*But were afraid to ask
Ensemble comedy Think Like a Man, in theaters this weekend, is based on a self-help book by comedian Steve Harvey—and if you didn't already know that, the movie's marketing team is doing its damndest to tell you. Harvey's 2009 bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which features indispensible insights like "men get away with a whole lot of stuff," features heavily into the film's plot when its leading ladies use the book to gain the upper hand on their male counterparts. The book's cover appears no fewer than three times in the film's trailer alone. Harvey cameos as himself in the film. There is already, of course, a movie tie-in edition of Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man on sale.
There's an obvious challenge to adapting Think Like a Man for the big screen: The book has no plot. Still, the film exists, and looks poised to make a lot of money. Movies based on self-help guides may seem like the latest gambit from Hollywood studios so desperate for hits that they've begun to adapt internet memes and board games into feature-length films. But the history of the advice book in movie theaters is far older and stranger than it may initially appear.
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Hollywood's first self-help book adaptation came nearly 50 years ago, with 1964's Sex and the Single Girl, based on the 1962 book of the same title by Helen Gurley Brown. Gurley Brown's bestseller, which included chapters like "How to be Sexy" and "The Affair: From Beginning to End," drew considerable controversy (and sales numbers) by advocating that women have sex outside of marriage. The book's popularity made it an irresistible subject for adaptation, but its tawdry subject matter and lack of narrative made just as daunting a challenge. How could a movie be made out of Sex and the Single Girl?
Despite those early successes, the advice-book-turned-movie lay dormant for more than 30 years.
The answer was to barely adapt the book at all. The alley-cat cultural force that was Sex and the Single Girl got declawed: screenwriter Joseph Heller (considerably more famous for his novel Catch-22) transformed Gurley Brown's provocative treatise into a conventional romantic comedy, starring a Natalie Wood as a fictionalized version of Helen Gurley Brown, who uses her Sex and the Single Girl tricks to land Tony Curtis by the film's end. Viewed today, it's an occasionally charming, wholly bland adaptation that retains none of the actual Gurley Brown's pilgrim spirit. (Curious readers can view the entire film for free on Youtube.) It took decades before a more faithful "adaptation" of Sex and the Single Girl emerged in the form of the HBO series Sex and the City, which can trace both its title and its DNA to Gurley Brown.
Whatever its compromises, Sex and the Single Girl was a hit—and proved that a film could be adapted from a self-help book. It was less than a decade later that a young director named Woody Allen released his fourth movie: a comedy titled Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Allen's film, like Sex and the Single Girl, played loosely with its source material (in this case, a 1969 self-help guide from a psychiatrist name David Reuben). But Allen found an ingenious way to mimic the original book's structure. Instead of a conventional, three-act film narrative Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex featured seven thematically linked vignettes with titles like "What Happens During Ejaculation?" and "Why Do Some Women Have Trouble Reaching an Orgasm?" The movie was Allen's then-biggest hit, grossing more than nine times its production budget at the box-office and solidifying his place as one of Hollywood's most innovative auteurs.