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.

what to expect 615.jpg

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?

Story continues below

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?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club,, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgement, and what it means to love their bodies

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Entertainment

Just In