Sunday, July 2, 2017

ADAPT or ADOPT: The Red Badge of Courage (1951/1974)

                The second most prestigious Academy Award should be the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  To create a great motion picture out of nothing is an amazing accomplishment.  There have been only five war movies that have won for Best Original Screenplay.  There have been 33 that were nominated.  The winners were:  “Battleground” by Robert Pirosh (who was also nominated for “Go for Broke!”), “Father Goose”(!) by Peter Stone and Frank Tarloff, “Patton” by Francis Ford Coppola, “Coming Home” by Robert Jones, Waldo Salt, and Nancy Dowd, and “The Hurt Locker” by Mark Boal (who was also nominated for “Zero Dark Thirty”).  Adapting a screenplay is not as impressive.  You already have the source material and you turn it into a script.  I’m not saying it’s easy, I am saying that it is not as difficult.  As I scanned the Academy Awards list of nominated Adapted Screenplays they even had some plays that were converted into movies.  Are you kidding?  And sometimes it was the same writer!  There have been nine war movies that have won for Adapted Screenplay (out of 34 nominees).  The winners were:  “Mrs. Miniver” (inspired by a character in newspaper columns), “Casablanca”  (play), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (novel), “From Here to Eternity” (novel), “Bridge on the River Kwai” (novel), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (teleplay), “MASH” (novel), “Schindler’s List” (novel),  “The Pianist” (memoir),  and “The Imitation Game” (biography).  Of these, the last two are the most impressive because they are based on nonfiction.

                Why do I bring up this topic?  Because recently I spent an evening watching the two movies based on The Red Badge of Courage and then read the book again.  Along with my theory that an original screenplay is better than an adapted one, I have a belief that a movie based on a book should be better than the book it is based on.  This makes for an interesting case study because the first movie adapted the novel’s plot and the second adopted it.  The first is a very good movie so it can be logically compared to the acclaimed novel.  I have already reviewed it here.  Let’s look at adopted first.

                “The Red Badge of Courage” (1974) is a made-for-TV picture starring Richard Thomas (who also starred in the very underrated TV version of “All Quiet on the Western Front”).  The movie adheres more to the plot of the novel than the 1951 Audie Murphy version.  It includes several more scenes from the novel and does not have any added scenes like in John Huston’s film.  You would think that would make the screenplay for the 1974 version better than the original because the closer you adhere to a great novel, the better.  Right?  But before I take on the two screenplays, let me make it clear that I do not believe either movie is better than Crane’s novel.  It is the rare war novel that probably cannot be improved in a movie rendering.  That is mainly because of Crane’s way with words, which no script can match.  Both movies borrow extensively from dialogue in the book and both stick closely to the plot.  It’s a similar situation to “All Quiet on the Western Front”.

                If you have seen Huston’s movie, be aware that the changes that the 1974 film makes are all in the direction of the novel.  Here are a few examples.  Jim Conklin (the Tall Soldier) spreads the movement rumor, not Tom Wilson (the Loud Soldier). The main character Henry (Audie Murphy) moves on with the Tattered Soldier after the death of Jim and eventually runs off to escape his ramblings.  Their unit is taunted as it comes away from the final battle.  And the finale is different because instead of leaving in good spirits, a general reams their colonel for stopping their attack too soon and calls them “mud diggers”.  The Thomas version adds some flashbacks that occur in the book.  Henry remembers his mother sending him off and the girls ogling him in his uniform.  (This version does manage to get some females in – something the original did not.)  It includes a bizarre surreal scene where a general tells the cowardly Henry that he was wise to run away.  This is not in the book, but pretty much everything else is.
                If you don’t want to read the book and still need to write a book report, watch the 1974 movie.  If you want to watch a good war movie, watch the 1951 version.  The 1974 version is terrible.  The acting is horrible, even Thomas, who was very good in “All Quiet…”.  He does not have a grip on the character and cannot match Audie Murphy’s portrayal of the conflicted Fleming. The supporting cast is low rent and it shows.  There is a lot of scene chewing.  When Bill Maudlin kicks your ass, it’s time to stop acting.  What good is it to pull lines from the book if you don’t have actors that can deliver them?  At least it does not have the insulting narration of the original.  You would think the combat would be better, but it is competing against John Huston and his cinematographer Harold Rosson.   The cannons do recoil, so point goes to 1974 on that.  And there is blood and it’s in color.  However, the combat scenes are mediocre and played by poor actors.  It does not help to slo these dudes down. 

                The script is poorly executed in the 1974 version, but it is closer to the book.  So why is the screenplay worse.  The reason is John Huston adapted his screenplay better.  He was handed a script by Albert Band that closely conformed to the novel and Huston rewrote a good bit of it.  We’ll never know if that just means he added some scenes because his original cut of the film has been lost.  It may have had the same scenes that the 1974 version decided to enact.  (We do know for sure that the studio cut the scene where Henry is walking with the Tattered Soldier.)  It’s the additions to the book that Huston put in that separate the two scripts.  Huston does not exactly tamper with the novel (like “Full Metal Jacket” did with The Short Timers), but he Hustonizes it.  Mainly that refers to adding some humor.  Two of the most memorable scenes in his movie are not in the book.  The scene where his mates clown Wilson for promising they would be moving up and the scene where the general promises to have dinner that night with several units.  He shortens and tightens the monologue of the Cheery Soldier.  He also makes subtle changes like having the feisty Wilson spread the rumor instead of the sober Conklin. More importantly, he has Fleming capture the Rebel flag instead of Wilson.  I feel that these changes are improvements over the book.  He also chose (or the studio did) to consolidate the last two attacks and omit the scene where the general berates them.  The decision of the 1974 version to end with this was perplexing, especially since the book does not end with it.  I suppose you could theorize that Huston was making his movie in the middle of the Korean War and the other was made after the Vietnam War.  Discuss.

                In conclusion, let me show some love for the adapted screenwriters - in this case, John Huston. He did not equal the brilliance of Stephen Crane’s prose, but he did add and tweak to make improvements on the story.  On the other hand, we have a screenplay that was too respectful of the source (and poorly executed).  It may be better as a Cliff’s Notes version of the novel, but no one should watch the 1974 version ahead of the 1951 version.  In virtually every parallel scene, the Huston movie is superior. 

GRADE:  1974 version  =  D

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