Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Brad Pitt

Moneyball and the dusty middle innings

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Moneyball is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and the second great film in four months starring Brad Pitt. (A few more like this, and I’ll even forgive him for Benjamin Button.) It’s the first film in a while in which Pitt’s star power has been on full, dazzling display, and it’s especially welcome in a sports movie that is designed to frustrate, or at least challenge, our expectations. This is an absorbing, often exhilarating film, but not for the usual reasons: despite Billy Beane’s shrewdness and vision, and the lasting impact he’s had on baseball, he’s never won a championship, and probably never will, now that his insights have spread far and wide. Moneyball, contrary to the subtitle of its source material, isn’t about winning an unfair game, but about surviving it—which makes it much more poignant than Michael Lewis’s book, which was unable to witness the aftermath of its own revolution.

And one of the film’s great virtues is that it treats survival on one’s own terms as something noble. Watching it, I was reminded of Roger Angell’s praise of Bull Durham, which the A.V. Club quoted a few months ago:

It assumes you’re going to stay with the game, even in its dreariest, dusty middle innings, when the handful of folks in the stands are slumped down on their spines waiting for something to happen, even a base on balls.

At its best, Moneyball—which loves a base on balls—is an unsentimental look at those dusty middle innings, and what it really takes to say in the game. The A’s may never win another title against a big-market team, but they played competitively long after being dismissed. And one of the film’s unspoken messages is that Beane was happier scheming and cobbling together a team in Oakland than he would have been as part of the Red Sox machine, even if it cost him a World Series. As Bennett Miller, director of Moneyball, recently said to the New York Times: “He would have died in Boston. It wouldn’t have been his show. He likes to be the guerrilla in the mountains in combat fatigues.”

One of the reasons why the book and movie of Moneyball have such wide appeal—even to those, like me, who have close to no interest in sports—is that it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to one’s own life. In my own case, it reminds me, inevitably, of being a writer. Deciding to become a novelist is something like entering professional sports: you start with dreams of a multimillion-dollar contract, but in the end, you feel lucky just to get picked in the draft. And while you may get occasional bursts of attention and praise, for the most part, it’s about playing in every game, practicing in solitude, and making small, crucial choices that nobody will notice. If writing a great novel can be compared to a baseball feat, it isn’t DiMaggio’s hitting streak, but Ted Williams’s .406 year, in which every swing counted, day after unglamorous day.

And the first, necessary duty is simply to survive. A writer doesn’t have the benefit of sabermetrics, but he or she inevitably develops a comparable suite of tricks, both practical and artistic, to keep playing. These tricks often boil down to boring formulas or rules of thumb: structure stories in three acts, get into scenes late and out of them early, cut every draft by at least 10%. And the process of internalizing these tricks—and I’m stretching the metaphor here, but whatever—is something like increasing one’s on-base percentage: it’s nothing fancy, but over time, it adds up to runs, which allow players and teams to endure. In the end, no matter what the other rewards might be, a writer, like a baseball player, is incredibly lucky to be in the show. But if you want to keep playing a grown man’s game, as Moneyball understands, luck by itself isn’t enough.

Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

Pitt and Prejudice and Zombies

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Last week, the Internet was up in arms over the news that the upcoming movie adaptation of World War Z will depart radically from its source material, at least if a short synopsis released by the studio can be believed. While the novel by Max Brooks is a retrospective oral history of a zombie apocalypse, structured around interviews conducted by an essentially passive protagonist, director Marc Forster and star Brad Pitt (not to mention screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski) seem to have something quite different in mind, an action epic in which Pitt “traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.” And the book’s fans—as well as people who understand what “decimate” means—are understandably upset.

First, though, an important reminder: novels are almost never acquired by Hollywood with a faithful adaptation in mind. Rather, it’s a form of risk aversion. Studio executives don’t like developing original material because they have no one else to blame if the project flops. If a movie based on a bestselling novel or comic book fails to catch fire—as both Green Lantern and Cowboys vs. Aliens recently did—the studio can point the blame at the fans or the filmmakers, while defending the decision to greenlight the project in the first place. Without that safety net, the blame falls squarely on the executive who made the initial call. So the decision to make a movie out of World War Z probably has less to do with the merits of the material itself than the realities of studio politics.

It shouldn’t come as surprise, then, that a literal adaptation may not be in the cards. But it isn’t necessarily clear that a faithful version would be a good thing. With its unconventional structure, World War Z was always going to be a challenge to adapt, and even the most straightforward novel is usually too complex to be filmed without drastic condensation. The movies we think of as faithful to their sources, from Gone With the Wind to The Silence of the Lambs, are really impressive feats of sleight of hand: at most, they respect the source’s tone and structure, and know the difference between essential and nonessential material. And as I pointed out last week, in the case of a film like L.A. Confidential, even a radically free adaption can turn out to be the truest reflection of a book’s soul.

So what does this mean for World War Z? In its current form, it was probably always unworkable as a big summer movie, a fact that should have been obvious from day one. While it’s possible, then, that the studio never had any intention of adapting it faithfully, there’s also a more generous interpretation, which is that Pitt, Forster, and the rest are taking the novel for what it is: a mine of detail, atmosphere, and incident that can be channeled into a more conventional story. This isn’t a million miles removed from what happens when a famous work of nonfiction, like All the President’s Men, becomes the basis for a movie. Brooks wrote World War Z, after all, as a book that could be taken as an authoritative work of history. And if this is the kind of adaptation we get, it may simply be a measure of how well he succeeded.

Written by nevalalee

August 15, 2011 at 9:50 am

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