There was some consternation in early 2022 when a few news articles declared that Leonardo DiCaprio would star in a film about Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Concern was expressed that this movie would probably be sensationalistic, a reasonable reaction, given the quality of some previous films portraying Jones and the members of Peoples Temple. I received some queries about it, especially since my book The Road to Jonestown had been optioned for television by Di Caprio’s production company, and he and I co-executive produced the resulting docuseries. “Co-executive produced” sounds grander than it actually was. I never met Di Caprio in person, and my contribution to the project – besides being filmed for a portion of it – was to make some suggestions about content. Some of these were effective. Others weren’t. But overall, I was favorably impressed by the intention of the production company to honor the content and general tone of my book.
When asked about last year’s rumors regarding a full-fledged film version of the book, I honestly replied that I didn’t know anything about it, that television – but not film rights – to my book had been acquired, and that I suspected the “DiCaprio movie deal” stories were based on rumor rather than fact.
That was the case until now.
MGM has acquired an option on The Road to Jonestown, with Leonardo DiCaprio “attached,” a movie industry term for agreeing to star should the movie be made. The Dallas Morning News broke the story in late January 2023, and other publications reported on it over the next few weeks. But there’s other information beyond that basic fact. Although a respected screenwriter has been hired and is in the process of adapting my book for film – he and I have been communicating through e-mail – it doesn’t mean anything other than MGM taking a step forward with the project. Things can fall through at any time up to the beginning of actual production, and, occasionally, even after that. If there is an eventual movie, it’ll take two or three years to develop, film, edit, and reach theaters. Nothing’s imminent.
I have no contractual involvement with the film production. I’ll undoubtedly be asked for my opinions occasionally, and perhaps even urged to make suggestions, and I’ll always comply: those whose lives are part of the story are important to me, in some cases close personal friends, certainly all people I respect. I don’t want to mislead anyone by pretending to have more influence on the film, if there ever is one, than I really have. But I’m encouraged that DiCaprio wanted my book to be the basis of the film. There’s enough public domain information available that there was no requirement to pay for the right to use The Road to Jonestown. I firmly believe that if the movie is made, it will be honest and objective rather than sensationalistic.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone who experienced the things depicted in it will agree with every scene and line of dialogue. My book has over 500 pages. One page of film script approximately equals one minute of screen time. Even a three-hour film would require considerable cutting, and, probably some conflation of individual events. But if MGM/DiCaprio intended to sacrifice fact for fiction, there was no need to involve me or my book.
Nothing’s imminent or even definite, besides that the initial project stage is underway. As (and if) things progress, I’ll report again. Meanwhile, I share the hope of everyone in the larger Temple community that the production does its best to honestly reflect the history of Peoples Temple and its members.