XIPHOS vs THE BOOK TO MOVIE ADAPTATION #2
Behold a Marine, a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity,
a man laid out alive and standing,
buried under arms with funereal accompaniments…
Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
Here is the second installment of the book to movie series. This time out we will be looking at Gustav Hasford 1979 semi- autobiographical novel of his time spent in the Untied States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War called The Short-Timers which was turned into Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket. Since I am mortally sure that everybody has watched Full Metal Jacket at least once and probably multiple times, I won’t be spending a lot of time on it. Instead I am going to focus on the The Short-Timers and map out the differences between the book and movie.
I wasn’t all that pleased with how the first installment turned out. I’m going to structure this one differently and see if that can raise the level of this series to something approaching competence. We’ll see if happens this time. The main issue will still be creator error.
“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle. It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill. You will become dead Marines and then you will be in a world of shit because Marines are not allowed to die without permission. Do you maggots understand?”
The Short-Timers isn’t really a book, it’s a novella told in three separate and distinct parts. The interesting choice that Hasford made in telling this story is each section has it own style of prose. Taken individually, the shift in writing styles between chapters could seem jarring. Viewed as a whole, it reflects the mental and emotional change Joker undergoes from boot to deployment to Vietnam and what happened at the battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968. And finally, Joker getting the most glorious gift a Marine can have bestowed upon him, being a combat Infantry Marine.
Small diversion here, please bear with me. If you are unaware of the battle of Hue City, it was a savage campaign of urban combat and some of the roughest fighting in all of the Vietnam war. The Marines weren’t only fighting the Vietcong at Hue they were also battling 10,000 well trained, led and disciplined main line regulars of the North Vietnamese Army. The battle of Hue City is one of the proudest chapters in the long and distinguished history of the United States Marine Corps. Marines routed both the VC and the NVA. The NVA were no match for the courage, discipline and ferocity of United States Marines. To be fair though, no nations armed forces or terrorist organization can stand toe to to with us and survive.
Now that the background is covered let’s take a closer look at the three chapters of The Short-Timers and see how they relate to the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Chapter One is called “The Spirit of the Bayonet” which chronicles Pvt. Joker’s time at Recruit Training Depot Paris Island. Before I get into this chapter I should explain what the title means. It has a very specific meaning that nobody but Toad Killer Dog would know. The spirit of the bayonet is a training slogan you scream out during bayonet drill. The instructor yells “what’s the spirit of the bayonet!” and recruits scream back “to KILL drill instructor!” There are a bunch of these types of slogans that are used to help desensitize a person to sticking a sharp instrument into the guts of a living human being. The art of killing is what is taught at recruit training and the lessons are hard learned and ingrained forever.
This section of The Short-Timers is the smallest, maybe 25 pages, and written in a straight forward writing style, almost clinical in its delivery, that gives a cold detached view of what recruit training in 1967 was like. The causal brutality, the mind games that don’t exist anymore in the PC womanized recruit training of today, the complete immersion in Marine Corps life and the near total loss of contact with the outer world is reproduced on the page through simple declarative sentences. It’s because of this minimalist approach taken by Hasford that when things with Pyle reach their crescendo in the book, it takes on a much deeper, more disturbing quality than in the movie version of Pyle’s psychotic break.
Chapter Two is entitled “Body Count” which is self explanatory I think for most readers. This section begins about a year after Joker graduates boot and has finished follow on training for the MOS of Combat Correspondent. Joker is assigned to the 1st MARDIV in Da Nang but works mostly out of the town of Phu Bai. A lot of Joker’s job consists of writing heart warming stories for Leatherneck and Stars and Stripes magazines. Also he writes what are essentially tightly controlled press releases that famous “reporters” stick their names on for publication between bouts of drinking to the point of blacking out and screwing their Eurasian mistresses. It’s good to know that the uselessness of reporters isn’t a current trend but a bedrock foundation of the entire “profession.” What a bunch of fucking scumbags.
