Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: movie adaptations

Thoughts on American Sniper

My reaction when I heard the slate of Best Picture nominees was “UGH FINE I will go see American Sniper.” Mark and I try to see all the Best Picture nominees every year, and while some of them are a challenge, we had no excuse for missing this one. It’s going to be in theaters well into February. So last night I bit the bullet (ha ha) and went to see it with a couple friends (Mark, who was working, promised to see it later).

There is probably a very good movie to be made about the life of Chris Kyle, the titular sniper, and it would cover the space between two scenes about 125 minutes into this 134-minute movie. The story of overcoming the impact of spending the better part of a decade in Iraq killing people to come home and adjust to normal life is a fascinating one, and maybe even more so when you’ve become exalted as a hero as Kyle was. To put it another way: most of “American Sniper” should have been the five-minute prologue to the movie about Chris Kyle.

The faults of the movie have been well documented: it’s very loosely based on an autobiography that was factually questionable to begin with (though perhaps not so much about his actual tours in Iraq). It ventures into the comic-bookish realm with an invented villain who might as well be named “Drill-Man” and an enemy sniper who was barely mentioned in Kyle’s account of his own life but who becomes his main foil. It shows a lot of violence–yes, in a movie about the guy credited with more kills than any other sniper in U.S. military history, you expect to see gunshots and violence, but the violence here is fetishized to a disturbing extent. The U.S. involvement in Iraq is painted in broad black and white strokes: Kyle is there to protect “our boys” from the “savages,” and while there are occasionally Iraqis who (reluctantly) help Kyle, the motivation of the people he’s fighting is never explored. Kyle’s wife is introduced as a strong woman who shoots down (sorry) a guy trying to pick her up, only to fall for Kyle’s charms; she spends the rest of the movie begging him to come back to his family.

It is the worst Best Picture nominee I can remember seeing. I’ll give Bradley Cooper credit for his performance; other people have criticized it because his natural charm and exuberance are leashed, but I admire him for being able to slip into another character that way. Technical awards, sure. It’s a beautiful movie in many places and I give them a lot of credit for never losing Cooper among all the similarly uniformed soldiers. The action scenes are filmed tautly and are easy to follow, and the sound is terrific. No, the nomination that bothers me the most is for its dull, mediocre screenplay. Stealing from Mark Harris of Grantland in his review of the Oscar nominations, it is stunning to me that this was nominated over Gillian Flynn’s screenplay for “Gone Girl.” That was a well-written, gripping film (and written by the author of the source material; maybe part of the reason for the snub is that she’s not a career screenwriter, while Jason Hall is at least an actor and has two other screenplays to his name); this was basically a war piece that verged on propaganda, and not even clever propaganda.

So anyway. If you’re an Oscar completist, go ahead and see the movie. Otherwise I don’t think most people reading this blog will care much for it.

Review: Le Renard et L’Enfant

Le Renard et L’Enfant (The Fox and the Child), by Florence Reynaud from the film by Luc Jacquet
6/10, a children’s book of an adventure between a young girl and a wild vixen

The movie “Le Renard et L’Enfant” is being advertised all over Paris. Distributed by Disney, written by Luc Jacquet (who wrote “March of the Penguins” and seems to be challenging Jean-Jacques Annaud (“The Bear,” “Two Brothers”) in the “French directors who make animal films” category, which one would think is not particularly hotly contested), it’s the story of a young girl who lives near a forest and meets a fox and forms some kind of friendship. That much, you can get from the posters.

I don’t usually go for novelizations, but French is my second language (third chronologically, second in proficiency) and I figured I wouldn’t know the difference. So I’m not going to comment much on language usage, focusing a little more on the story. Which is pretty good overall. The heroine is a “willful” girl who loves walking in the forest and just wants to be friends with the animals she meets. She is especially entranced by a fox she glimpses, and after living the friendship strongly in her mind, she accustoms the fox to her presence with ham treats and gentle behavior.

