From Novel to Film pt. 1: In Country

The first time I heard of In Country was when Siskel and Ebert reviewed it. 

(1989) Directed by Norman Jewison.
Ebert gave the film three stars. I can't remember what Siskel gave it, and Google is keeping it a secret. Ebert's affection for it, though, left an impression. