Another Week, Another Movie Based on a Self-Help Book

What to Expect When You're Expecting could expect box-office success, based on its lineage.

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The history of films adapted from advice books is both fascinating and sparse, as Scott Meslow wrote recently for The Atlantic. The genre got its start in 1964 with Sex and the Single Girl, a romantic comedy inspired by Helen Gurley Brown's dating guide of the same name. After that, there was one 1972 Woody Allen film and three decades of virtual silence for guidebook-to-silver-screen transformations. Then Tina Fey's brilliant 2004 hit Mean Girls came along and revived the trope.

This spring, though, marks a small milestone: Two such films hit theaters. April's Think Like a Man, the romantic comedy based on Steve Harvey's Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, ended up a surprise commercial success—and, according to some critics, was actually a pretty decent movie. Where will What To Expect When You're Expecting, opening today, land on the spectrum of advice-book films? Will it be a Let's Go To Prison-style flop or a He's Just Not That Into You-style success?

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The film, inspired by the famous childbirth preparation book of the same name and featuring a star-studded ensemble, is getting mixed reviews: A.O. Scott says "some of it is even pretty funny," while Roger Ebert writes that "the stories are thin soup." But as Meslow pointed out in his piece about Think Like a Man's lineage, movies like these often do have flimsy stories. After all, they're adopted from books without plots. Take the case of the genre's first film, Sex and the Single Girl:

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.

For anyone who sees advice-book adaptations as the last frontier for a movie industry bereft of ideas, Sex and the Single Girl stands as evidence that the movie industry has been this way for a while. And another film this weekend shows, there still other wells of strange source material for Hollywood screenwriters to tap. What, after all, has less of a narrative than a Hasbro board game?

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Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers pop culture and music. He was previously an editor at Patch.com and a staff writer at OC Weekly. He has written for Spin, The AV Club, and RollingStone.com.

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