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Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Black ink becomes movie gold

By Jeff Merron
ESPN Book Club

The movie "Friday Night Lights" opens this Friday, and it has a tall order -- living up to the revered book by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger. The book, a very-up-close-and-personal look at small-town Texas football, is considered one of the great sports books of all time.

Of course, "Friday Night Lights" is hardly the first movie to try to climb such a mountain. In this look at the most significant sports-book-to-sports-movie adaptations, including "The Natural" and "Raging Bull," Page 2 examines at how well five films get the job done.


As "Friday Night Lights" his theaters this Friday and the ESPN Book Club debuts on Page 2, ESPN.com takes an in-depth look at the story of Odessa (Texas) Permian High School football:

FROM THE ESPN BOOK CLUB:
  • Book of Month: "Friday Night Lights"

  • Excerpt from "FNL": Boobie's story

  • Author Buzz Bissinger discusses his book

  • How to turn a book into a sports movie

    FROM PAGE 3:
  • Billy Bob comfortable under "Lights"

  • "Boobie" Miles reflects on his saga

  • Tim McGraw shows his dark side

  • Reel Life: How real is the movie?

  • "Friday Night Lights"
    Buzz Bissinger's bestselling instant classic immediately caught Hollywood's attention as film fodder. But the route from page to screen has been long and circuitous. "It just churned and churned," said Bissinger. "It went through six different directors. It just kept falling apart. There were seven different scripts. I think the problem was that no one quite knew what movie to make.... There's a lot of ways you can take this [story]." Peter Berg finally started to make sense of it about a year and a half ago, and the rest is recent history.

    So how does the movie rate as an adaptation?

    The football: They got it right, even if the pounding and crunches are a bit overamplified. It looks like high-quality high school football: the miscues are right in there; the opponents and game scores are fairly accurate. Score: 9.

    The coach: Gary Gaines is a sympathetic character in the book -- a good coach, a strong coach, but warm and sometimes troubled, in a philosophical way, by all the pressure being put on him by the townsfolk. Billy Bob captures this overall feeling perfectly. Score: 10.

    The schools, the unis, the stadiums, the settings: Right on the money. Score: 10.

    COLD PIZZA
    Tune in to Cold Pizza on Thursday (ESPN, 7-9 a.m. ET) for an interview with Carolina Panthers linebacker Jessie Armstead, who ended Odessa Permian's 1988 season by batting down a pass for Dallas Carter High.

    On Friday, Cold Pizza will have an interview with "Friday Night Lights" star Billy Bob Thornton.

    The racism: It's "touched upon," as the filmmakers intended, in the movie. It's one of the major themes of the book, however, especially in Bissinger's history of the town and the schools and Boobie's plight. Score: 3.

    The fanaticism: Somehow, even though Berg focuses almost entirely on the football team and its games and the fans and parents and cheerleaders, the ecstatic devotion of the town to the team portrayed in Bissinger's book is somehow just not as strong when viewed in isolation. Score: 8.

    The players: Again, solid, if simplified. Score: 9.

    Boobie: Some facts are altered for unfathomable reasons, and one (the ending) for a Hollywood reason, but just like in the book he's cocky and sullen and scared and loved like hell by his uncle, L.V. Excellent. Score: 10.

    The Pepettes: In the book, the Pepettes play a major role -- each player has a girl who is, quite simply, devoted to him during the season. She bakes cookies for him, puts up glorifying tributes in her player's yard, and more. The Pepettes are omnipresent in Bissinger's account. In the movie, there's a hint of Pepettes, though they're not mentioned as such. Score: 5.


    Check out a clip from "Friday Night Lights," ESPN Motion as Boobie Miles tries to make Permian quarterback Mike Winchell smile.

    The party scene: Hey, it's high school. Bissinger describes the player's popularity and how they go to the best parties and drink and pretty much have their choice of girls. But it's just one slice of senior year bacchanalia pie. Berg has just the right proportion of partying and drinking in the flick. Score: 10.

    The movie: Accurately captures part of the book -- the football action, the team, the coaches. But ignores, or "touches on" many important parts of the story that . . . well, make the book a classic. Score: 6.

    Final score (Quality of adaptation from film to movie): It all adds up to an 80 for "Friday Night Lights."