Throughout the story, the fox behaves pretty much as a wild animal would. There’s one rather unbelievable scene where a pack of wolves corners the fox, but the rest of the girl’s adventures and misadventures come from her trusting the fox too far and either being rewarded or being let down. The climax of the book comes when she tries to bring the fox into her life, instead of always going to its life. It follows her to her bedroom, but once shut in, it starts to panic. That’s when the girl realizes that this is really a wild animal, and not a friend.

There’s not much impact in the book to the loss of that friendship. One can imagine a story in which the girl is forever mistrustful of people, always looking for that element of wildness in them that precludes true friendship. But in the end, it is revealed that she is telling this story to her son, who is now the age she was then, in the hopes that he will learn about animals as she did without having to go through the same ordeals.

This is no masterpiece, but if you read French and like foxes, it’s an entertaining enough read, and the message it sends is worthwhile. I wish half the people who write to me at my fox ecology site would understand the distinction between wild animals and pets as well as this movie/book does.

Books Into Movies

There are a couple movies hoping to ride the success of “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Chronicles of Narnia” coming out this fall: “The Seeker” (formerly “The Dark Is Rising: The Seeker”) and “The Golden Compass.” I read both those series and have seen neither movie, but they offer interesting contrasts in how to bring a fantasy book to the screen.

The Dark Is Rising” is the name of the book and the series by Susan Cooper, one of my favorites of all time. Will Stanton, born as the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones, is fated to fulfill a quest that will help the Light defeat the Dark in the upcoming battle that will determine the course of the world. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman, is a more recent book, the first (and best) in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. In it, young Lyra Belacqua must travel to the far north to unravel the mystery of Dust, a magical substance much studied and coveted by the people in the college where she grew up–including her mother and father.

In both books, a young protagonist undertakes an adventure (Will is eleven, Lyra thirteen). Neither kid has a particular talent, although Lyra is able to read the alethiometer, a kind of fortune-telling machine that gives the first volume its (U.S. edition) title, and Will has the powers common to all the Old Ones. Their quests are more a product of their situation than of any particular skill. I think this is a big part of the appeal of the books, because it allows the reader to place himself or herself into the role of hero of the quest. If I’d been born into the Old Ones … if I’d grown up around Jordan College in Oxford… (Harry Potter and the Narnia books also have this “everykid” protagonist.)

The trailers for “The Golden Compass” do center on Lyra, but they are much more about the world and the setting and the adventure. She is portrayed as arrayed against a fearsome set of obstacles, with fantastical creatures and machines and people. It looks great.

The trailers for “The Seeker” mainly focused on Will, and showed it as an adventure about what a special kid he was. There were fantastical elements, but the trailer made it clear that the movie was all about this sassy, American kid. It drew interest, but of the wrong sort, and eventually the studio removed the “Dark is Rising” appellation from the movie title. It was already released (did you know that?) and was gone from theaters in weeks.

I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be drawn from that or not. I just think that if you’re going to adapt a book, you should make sure that the elements of that book that really appealed to its readership are preserved in the movie. Will is a great character, and he does go through some issues in “The Dark Is Rising” (growing up and being accepted in his family), but the adventure of the book and the setting are the main draw. The movie replaced the English setting with America and decided to give Will a strong, overpowering personality.

How about this as a trailer, focusing on the adventure and the quest:


MERRIMAN: Throughout history, the Light and the Dark have fought for men’s souls.

CUT SCENES: Howling noises, flaring blue candles, the Walker’s twisted face.

MERRIMAN: All of these battles are but prelude to the final conflict.

CUT SCENES: The Lady fighting back the Dark, light flaring, the Rider.

MERRIMAN: For the Light to prevail, we Old Ones must have the Six Signs. That is your task. As your birth completed the Circle of the Light, so you must complete the Circle of Signs.

First view of Will


MERRIMAN: Wood. Bronze. Iron. Water. Fire. Stone.


MERRIMAN: They were fashioned for the Light throughout history, and we need them, Will. Some have been lost, some hidden. They must be found and reunited.

WILL: But I’m just a kid.

MERRIMAN: You are that, and more. You will have help, Will.


MERRIMAN: You will need them. For the Dark will try to stop you, however they can.


MERRIMAN: But in the end, you must prevail.


MERRIMAN (smiling): Happy Birthday, Will.


Hey, that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure Hollywood could do better.