The Big Year (book and movie)
May 18, 2016
I want to talk about both because this is such an interesting example of how an adaptation can go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik is a great read, an example of what makes the general nonfiction category so interesting: he tells a story that reveals and illuminates a subculture that many people may not know about, and makes the topic and its players fascinating. This is the story of the 1998 Big Year, when three birders competed to ID the most bird species in North America in a year when El Nino and odd weather patterns brought an unusual number of odd migrants to the continent, pushing the possible number of sightings to record highs. The competition is entirely unofficial, and deeply obsessive, requiring tens of thousands of miles of travel. The three players here are interesting and quirky in their own rights, and the story is all about the intersection of their lives and shared obsession.
If you’re at all interested in birds and birding it’s a must-read. If you just like good stories about weird things that actually happened to interesting people, I recommend this one.
And then in 2011 they turned the book into a movie, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. The movie is. . .frustrating.
The first sign we know that something has gone sideways is that even though the three characters in the movie correspond specifically to the real people from the book, the movie has changed their names and some important details about them, enough so that it’s no longer anything resembling biography.
This is because it turns out the movie is not really interested in birding at all. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have birds — it actually has a handful of sequences that illuminate exactly why birding is so cool, and how endlessly fascinating birds are. Like when they find a pair of bald eagles in the middle of their mating dance. They’ve all seen plenty of bald eagles, but they’ll watch this because it’s just cool.
But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.” The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her. Note: this isn’t in the book at all. Not even a little. The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding. Also a plotline not in the book at all. The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds. ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK. Are we sensing a pattern here? The end of the movie: Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond. Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life. i.e. Not birding.
Basically, the message of the book is: Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.
The message of the movie: Everything else is more important than birding.
What really frustrated me is the original story of The Big Year already has plenty of plot and obstacles that make for great drama without inventing all this “true meaning of life” bullshit. The person the Jack Black character is based on? Gets sick halfway through the year and is eventually diagnosed with cancer. (He lives. I guess Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about someone with cancer who lives.)
The movie uses birding as a crutch to tell this really boring story. But it never explains why birding in the first place. What turned these people onto birding? How did they all get started and why have they all become so passionate about it? The movie never tells us. It could just as easily have been about golf or stamp collecting or curling. But I really wanted to know why birding, because then it would mean so much more when the characters start questioning their obsessions with birding.
I wish I had liked this movie better because the actors were actually pretty good — especially Black, who gets across the drive and exhaustion of someone financially struggling to make his Year happen (that is in the book) — and I enjoyed watching them interact and play out the story. But the story was just so weak. I wish the movie had trusted its subject and source material more.