    "The Natural"
    When Bernard Malamud's first novel, "The Natural," was published in 1952, it got notice -- but mixed reviews. Thirty years later, Barry Levinson, who had a rookie filmmaking hit with "Diner" in 1982, was a baseball fan looking for a baseball movie to make. The rights to "The Natural" weren't available. He gave up until he met Robert Redford. Talk turned to making a movie together, and then to "The Natural," rights were purchased, and the rest, as they say, is history. Malamud had absolutely no part in the making of the movie -- Levinson didn't even talk to him before the movie came out in 1984.

    The Natural
    Robert Redford and Co. put a happy face on Bernard Malamud's dark novel "The Natural."
    Rating the adaptation:

    The genre: Malamud's book is a fable, with a cover literally being hit off the ball, a player running literally through the wall, and so on. The movie is a fable, too, and gets those fantastic details right. Score: 10.

    The mood: Malamud's darkly overcast. For the movie, at least the finale, you've got to wear SPF 30. Score: 3.

    The romance: Malamud's Hobbs dug the chicks. Plural. Quantity. No roses, chocolates, violins. Levinson's Hobbs was a mere dabbler, and a romantic at heart. Oh, and that boyhood romance with Iris? Metafiction. Score: 5.

    Hobbs, the farm boy, and dad, the farmer: Don't exist in the book. All that's known of boy Roy is that he played on an "orpan asylum team." The halcyon farm days are a big gushy piece of the movie. Score: 0.

    The shooting and the 15-year lost weekend: Both Malamud and the movie leave that 15-year gap between the Waitkus-like shooting and the old man's comeback absent and mysterious. Score: 10.

    Hobbs, the character: A hero? Not quite. Not in the book. You could almost hear Bernard saying, "Say it ain't so, Barry." Score: 3.

    The fix: In the book, Hobbs goes for the fix. Malamud knew how to write a fable -- sometimes good people do bad things, or the good guys aren't nearly as much as we'd like them to be. Hobbs is conflicted throughout the entire game. But Hollywood can't handle that complexity -- especially when it wants boffo box office. Score: 3.

    The thunder, the lightning, the lights, the homer: Malamud had the thunder, the lightning, the broken Wonderboy. But it was a day game -- no light towers smashing. And in Malamud's version, it was a foul ball, not a dinger. Score: 5

    The walkout feel: The book makes you think, but it's a downer, and ends as "Roy lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears." The movie's a no-brainer that leaves you feeling pretty good. Score: 6.

    The movie: If you're a sentimentalist, it's your tea. But, as one wag suggested, it might not have been a coincidence that Malamud died just two years after the film came out. Score: 7.

    Final score: 52

    "Seabiscuit"
    SPORTS MOVIES: PAPER TO CELLULOID
    Besides the five big ones on our list, here are 10 other noteworthy sports films that got their start between book covers:

  • "Eight Men Out," John Sayles' fine-grained depiction of the Black Sox scandal, was based on the Eliot Asinof's book of the same title.
  • "Field of Dreams" is a faithful adaptation of W.P. Kinsella's fanciful novel "Shoeless Joe."
  • "Brian's Song," the story of Brian Piccolo's friendship with Gale Sayers, became one of the greatest TV movies ever. It was based on Sayers' memoir "I Am Third."
  • "Bang the Drum Slowly," in which a young Robert De Niro plays a dying, slow-witted catcher, was based on a popular novel of the same name by Mark Harris.
  • "Cobb," the imaginatively titled 1994 biopic of the baseball great is based on the imaginatively titled biography "Cobb: A Biography," by Al Stump.
  • "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is based on the 1988 book "Searching for Bobby Fischer: The World of Chess, Observed by the Father of a Child Prodigy," by Fred Waitzkin.
  • "The Hustler" is based on Walter Tevis' 1959 novel.
  • "The Color of Money," Martin Scorsese's sequel to "The Hustler," borrows the title the general pretext, but little else, from Walter Tevis' 1984 novel.
  • "The Hurricane," is based largely on "The 16th Round," Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's 1974 autobiography, and "Lazarus and the Hurricane," a 1991 book by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, two of the Canadians who helped free Carter. At almost the same time the movie opened, James Hirsch's authorized biography, "Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter," was published.
  • "Any Given Sunday" was not directly based on former NFL lineman Pat Toomay's novel "On Any Given Sunday," but controversy over the two titles led to a memorable encounter between Toomay and director Oliver Stone that became the basis for an award-winning story by Toomay.

