HeLa Onscreen: Oprah and Alan Ball to Make Film of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO

i-b02f8c1411c0d2e46e83f9ca6f3495f3-winfrey_oprah_04.jpgThings have been a bit quiet here as I finished up my crazy
four-month-long book tour
, and there's much to catch up on.  First, some big news just in: Oprah,
Alan Ball, and HBO are going to be making a movie version
of my book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  This news has gotten quite a bit of
coverage on Twitter and elsewhere, with me fielding questions about the movie,
and various folks voting on who should play which character in the film (not
that I have any control over such things, but it's still fun to think about). 

The combination of Oprah, Alan Ball, and HBO is nothing
short of a dream team for me.i-e8003ae501be18dc2cceb296a98e1fd0-ball_alan_01.jpg I've always been a huge fan of everyone involved, and I think HBO is the perfect home for this movie. Several
people have asked why I went with HBO instead of a big screen major
motion picture version, and there are several reasons. HBO makes some of the best and smartest movies
out there these days, particularly when it comes to complex true stories that
mix science, ethics, and real human stories. Check out You Don't Know Jack, the recent HBO film starring Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian,
and Temple Grandin starring Claire Danes, to name just a few of the most recent examples.  It was very important to me that the
film find a home that would do justice to the family's story, the
science, and the scientists -- I have no doubt HBO, Oprah, and Ball will do
just that.  And the Lacks family and I will be involved along the way:  We'll be consulting on the film. As Ball said in a recent interview
about the HeLa movie, "This is going to be a journey that we'll all remember for the rest of
our lives." I'm very excited for it.

Photo captions: Pictured above left: Oprah. 
Pictured above right: Alan Ball.

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Congrats Rebecca! I can't wait to see it!

By Isis the Scientist (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

I hope you're keeping some creative control. Oprah is infamous for gutting the truth to promote the emotional.

Good luck - the story deserves to be told, and you told it well. I hope the others can find the same respect for truth.

By Chakolate (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Same here - I found your book a truly breathtaking read and I hope this quality will make it to the film version without compromising the truth and accuracy (too much, adds the realistic and cynical part of me).
But anyway - that's great news!

By hat_eater (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

Simply amazing! Congratulations!!! Not only have you crafted a remarkable book but you have expanded unbelievably on your commitment to the Lacks family to tell their story far and wide.

While you write that you are agnostic, I know you'll understand when I say that Henrietta and Deborah are smiling on you. I can't imagine how wonderful this must make you feel. This is fabulous news!

What Chakolate at #4 said. As much as I admired your book, I'm already pretty sure I don't want to see this movie. But enjoy the money, you earned it.

By See Nick Overlook (not verified) on 14 May 2010 #permalink

Sounds like you made a deal with the lesser of the devils. Hollywood would have thrown your book out the window while they made it fit a formula.

Most likely there will still be hard compromises with HBO, but not as devastating to the central ideas in the book.

Nevertheless, congrats for finding that combo of hard work and good luck (to have struck a nerve in the public awareness) that eludes so many authors.

Congratulations! I think the story will make a wonderful movie!

I'm excited about seeing this story on the big screen! This story must continue to be told! Ironically, tonight's episode of Law and Order, "Immortal" is reminiscent to your book. If the movie comes close to the depiction on Law and Order, it will be outstanding.

There is an iron-clad rule in journalism that reporters should never mix the process and difficulties of getting a story into the telling of it. There are many very obvious reasons for this. First among them is the reporter's process detracts from the story. In fact the trouble that author has in running down the story is completely superfluous to the core story. About half of this book is a description of the ways and difficulties the author had in getting the story. It is a shame because it undermines a fascinating story and ruins the book.

By William Metcalf (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink

@William Metcalf.

What planet are you on? Can you please show me the Iron-Clad Rule Book of Journalism? The only iron-clad rule I know of is to be as transparent as possible and not deceive anyone. Rebecca was painfully honest in all her disclosures and wrote one of the most honest, transparent books I have read in a long long time. So sorry she did not write the book you wanted to read. Maybe you should write that book?

As far as anything detracting from the story and/or her storytelling style "undermining" and "ruining" the book... gosh, I guess all those people buying it and reading it don't know what they are doing, huh. And the fact that Johns Hopkins, and at least one other university, have made it assigned reading for their incoming freshman means that they, of course, are complete idiots too.

Thanks for enlightening us. I used to love this book but now that you have told me it has undermined your vision of another book, I guess I will have to reconsider my opinion...NOT.

By Robert Zimmerman (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink

@William Metcalf: There is no such rule. I have been a reporter for more than 30 years, and have seen an increasing shift toward narrative journalism that includes the author as a character. This creates a transparency that was sometimes lacking in earlier generations. It also creates memorable prose.

Some of the finest recent books of narrative journalism use this technique, including There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene and Strength in What Remains and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. If you go back to 1991, you'll find Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto, perhaps the most compelling book-length literary journalism ever written about South America. Guillermoprieto, in reporting the life of a Rio de Janeiro favela (shanty town) during the lead-up to Carnaval, chronicles her own decision, midway through the reporting, to move into the favela.

There are many groundbreaking aspects to Skloot's book. The inclusion of herself as a character is not one of them. Reporters have been doing this for at least 20 years.

An iron-clad rule that reporters should never mix the process and difficulties of getting a story into the telling of it? Have you never read any first-person journalism? Very often, the process of trying to get the story speaks volumes about it -- it sheds light on the other characters, the conditions in which they live, their fears, joys, paranoias, etc... The journey as narrative device is a very standard and very effective way of telling a story. Adn I think Rebecca Skloot pulled that off pretty well. Fourteen weeks on the NY Times Best Seller list. Hmmmm.

By Stacy Sullivan (not verified) on 19 May 2010 #permalink

Just saw the Law & Order ep, and loved the story about the cells. Having read about HeLa on this blog and seen some of the clips of Rebecca on talkshows provided a deeper meaning to this story.

Looking forward to the HBO movie. I can already picture in my mind many of the scenes from the book as they might appear in a movie.

I also saw the recent episode of Law and Order titled "Immortal" where they did a riff on the Henrietta Lacks story. Names and places changed of course.

By Steven Kahn (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

Congratulations, please don't let them stray from the story. This story is so important. I truly enjoyed the book and commend you for your deligent research and staying true to the story and family. HBO is the right partner for this production.