Posted on Friday, November 6th, 2009 by Brendon Connelly
While journalist and documentarian Jon Ronson is currently undergoing a metamorphosis into a screenwriter, the first film to bear his name is not from one of his own scripts but has been fictionalized, and rather heavily so, from his non-fiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats by Newcastle scribe Peter Straughan. What Ronson set down on paper as a darkly comic and increasingly scary investigation into the American military’s more fanciful, or eventually insane, experimentation and research has become an oddball comedy with a tinge of the surreal. Many of Ronson’s ideas run between the lines of Straughan’s invented plot, though I don’t think I personally could have found the film to feel any more different to Ronson’s book or in-parallel TV documentary.
It’s a win-win, though, as far as the book is concerned because those who love the film (and as you’ll find out after the break, that’s an awful lot of people) are bound to find the extra information every bit as engrossing and possibly even more surprising, while those who find some of the film’s seemingly contradictory attitudes towards the paranormal and supernatural or it’s unexpectedly upbeat tone to be off putting will find the book more satisfyingly shaded. I do think, though, that adding sweetness for palatability seems like a curious misstep when you already know your recipe appeals to those with a taste for the bitter.
I’m a very big fan of Ronson’s writing and TV work, so I took great pleasure in interviewing him about Goats. We spoke for over an hour in total but almost immediately, I think, he sensed my disappointment in the film. Neither his enthusiasm or candor were curbed by this and, anyway, as Ronson told me I’m definitely in the minority and the film has been going down superemely well so far.
He’s tracked the comments of those to have seen the film in prerelease screenings via Twitter:
I don’t want to make it sound like I’m obsessive because I’m not but I’m interested. I’m curious to know what people are thinking. I’m gratified. I was just pleased to see that maybe 70% of people who came out of the film seemed to really, really like it and I think that’s a real result and the same thing seems to be happening with press as well.
I’d be interested to know how many of that 70% were carrying the baggage I was, what with my familiarity with the Goats book, documentary and Ronson in general. I suspect the film is scoring higher with Goat virgins (if you pardon the expression). Ronson told me why he thought audiences were responding so well:
There’s something about the film that I think is very engaging. I think a lot of it is to do with George Clooney’s performance. The film worked for me in the way that a film like Little Miss Sunshine worked for me, you know, that it’s a sweet natured, slightly batty, engaging watch. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that Grant Heslov is a nice guy and really likes the world and likes the people in the film. It’s not an arch film. My book could be described as being quite arch because I’m such a skeptic, I’m such a non-believer, and my books’ quite dark, you know, the second half of it. I could be accused of being a bit arch and the film absolutely could not be accused of. And you know what? And when people go to the cinema, they want to see… you want to have a good time. There’s something very unselfconsciously nice about this film.
And that’s definitely not the book. The book is more Strangelove than Sunshine.
I think one of the key elements that set film and book apart are how the adaptation plays about with an audience’s acceptance that, in a narrative feature film – very much as opposed to a nonfiction book or a documentary – just about anything is possible. One reading would be that it even expands this to not just playing and really allowing just about anything to be possible.
You almost don’t really know what sort of genre the film is at the beginning, you‘re sort of wondering could it be sort of X-Men and the main character really can do all these incredible things. Of course, [screenwriter] Peter’s not a believer either, Peter’s a skeptic.
I think one of the things Peter did really, really well in this picture, in fact I’d say it’s probably my favourite thing about Peter’s script, is toying with this idea that we don’t know whether Lyn has these powers or not. Like the cloudbursting scene, the clouds really do disperse yet he then hits the rock. I think that’s the stuff that Peter brought to the script that was the cleverest, personally, because in my book you never for a second think any of these people have any of these powers and god forbid that I would ever have toyed with that in the book but I think in film you’re kind of allowed to toy with things in and I think that’s why Peter is a screenwriter and I’m an author.
I’m really not sure that the trailer is an accurate representation of the film, and there’s definitely one piece of voice over in there that smacks of hard-sold schmaltz and middle of the road cheesiness – “I went looking for a story and my friend Lyn brought me an adventure”. This is the moment when Bob Wilton, the film’s analogue for Jon Ronson, seems less like the author than any other. Would Ronson agree that this bit of VO is, at least, naff and off putting?
I think the marketing of this film has been stunning. I think the two best trailers that I’ve seen in months are Goats and Where the Wild Things Are. Even if that one line of voiceover feels slightly out of place it’s such a brilliant trailer. My only real worry in all of this is a sort of generic one which I think probably people have all the time about their projects which is there’s two trailers and there’s an awful lot of clips and if somebody’s watched them all, you know, ten times, will they go to the film and feel they’ve seen too much of the film already.
I have to make it clear that I’m not critical of the film for simply being different than the book. Indeed, I’m not at all sensitive about fidelity in adaptation at all, and know full well that what makes a film work is not the same thing as what makes a book work. With Goats and Goats, I know that they each have different objectives but I’m simply convinced that the books operates better on its own terms than the film does.
