S-Town is being turned into a movie. Here’s why that’s such a big problem

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Kate Leaver
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“What is the real justification for making a film, when we already have access to this story in the public domain?”

There’s going to be an S-Town movie. The wildly popular true-crime podcast by reporter Brian Reed will reportedly be directed by Tom McCarthy, who happens to have a shiny statue by the name of Oscar stashed somewhere in his home. He directed Spotlight, another film about journalists unravelling a story that ends up consuming them. But how successfully can he translate a podcast to the big screen? And how will he deal with glaring ethical issues such as the depiction of suicide, the implications of criminality and the question of who really owns this life story?

Sixteen million people listened to S-Town in the first week of it being available on iTunes. It is one of the great blockbusters of the genre, and it was certainly skilfully done. Reed is a reporter for This American Life, so he is a masterful storyteller in the medium. It was during his time on that show that he came across correspondence from one John B McLemore – the crude but beguiling man who would become Reed’s protagonist. He wrote to beg someone to investigate an alleged murder in his home town – a place he called “s**t town, Alabama”, hence the name of the podcast. Reed followed up, drove to him and became ensconced in an increasingly complex tale of crime, drugs, sexuality, wealth, poverty and hidden treasure. It became less about murder and more about who this man was, and what he knew. 

The two men forged a friendship of sorts, despite a great disconnect between the circumstances of their lives. It was at once a friendship and a transaction: an exchange between subject and storyteller, where both parties seemed aware of what the other could give them. For Brian Reed, John’s was a story worth telling and became the most popular of his career. For John B McLemore, the motive was slightly murkier: he seemed to want to be heard, but he seemed to want a justice that was slightly out of Reed’s purview to enact. Whether or not he was satisfied with the process of sharing his thoughts with Reed, we will never know.

In the podcast, we spend a lot of time with both Reed and McLemore, getting to know them and at times hearing monologues that really move the case along. Tragically, we are with McLemore – in the sense that hearing a story, rather than seeing it, makes you feel oddly close to the person telling it – when he finds out that McLemore has killed himself. McLemore stays on the phone to someone he knows until the final moments of his life.

Herein lies the great challenge, if not problem, of this film adaptation. How, exactly, do the filmmakers expect to deal with this suicide? How does one get across the anguish of this man’s final day without showing the act itself? Please, oh please, may they choose not to show it on screen. Every reputable mental health expert on the planet advises against showing the method of suicide because suicide contagion is a very real, very dangerous phenomenon. I would sincerely hope that anyone making this film would listen to such guidelines and keep the actual act off-screen. That is an enormous ethical consideration and we can only wish and plead that Hollywood has standards when it comes to the proliferation of suicide. 

Then comes the question of just who exactly this story belongs to. The rights have technically been bought from Brian Reed, who reported it and certainly did so elegantly. But since the podcast came out, he has been criticised for getting so close to the subject of his story and telling the tale of a clearly disturbed man. It’s always complicated, morally, when we tell the tale of someone who is no longer around to give their permission, particularly someone who took his own life.

John B McLemore left people who cared about him in his wake: his grandmother, his friends, his acquaintances in town. How will they feel, watching a film about their John’s life and death? How will it affect them to see his drug-taking, his struggle to accept his sexuality, his brushes with the law, his last few hours alive? To reconstruct a life for film is to take something from the people still living who loved that person – we often forget to take that into account when we tell true stories. 

The other consideration is this: Just because a story is extremely popular in one medium, does it need to be told in another? What is the real justification for making a film, when we already have access to this story in the public domain? What more can be added, when the podcast medium allowed Brain Reed to create the illusion of being so close to his listeners? Sometimes, filmmakers are so hungry for a story – and this one seems like a guaranteed hit because it was when it was our headphones – that they forget to question whether it needs to be told a second time, or even at all. S-Town is a complete story as it stands, and one that people can revisit if they wish to. There seems little reason to make it into a big budget film – but perhaps I will be proven wrong. 

Images: S-Town