  • Laura Hillenbrand's terrific book, published in 2001, began as a story in "American Heritage" magazine. "It touched a chord," she told People magazine of the long feature story, which was published in the July/August 1998 issue. "I got a book contract one week and a movie deal the next." The book came out in August 2001, got rave reviews, and went to the top of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. The film came out in 2003.

    Rating the adaptation:

    The historical context: Laura Hillenbrand makes a strong and eloquent argument that Seabiscuit captured the heart of a nation still struggling with the Depression. David McCollough's historical narration sounds like a filmstrip script bathed in Nyquil, but it's true to Hillenbrand's take. Score: 10.

    Seabiscuit's owner: Charles Howard, played superbly by Jeff Bridges, is the Horatio Alger larger-than-life optimist Hillenbrand portrays between the covers. Score: 10.

    Silent Tom Smith: Seabiscuit's trainer, played by Chris Cooper, is quite curt in the book (hence the nickname), and he's certainly not the horse-whispering gentle guru to both man and beast. And he never utters the words, "You don't throw a whole life away just because he's banged up a little." Don't get me wrong -- Cooper was great in the film, playing a glorified version of the sensitive-but-tough American Cowboy. But he wasn't quite authentic in playing Hillenbrand's version of Smith. Score: 7.

    Seabiscuit: He was ornery, slept laying down (no small detail, as it's unusual for horses to do so for long periods of time), and was thought to have great potential before being discovered by Howard. This was all in the book and in the movie. Score: 10.

    The chronology: Pollard gets injured long before the match race before Man O' War; in the film, it's just a week or two before. This change of events adds nothing to the story's drama. After Pollard's comeback, he races Seabiscuit three times before the Santa Anita Derby -- another unnecessary omission in the film. The list goes on. Score: 5.

    The mid-race conversation: In the movie, Pollard's riding Seabiscuit in his final Santa Anita Handicap race. During the race, he manages to have a discussion with his friend and rival, George Woolf. It's a silly moment, especially considering the thundering herd context, and Hillenbrand felt no need to add such embellishment to her book. Score: 0.

    Pollard's blindness: In the movie, Pollard reveals he's blind in one eye, and is chastened -- but forgiven -- for withholding this crucial information. This is a significant plot point in the film. Hillenbrand makes clear that Pollard didn't let his partial blindness become public until after his career was over. Because if he had, his career would have been, well, over. Score: 0.

    Pollard the literary pugilist: Red frequently fought for money to make ends meet; he also loved books and storytelling. In both the book and movie. Score: 10.

    Seabiscuit's last races: The Biscuit triumphs over War Admiral going away, and then, after many attempts, wins the Santa Anita Handicap. True, as Hillenbrand writes. Score: 10.

    The movie: Overall, it's a fairly faithful retelling of the story Hillenbrand crafted. Score: 8.

    Total score: 70

    "Raging Bull"
    Jake La Motta's autobiography, "Raging Bull: My Story," came out in 1970. Nobody noticed, even though it's an interesting, if straightforward, tale. Robert De Niro picked it up while filming "Godfather II," in 1973, was intrigued, and turned Martin Scorsese on to the story. Scorsese bought the film rights, got a script written, and then really got going on the film in 1977. Scorsese's artistry and De Niro's passion took the movie to another level, making an epic pic from a modest (in literary terms) book.

    Scoring the adaptation:

    Robert De Niro
    The fight scenes in "Raging Bull" were every bit as brutal as those in the book -- and in real life.
    The boxing action: Bingo. The operatic score, slo-mo, and distortion of the ring were a bit over the top, but all in all, the intensity and the unique presentation of the fighting scores an 8.

    The mob: La Motta was mixed up with the mob, and this is what Scorcese gets exactly right -- who better to put the mob and the fight game on film? Perfect 10.

    The thrown fight: It happened for the same reason (La Motta thought, for good reason, he wouldn't get a title fight if he didn't lose on purpose), and in pretty much the same way -- so obvious you could spot it a mile away. Score: 10.

    La Motta, the child and teenager: You can't understand La Motta without understanding his crime-and-violence-filled childhood and adolescence, and the time he spent in a reform school (where he learned how to box). The biggest miss in the film: La Motta felt tremendous guilt over killing a local bookie during a botched robbery attempt. He felt bad karma coming around every corner. The flick portrays La Motta as having sprung from the womb a nasty, humorlous bastard. But it took him time to develop into one. Score: 5

    La Motta, the adult: One of the toughest things about reading "Raging Bull" is the unflinching manner in which La Motta portrays himself -- it's not a flattering portrayal. The ugly Jake on film matches the ugly Jake in the movie. Score: 10.

