Ben Mezrich‘s book Bringing Down the House — a nonfiction account of six M.I.T. card-counters who made millions in Las Vegas — has sold more than a million copies and was translated into 18 languages.
But the changes made in the recent movie adaptation, 21, have (besides helping to bring in $23.7 million in the movie’s debut weekend) raised questions about the line between fact and fiction in Mezrich’s written account.
Mezrich has agreed to answer our questions about the movie, his book, and casino culture.
Q: When you wrote Bringing Down The House, how much of a priority was keeping your account true to real life?
A: When I sat down to write B.D.T.H., my goal was to keep the book as true to the real story as possible, while doing my best to conceal the characters’ identities (at their request). The M.I.T. blackjack team that I wrote about played over the course of a number of years, in a variety of situations; to get deep into the real story, I interviewed many players, casino operatives, private eyes, etc.
In my narrative nonfiction, my goal is to tell the story in a dramatic, thrilling style — to tell the true story in a way that’s very readable, and hopefully fun.
Q: Some of the characters in the book who were Asian were changed to white in the movie. How do you feel about this?
A: That whole issue has been blown way out of proportion on the Web.
In reality, the main character was Jeff Ma, who was Chinese. He asked me to change his identity so he was not recognizable. Jeff was also a consultant on the film 21, was on set for much of the shoot, and was thrilled with the casting of Jim Sturgess to play him.
As for the rest of the team I wrote about, half were white, two were Asian, and one was of mixed race. The makeup of the characters in the book and the movie reflects this.
Q: What changes in the movie are you most happy with and why? Were you unhappy with any changes?
A: I thought 21 stayed true to the feel and excitement of the book. I really enjoyed the movie, though, of course, it strays from the narrative I wrote.
I think Kevin Spacey is awesome in the movie, and I think Vegas and certainly blackjack never looked so good.
Q: What is fueling America’s casino craze?
A:Vegas is fun, plain and simple. It’s an escape, something every 21-year-old kid dreams about — which wasn’t true 10 years ago.
I think you have to separate out gambling and Vegas; even though Vegas is built on gambling, I think what most people dream about when they dream about Vegas isn’t the gambling, but the fantasy aspect of it all.
As for the casino craze — I’m actually a little frightened by the idea of casinos all over the country. Though of course it’s happening because it’s an easy fix for short-term economic problems.
Q: What makes a movie like 21 appealing to its target audience and were you aiming at the same audience when you wrote the book?
A: 21 tells an amazing story; it’s also a glossy fantasy aimed at anyone who’s ever dreamed about beating Vegas and winning millions.
I think the book aimed for the same thing — the idea that a bunch of super-smart kids could take on something so huge and supposedly unbeatable. It’s David vs. Goliath, Robin Hood, etc. But it also happens to be real.