Ronson’s way of describing the collaborative nature of filmmaking, at least as far as adaptation goes, was brilliantly simple and even raised a chuckle. He’s given me a metaphor I can steal for the classroom:
I strongly believe, and I know this now from screenwriting as well, that these things are like a kind of relay race. I had the baton when I wrote the book and then I gave it to Peter and he did what he felt was right and then he handed it to Grant and George and they did their stuff. And that’s the way it should be and that’s the way it is. The last thing you want to do in a relay race is chase after the baton and try and get it back. The thing I thought was most important was that I felt that peter, even though he took it in different directions, is that he kept my voice. And the proof of that is the fact that we’ve written a film together and completely effortlessly.
This other film is Frank, a fantastic sort-of biopic of British light entertainment legend Frank Sidebottom. Even though it is rather freshly written, and there’s bound to be further drafts to come, I’m thinking we’ll be seeing it in cinemas a long time before one long-pending Ronson project. For some years now Edgar Wright and Mike White have promised us Them, an adaptation of Ronson’s non-fiction book that was subtitled Adventures with Extremists. Ronson has precisely as much idea as we do about when, if ever, Edgar might get onto that one:
He has about four planes circling. I think if it was in complete chronological order of when he attached himself to things, Scott Pilgrim was first, definitely, because he was already attached to Scott Pilgrim when he took on Them. I think Them and Ant Man came pretty much exactly at the same time so if he went with Ant Man next, it wouldn’t be unfair and if he went with Them next it wouldn’t be unfair either.
I literally jumped up and down when I heard that Mike White wanted to adapt Them. There’s something very special about Mike and I’ve read his Them script and I think – it’s just a first draft what I’ve read but its really good. There’s no question if Edgar directed it, there’s no question it’ll be a good movie.
It’s probably a little less developed than Peter’s first draft [of The Men Who Stare at Goats]. Peter’s first draft was kind of a second draft. But nobody could read Mike White’s draft without thinking there’s a really good film there.
While he refused to divulge any information at all on one of the scripts he’s working on, Ronson’s other announced project is a screenplay about Gary McKinnon, a British hacker facing extradition to the US after allegedly hacing into a great number of NASA and US military computer systems. This summer, McKinnon lost his appeal which was being made on the basis of his newly-diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, and had he not become such a prominent name in the media, where there was much outcry over how he was being treated, it seems likely to me that he’d now be in the US and subject to their sentencing. As it stands, however, the UK Home Secretary has frozen the process while more medical evidence about McKinnon’s condition is being examined.
I asked Ronson if he had consulted Gary personally at all, and while he hadn’t – yet – he did tell me that the projects producers had made contact. Similarly, Ronson has yet to speak to Chris Sievey, Frank Sidebottom’s alter ego, about that film:
Of course Gary will read it and Chris read Frank but you just want to choose the right time. And the same thing’s happened to me with everything that’s been written based on stuff that I’ve done. Peter gave me Goats at the right time and Edgar gave me Them at the right time so it will happen, it just hasn’t happened yet. It’s kind of out of my realm with Frank and Gary I’m the screenwriter, I’m not the producer, so even though I’m doing slight, producery vague things I’m just the screenwriter.
Raking over one of my main sticking points with the Goats picture involved Ronson and I discussing the very last scene of the film. You might interpret this as full-on major spoiler material, but in many respects it isn’t at all, coming more as a coda than a conclusion to the narrative proper. All the same, you might want to skip the next paragraph and the quote that follows it.
The very end of the picture features Bob Wilton managing to command some kind of paranormal ability and run through a solid wall in his office. Earlier in the film some incidents seem to either support the existence of the supernatural, at least within this storyline, or just be lazy and dependent on extreme coincidence. In either case, I think this is moving far away from the meanings and messages in the book. Ronsons’s skeptical questioning of how a superpower’s government could indulge such spurious pseudoscience requires it to be clear that it is spurious pseudoscience. I was therefore quite disappointed by the film’s conclusion and as a result, curious how Ronson felt about it:
I never discussed this with Grant, but I think he was making a… you know, like that Godard line. I believe it’s Godard, and if it’s not, I’m gonna look like an idiot, but “film should be about life and it should be about film” and I personally think he has Bob Wilton running through the wall successfully at the end as a sort of comment on the possibilities of the kind of things you can do in cinema. But I could be misreading it, but that’s what I thought, that it was a moment about film.
I couldn’t be more of a skeptic yet I didn’t have a problem at all… I just thought it was sort of nice, sort of eccentric. It’s quite an eccentric film in quite an unexpected way and I really like that about it. And of course, we skeptics, it doesn’t stop us enjoying horror movies.
With the publicity a George Clooney movie can bring, I’m hoping to see Ronson’s own The Men Who Stare at Goats take another run at the best seller list and if they include the original, stupefying Crazy Rulers of the World documentary on the movie’s DVD or Blu-ray, I’ll definitely be buying a copy.