When the Tet Offensive kicked off, Joker and a photographer, LCpl Rafter Man, get detailed to cover Marine operations around Hue City. Joker hooks up with his old Paris Island pal Cowboy who is a rifle squad leader in Delta Co. 1/5. To say that the Lusthog squad of Delta 1/5 was in the thick of the battle of Hue is an understatement. They were at the center of combat and those early days in Hue were violently chaotic. The Lusthogs fought hard for every square inch of terrain they took back in the city with Joker and Rafter Man in tow, acting more like grunts than reporters. This section had one of the two sniper duels from the book that are the basis for the major set piece of the movie. The movie cut out a lot of the story from the book in order to make the running time mandated by the studio. The other problem was that Kubrick was so enthralled by the training section of the film (and so were the suits) they short shifted the second half of the movie.Folding the last two chapters of the book into the second half of the movie was a really bad idea in my opinion.
Remember above how I described Spirit of the Bayonet as sparse, spare and straight forward? Well this section is 180 degrees in the other direction. It’s broad and lush,full of highly descriptive and complex prose. If anything it reminds me of the works of 50’s beat poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This section is also reminiscent of writers of that era like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Burroughs is an especially apt comparison because of the psychedelic scenes peppered throughout the rest of the story as Joker starts to lose his shit. Tied into the beat generation writing style is a very jazz like feeling to how the story hits its beats. Instead of straight forward plot points, we get reveals that ebb and flow then back off and spring forward. It’s written very much like experimental jazz.
The last chapter of The Short-Timers is called “Grunts” because the now Sgt. Joker is doing what all Marines should be doing, fighting as a mud pig infantrymen. Due to a run-in with a REMF Colonel, Joker is reassigned as an assistant squad leader with the Lusthogs who are operating out of FOB Khe Sahn. This change moves the combat from urban to jungle warfare and fighting in a triple canopy jungle is as different from urban combat as it can be. Most of this section is about a hunt for a sniper that is taking its toll on 1/5. Hunting a sniper is stupid and you should only do it if it’s a last resort and this chapter shows why hunting a sniper without helos, arty or fast movers handy is a really, really bad idea. For the movie Kubrick moved the jungle sniper duel to Hue city almost entirely intact. Then he made the wrong decision to strip away most of the hard choices made by characters in this chapter which robbed those scenes in the movie of a majority of their gravity and the gut wrenching resolution. The movie version of the sniper hunt lacked the emotional trauma that was present in Grunt which is a shame because it is one hell of an ending.
In this last chapter, Hasford kept the lush and expressive writing style used in Body Bags and in fact I would say Hasford double-downed on both of those but jettisoned the stylized 50’s beat prose. He replaced the jazzy beatnik writing with what I can only guess is some sort of bizarre pentameter mash-up or maybe some sort of weird super-sized Haiku. It isn’t quite poetry and it’s entirely readable but it’s an odd construction to say the least.
“These are great days we’re living, bros. We are jolly green giants, walking the Earth with guns. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know. After we rotate back to the world, we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.”
So is the book to movie translation any good? I would say its about half good. The Paris Island parts are straight lifted directly from the book and the only change, besides some names, was how they portrayed Pyle’s suicide. It worked in the movie but I think it would have been better if they included more of Pyle’s psychosis which led him to have a two party conversation with his rifle.
Unfortunately the second part of the story was just too jammed together and lost a majority of it’s impact by straying far from the source material. The changes and compromise didn’t elevate the story, it lowered it into an almost clichéd mish-mash of lame 50’s and 60’s hackneyed war movies. That’s an unfortunate choice by Kubrick because it undermines one of the main points of the book and that is the kids that fought in Vietnam were brought up on those kind of movies and it gave them a bloodless no consequences view of combat. Vietnam ripped those pretensions away in a brutal and violent manner akin to a mental rape.
Tags: 5.56mm Solution, A year in country 1968, Autobiography as fiction, Battle of Hue City, Bayonet Drill, Combat, Combat Correspondant, Full Metal Jacket, Gustav Hasford, GySgt Hartman, Kubrick, Pvt Joker, The Short-Timers, The Tet Offensive, Vietnam War
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