*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?
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.
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But despite those early successes, the advice-book-turned-movie lay dormant for more than 30 years, as Hollywood somehow lacked the nerve to tackle films based on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or Who Moved My Cheese? But when the self-help adaptation genre returned, it returned for its most financially successful installment to date: 2004's Mean Girls, which Tina Fey adapted from a book with the marquee-unfriendly title Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. The wry, insightful Mean Girls is the gold standard for a successful self-help book adaptation, as Fey takes the lessons from the original tome and applies them to a well-written, well-acted movies that embeds its themes deeply into both character and story.
In fact, Mean Girls was so successful that it may have revived the concept of a self-help book adaptation altogether. After 30 years without an entry, two such films debuted in Mean Girls' wake: the Dax Shepard-starring megaflop Let's Go To Prison (based on Jim Hogshire's You Are Going To Prison) and the ensemble romcom He's Just Not That Into You (a movie based on an advice book based on a line from a Sex and the City episode. Seriously). Think Like a Man debuts tomorrow, and What to Expect When You're Expecting—based on the bestselling pregnancy guide of the same name—hits theaters in May. And regardless of those films' success or failure, the self-help book adaptation trend shows no signs of slowing: IMDB currently lists film versions of John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Neil Strauss's The Game as on-track for release in 2013.
Whether or not these movies are successful, each entry in the genre offers a certain cultural insight worth appreciating. At the very least, self-help book adaptations are like their source material in that they give us a snapshot of a certain time and place, and the way that society handled some of the most important issues of its era. From feminism to sex, to bullying to dating, from gender to pregnancy, these are films that remind us who we were—or, at very their best, who we are.