Hollywood has had a long-term romance with literature. Big-screen adaptations of novels (and, yes, comic books) are at an all-time high, but cinema has frequently looked to the school of journalism for its source material. This weekend marks the 38th publication anniversary of New York Magazine’s “The Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night” by Nik Cohn, which led to the creation of the wildly popular 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta. The movie helped make disco a global sensation and sported one of the best-selling soundtrack albums of all time. But there’s more to Cohn’s story — and these other newspaper and magazine articles that inspired films. See what stories, true and fiction, informed some cinema’s biggest hits — many you probably didn’t realize actually started life between the pages.
In 1976, New York Magazine ran Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” about an Italian-American Brooklyn disco king and the working-class kids who populated the 2001 Odyssey — a New York nightclub landmark that closed its doors in 2005.
Vincent was the very best dancer in Bay Ridge — the ultimate Face. He owned fourteen floral shirts, five suits, eight pairs of shoes, three overcoats, and had appeared on American Bandstand. Sometimes music people came out from Manhattan to watch him, and one man who owned a club on the East Side had even offered him a contract. A hundred dollars a week. Just to dance.
The eighteen-year-old became the inspiration for John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever — right down to his gig in a paint store and the neighborhood girls who melted watching his moves. “To qualify as an Odyssey Face, an aspirant need only be Italian, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, with a minimum stock of six floral shirts, four pairs of tight trousers, two pairs of Gucci-style loafers, two pairs of platforms, either a pendant or a ring, and one item in gold,” Cohn wrote. “In addition, he must know how to dance, how to drive, how to handle himself in a fight. He must have respect, even reverence, for Facehood, and contempt for everything else. He must also be fluent in obscenity, offhand in sex. Most important of all, he must play tough.”
As engaging and poetic as Cohn’s article is, the entire story was a fabrication. In the 1990s, the British writer came clean:
My story was a fraud, I’d only recently arrived in New York. Far from being steeped in Brooklyn street life, I hardly knew the place. As for Vincent, my story’s hero, he was largely inspired by a Shepherd’s Bush mod whom I’d known in the Sixties, a one-time king of Goldhawk Road.
How could a story about a supernatural murderer who terrorizes teens in their dreams be real? Director Wes Craven was inspired to create A Nightmare on Elm Street after reading a series of articles in the LA Times printed during the 1970s. The stories centered on Khmer refugees, who after fleeing from Cambodia began to suffer disturbing nightmares that prevented them from sleeping. Many of the refugees died as a result. The strange phenomenon became known as “Asian Death Syndrome.” Craven shared a few details from those articles in a 2008 interview:
It was a series of articles in the LA Times, about men from South East Asia, who were from immigrant families and who had died in the middle of nightmares — and the paper never correlated them, never said, ‘Hey, we’ve had another story like this.’ The third one was the son of a physician. He was about twenty-one; I’ve subsequently found out this is a phenomenon in Laos, Cambodia. Everybody in his family said almost exactly these lines: ‘You must sleep.’ He said, ‘No, you don’t understand; I’ve had nightmares before — this is different.’ He was given sleeping pills and told to take them and supposedly did, but he stayed up. I forget what the total days he stayed up was, but it was a phenomenal amount — something like six, seven days. Finally, he was watching television with the family, fell asleep on the couch, and everybody said, ‘Thank god.’ They literally carried him upstairs to bed; he was completely exhausted. Everybody went to bed, thinking it was all over. In the middle of the night, they heard screams and crashing. They ran into the room, and by the time they got to him he was dead. They had an autopsy performed, and there was no heart attack; he just had died for unexplained reasons. They found in his closet a Mr. Coffee maker, full of hot coffee that he had used to keep awake, and they also found all his sleeping pills that they thought he had taken; he had spit them back out and hidden them. It struck me as such an incredibly dramatic story that I was intrigued by it for a year, at least, before I finally thought I should write something about this kind of situation.
It’s fairly common knowledge that Paul Thomas Anderson expanded upon his 1988 short film The Dirk Diggler Story when he created Boogie Nights — about a nightclub dishwasher turned porn star during the Golden Age of sleaze in the 1970s. Fewer know, however, that Mike Sager’s 1989 Rolling Stone article “The Devil and John Holmes” was as a major influence on Anderson’s 1997 adaptation. Detailing the violent history between porn star John Holmes, drug dealer Eddie Nash, and the 1981 Wonderland Murders, Sager’s article revealed how Holmes got in over his head with the Palestinian gangster: “About this time, Sharon [Gebenini, Holmes' first wife], says, Holmes began working as a courier for the Mob. ‘He’d come home from one of his movie premieres, take off his boots, peel down his socks and take out a wad of large bills. He’d say, ‘Count this.’ We’re talking $56,000 in two boots.” Anderson spoke about the article in the New Line DVD release of his film:
There was this great Rolling Stone article, and I remember the description of this guy Eddie Nash in Speedos and the sheen of sweat on his body. But a lot of details I’d forgotten. So I was kind of making it up as I go along, getting Dirk into a similar situation that I’d read about with John Holmes.
Alfred Molina brilliantly played the unhinged Nash in Anderson’s movie.
“Half of the race is psychology, and mentally he’s set. One way or another, he’ll find a way to beat you even if he’s driving the slower car,” reads Ken Li’s Vibe article “Racer X.” The story about street racing in New York City, centering on the unbeatable Rafael Estevez, a 30-year-old Dominican drag racer from Washington Heights, inspired the concept for the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious.