    La Motta, the look: Jake was rock-hard muscle early in his career, an overweight has-been within a few years after quitting the boxing game. Credit De Niro for ranging from 160 to 215 pounds while the film was made -- without a fat suit. Score: 10.

    The friendship/rivalry with Joey: La Motta fought in the ring and out, but his real close relationship was with his friend, Pete Petrella, not his brother Joey, who is more of a peripheral figure in La Motta's autobiography. The disputes, both physical and verbal, with Joey are right on -- if you discount that they didn't really happen with Joe. Score: 9.

    Vickie: A stunning wow-she-looks-older-than-that beauty in both the book and the movie (Cathy Moriarty). Score: 10.

    Black and white: It's the way La Motta saw things. It's what his life in the 1940s and 1950s was like -- bleak and dreary, even with the occasional glamor. Score: 10.

    The movie: No matter how realistic the movie is in parts, and no matter how many critics claim to love it, we don't. Two biggest flaws: (1) What's to like? (2) No backstory. Score: 7.

    Final score: 89

    "North Dallas Forty"
    "North Dallas Forty," written by former Cowboys receiver Peter Gent, was published in the fall of 1973. It got good reviews, and enjoyed time on the bestseller lists. Nick Nolte envisioned the book as a movie, and, as a former college player, himself in the starring role. He couldn't get the rights, but the folks who had the rights couldn't produce a script. This Nolte did, and he passed it on to Paramount president Michael Eisner, who made the deal happen. Gent reworked the script on a daily basis as the film was made, becoming buddies with Nolte on location. The movie opened in August 1979.

    Rating the adaptation:

    In "North Dallas Forty," Nick Nolte took Peter Gent's gritty character from page to screen.
    The pain: In Peter Gent's book, Phil Elliott is always aching. Physical pain is omnipresent. Nick Nolte gets the chronic semi-agony just right. Score: 10.

    Phil and QB Seth: Gent portrays them as buddies playing different roles that ultimately lead to conflict. The movie gets this right, too: Mac Davis's Seth is a swashbuckler who hides his disdain for the system but plays, pretty much, by the rules. Phil doesn't try hard to disguise his growing hatred for the whole business. Score: 10.

    Phil and coach B.A.: B.A. is based largely on Tom Landry. He and Phil battle throughout the book, they battle throughout the movie. A lot of mind games are going on both the printed page and celluloid. Score: 10.

    Phil's inner turmoil: The book's written in the first person, and there's plenty of detail -- perfect for conveying how conflicted Phil is about football and romance and what he should do with his life. Nick Nolte, who plays Phil in the movie, does a good job of captuuring this with facial expressions, body language, and dialogue, but it can't match Gent's masterful prose. Score: 8.

    Those crazy linemen: The book and the movie are in sync: Jo Bob Priddy (Bo Svenson) and O. W. Shaddock (John Matuszak) would have been locked up in a prison's mental health facility if they weren't NFL stars. And in both the book and the movie, they're alternatively scary as hell and hilarious. Score: 10.

    The sex: Not quite as much on the screen as between the covers. But moderately close, especially considering it was a 1979 release. Score: 8.

    Phil's skills: Again, the book and movie are in sync. In both, Phil has good hands but isn't quite dedicated enough and is thought of (by others, especially B.A. and management) as being soft. So he's not getting the starts and not seeing much action. Score: 10.

    The "family": Another Big Truth that Gent conveys well -- you're part of the Bulls' (Cowboys') so-called family as long as you do as you're told and are a valuable part of the machine. This is said explicitly and implied throughout the movie, but it's stronger on the printed page. Score: 8.

    The murder: The final scene of the book is grisly, with two people -- including Phil's girlfriend, murdered by a crazy Cowboys exec. The movie doesn't include the murderer ("Bob Beaudreau"), and instead of ending on a low note, ends with a casual toss from Phil to Seth and a big Seth smile. Score: 0.

    The movie: The book is a classic, one of the best sports novels ever written, and certainly the most underrated. No way the film version could match it. But it wasn't for lack of trying. For that we give it a 9.

    Final score: 83