mujahideen, Afghan rebels allied against their country’s then pro-Soviet government. In cooperation with CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, Wilson used his position in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense to covertly shore up over $300 million in financial support for the rebels, according to Crile.
By funding the mujahideen, as well as supplying them with Stinger rocket launchers, Wilson played a significant role in forcing Soviet troops to withdraw—though his actions remain controversial, with Peter Bergen’s book Holy War, Inc. alleging that much of this money went toward future Taliban leader and al-Qaeda supporter Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The events in Crile’s book were later adapted for a 2007 film by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Closer), starring Tom Hanks as Wilson and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Avrakotos, with the latter earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
2 Kurt Eichenwald – The Informant
The Informant initially came about in 1995 while Eichenwald was reporting on a price-fixing scandal involving major agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland. Its key figure was Mark Whitacre, then the head of ADM’s BioProducts Division, who voluntarily went to the FBI and blew the whistle on the company’s economic manipulations. By wearing a wire, Whitacre was able to obtain enough evidence of ADM’s misdoings for the FBI to prosecute; the company eventually settled, paying out hundreds of millions of dollars as a result. However, Whitacre later confessed that he had embezzled over $9 million from the company during his time there, which ultimately netted him over eight years in prison.
Eichenwald’s account was later adapted into the similarly but more excitably titled The Informant! in 2009, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Contagion). The film cast Matt Damon in the role of Whitacre and portrayed the events in a darkly comedic light. Damon’s eccentric performance earned him critical acclaim from Variety’s Todd McCarthy and a Golden Globe nomination for Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
1 Michael Lewis – Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
One of the most famous and influential works of sports journalism in recent years, Moneyball is the story of Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane’s revitalization of his team through the use of statistical analysis. The process, commonly known as sabermetrics, allowed the GM to select players who were financially undervalued—the A’s had a comparatively lower salary of $41 million in 2002—but who possessed traits more indicative of success in baseball than batting average or runs batted in (RBI). That year, the A’s were much more successful than they had been previously, which led to the adoption of the model by even bigger teams like the Boston Red Sox (who would win the World Series in 2004).
Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the film version of Moneyball starred Brad Pitt as Billy Beane and Jonah Hill, in his first Oscar-nominated role, as the team’s assistant GM. It received nearly universal critical acclaim (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and made over $110 million worldwide according to Box Office Mojo.