His eyes are lowered half-mast, nodding occasionally like he’s studying what the car has to tell him. For Estevez, it’s not the contest between racers that really matters but the abstract dialogue between the soul of a racer and his machine. Oddly, the makeshift dash cluttered with gauges — telling him everything from water pressure to fuel mixture — is missing one key thing: a speedometer. There’s a good reason. “When you know how fast you’re going,” says Estevez, punching the throttle again, “you’ll slow down.”
Vin Diesel’s lead-footed Dominic Toretto serves as the characterization of Estevez in Rob Cohen’s film.
On August 22, 1072, John Wojtowicz, along with Salvatore Naturale and Robert Westenberg, attempted to hold up a Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn. Wojtowicz intended to pay for his partner Ernest Aron’s sex reassignment surgery with the money (Aron later became known as Elizabeth Debbie Eden), but the heist was also a planned mafia hit. Wojtowicz was sentenced to 20 years, but was released in 1978. P.F. Kluge wrote about the holdup in a 1972 issue of Life, an article titled “The Boys in the Bank.” Wojtowicz made $7,500 selling the movie rights to his story and 1% of the net profits, which he used to fund Eden’s operation. Sidney Lumet cast Al Pacino as Wojtowicz in Dog Day Afternoon, and the film became an Academy Award winner, but Wojtowicz disputed that the film was only 30% accurate.
The April 1974 issue of Playboy featured an article about “as nice a little whorehouse as you ever saw” by Larry L. King. “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was the story of the Chicken Ranch brothel near La Grange, Texas. Dubbed the “Chicken Farm” in the article, King wrote:
Since the 1890s, at least, the Chicken Farm had been one of the better pleasure palaces in all Texas. You didn’t have to worry about clap, as when free-lancing on Postoffice Street in Galveston, or risk your hide in machismo-crazed whore bars on Fort Worth’s Jacksboro Highway, where mean-eyed, juiced-up, brilliantined, honky-tonk cowboys presumed themselves a nightly quota of asses to whip.
King and Peter Masterson brought the story to Broadway for a popular run starting in 1978. Even Governor Dolph Briscoe, who closed the operation down (at least until it reopened months later), attended. Hollywood later cast Burt Reynolds as the lenient sheriff who befriends Dolly Parton’s Miss Mona, the brothel’s madam, in the 1982 movie of the same name.
“The Hana girls dominate Maui surfing these days. Theory has it that they grow up riding such mangy waves that they’re ready for anything. Also, they are exposed to few distractions and can practically live in the water,” wrote Susan Orlean for Women Outside in “Life’s Swell.”
Sometimes watching them I couldn’t believe that they could head out so offhandedly into the ocean — this ocean, which had rolls of white water coming in as fast as you could count them, and had a razor-blade reef hidden just below the surface, and was full of sharks.
Orlean’s experience hanging out with the hardcore surf girls of Maui became the 2002 film Blue Crush, starring Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, Sanoe Lake, and Mika Boorem as young women readying for a competition on Hawaii’s North Shore.
When I was new at my bartending job, the owner of the Coyote Ugly Saloon told me, “If anyone ever comes into this place and asks for a mud slide, a zombie or a grasshopper, go ahead and make the drink. Then charge the guy fifteen bucks for it. Then take him outside and beat the shit out of him. Because this is not that kind of bar.”
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s life seemed a lot more interesting before her Eat, Pray, Love days. This excerpt from her 1997 article “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” for GQ was turned into the subpar film Coyote Ugly in 2000. Gilbert was working as a bartender at the East Village hotspot back in the day. Read about her experiences over here.
If you’ve ever wondered where the title “National Lampoon’s” originated from, look no further. Yes, it comes from the name of the popular 1970’s humor magazine, but not all movies bearing the title actually graced the pages of the publication. John Hughes’ National Lampoon’s Vacation did, however. It’s based on his fictional story “Vacation ’58” for the magazine, published in September 1979, written during the crippling Chicago Blizzard earlier that year. In a foreword for “Vacation ’58” reprinted by All-Story, Hughes reminisces:
I wrote the first sentence — “If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever!” — and the rest was automatic. I used the voice of a boy to cover my lack of skill, and to flatten the big moments. In Rusty’s prosaic language, a ruined vacation and an assault with a deadly weapon upon an entertainment legend enjoyed comparable importance. I called to mind a clamor of relatives, situations, catchphrases, and behaviors. I was mindful of my feelings as a child witnessing phony pop inventions go to hell. I understood that the dark side of my middle-class, middle-American, suburban life was not drugs, paganism, or perversion. It was disappointment. There were no gnawing insects beneath the grass. Only dirt. I also knew that trapped inside every defeat is a small victory, and inside that small victory is the Great Defeat. This knowledge — along with a cranky old lady; strange, needy relatives; a vile dog; and everything that could possibly go wrong on a highway — was enough to make a story, plug a hole in the magazine, and get on to the next issue.
Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and company brought the disastrous family to life when Harold Ramis directed the film adaptation we all know and love in 1983.
The creeptastic Stephen King-inspired film Children of the Corn started life as a short story in the March 1977 issue of Penthouse of all places. The story spawned a popular (albeit mostly cruddy) franchise about a dangerous cult of children in a remote town who murder people over the age of 18.