Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Point of Impact Made Into Movie: Not Many Hurt

Get the lies in the title, as Goldwyn probably said. Shooter, starring Marky Mark, was made from Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact, in much the way that egg cartons are made from tall majestic piles of higher quality paper and cardboard that someone threw out. And by some standards, loads of people got hurt. In the real world, it would have been on the news. In movie world, it's barely a ruckus, especially as so many of the people killed didn't even have speaking roles.

But I carp, when I came to reflect on how the world changes. When Hunter wrote Point of Impact more than a decade ago (full disclosure; precision would require me to check and I can't be bothered) his protagonist Bob Lee Swagger was a Viet Nam vet, and the guy that gets assassinated is the bishop of some Latin American country. The Viet Nam vet thing was then a) necessary (because the US hadn't been doing much of the war stuff at the point) and b) plausible (because the Viet Nam war was recent enough that Swagger could still credibly move without a zimmer frame). And the Latin American bishop was quite relevant - it was a time when the US was trying to come to terms with its Latin America policy, if that's the word I'm looking for.

Time moves on. In the time it's taken for this film to be brought to the screen, the US hasn't been at all short of wars, and no-one cares any more about Latin America. So Swagger is no longer a Vietnam vet, and the bishop is from Ethiopia. (Big news flash - in Hollywood's Africa, Ethiopia has jungles and oil fields. I have a terrible feeling that it was originally Nigeria and the suits changed it at the last minute for some shallow political reason. Cue Rob Lowe's wonderful line in Thank You For Smoking "It's just a line of dialogue.")

Funnily, taking the Viet Nam experience off Swagger doesn't do a damn thing to the movie, because the movie doesn't really have enough depth that a loss of resonance would matter. But it ought to matter, because the Viet Nam war was, in some ways, a perfect writer's war - the war the US shouldn't have fought, didn't win and didn't really lose either. The veterans of that war made for wonderful anti-heroes; no matter how good they were, as soldiers or as men, they were permanently undermined from within by their consciousness that the war had been wrong and that worse than that, they hadn't won. The US has not, since then, taken the chance of fighting another such war. All the wars are focus grouped, and all the opponents are picked on the basis of being easy to beat. Well, until 2003. And even then, they THOUGHT it was going to be a cakewalk....

But somehow it must have seemed just a little too early to inject that experience into the spring blockbuster crowd's consciousness. The concept that Iraq is the new century's Viet Nam is not yet quite ready for prime time....

There I go digressing into politics when I was originally making a point about how an apparently trivial change in the background of a character can take away far more than you think at first.

Worse things have been done to the book than that, but somehow they were inevitable. Books let you do a lot of back story in a small compass and you can throw as many people into the scene as you like. Movies, somehow, do not manage this. So whenever you go to see a movie that's been made out of a book, the first thing you brace yourself for is the loss of major characters, and the second is the telescoping of narrative. My, do these things happen in Shooter. Nick Memphis loses his whole back story. The most interesting of the bad guys, the psychologist of the team, disappears completely. This is such a shame, since he's the novel's equivalent of the company typist in Saving Private Ryan; the lone intellectual and coward in a sea of testosterone. I know we're all supposed to imagine ourselves as manly men like Swagger, but in real life the people who read books like this are not manly men. Manly men don't have time to read. They're shooting the enemies of democracy, or driving Nascar or at the very least building log cabins with a buck knife and a felling axe (No, manly men almost certainly don't use Leatherman tools or Swiss Army knives. Anything small enough to need those little weensie fold out bits is beneath the notice of a truly manly man. Damn, I digressed again).

Narrative wise, the move does its level best to stick to the bones of the plot. While still blowing things up and cutting down the number of characters (I think it's the same problem as focus grouping wars; the suits really don't think the average cinema goer could keep track of more than half a dozen people). It's just that they have to telescope them (because it's an action movie, and as Jack Bauer would say, "Dammit, George, there isn't time"). Which means that the two best scenes in the book, the long slow trek to the final rendezvous and the trial of Bob Lee Swagger, are cut down to the point of not really existing any more. Kind of a shame, particularly as it seems to have been done to make room for a completely pointless final shoot out. I guess that was because you always have to end on something exploding, instead of the novel's flatter and more realistic ending.

Mind you, if you haven't read the book, it's a perfectly acceptable action movie. And it's not as though Point of Impact is Shakespeare. It's just that it is a curiously good thriller, well paced and with a bit of characterisation. It seems a shame that they couldn't just get it right. And up until now I'd always wanted to see films made of at least Hunter's first book, The Master Sniper, and his last pre-making-it-big book, The Day Before Midnight. Now I'm not so sure.