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.



8 Responses to “The Big Year (book and movie)”

  1. Sonya Says:

    I guess this is one of the few times since I started visiting your blog where I am going to disagree with you on a movie. I am not a birder (as a preface) but I really found the movie charming. As a non-birder, I didn’t realize the sub-culture was that competitive or even that engrossing, so I enjoyed this window into a competition that I wasn’t even aware existed. I also think that this movie is about relationships and the birding is simply a unique backdrop to that… About establishing relationships (easy), maintaining relationships (harder), and revivifying relationships when betrayal happens (hardest). I can see why an avid birder such as yourself would find the movie lacking, but as a lay person, I really, really liked this movie. We found it in the on-demand section of HBO and decided to watch it on a whim (because of the cast) even though we had never heard of it. Since then, we have watched it several times. It’s a rare gem in that 50% of the time (my husband and my) tastes vary widely, but for some reason this movie works for both of us.

  2. WanabePBWriter Says:

    Plot question, was the father not understanding JBs obsession with birds in the book? That was one of my favorite parts of the movie. With Martins character complementing him on his son.

    One wonders if alternate timeline Carrie, who did not read the book would have enjoyed the movie more?

  3. I never read that book. I think I have seen that movie. But this is like The Maze Runner series. The first movie was really close to the first book. But the second movie was completely different from the book. They changed the whole meaning of the second book in the second movie.

  4. carriev Says:

    READ THE BOOK!!!! 🙂

    People are totally allowed to disagree with me. This may also be a case where being a writer means I can see too much of the machinery behind the curtain.

    I don’t remember the conflict with his father being in the book. The real heart of that character in the book was he was the only one of the three not independently wealthy — he still had to work his day job while also traveling all over the country and going into debt, etc. The movie did cover that part, at least.

    I was just baffled at why the conflicts they decided to put in the movie were so overly familiar, so predictable.

  5. WanabePBWriter Says:

    I would say that a lot of Hollywood script writers are good enough/smart enough to realize better plot options. But they know heads look for the lowest common denominator, thus you get babies and mortality to go along with all the pretty birds.

    Any thoughts on the end of Castle? Will you go back and watch this last season. I quit as well, about four episodes in when the big sub plot got too annoying.

  6. Jo Anne Says:

    The last episode of Castle was horrible. Avoid!

  7. carriev Says:

    I haven’t watched this season of Castle at all.

    The end of last season was a perfect way to end the show. I recommend going back to watch that and bask in the glow and forget anything else ever happened.

  8. […] I’m not familiar with this book or movie (or birding in general!) but Carrie Vaughn makes some interesting points in The Big Year (book and movie): […]

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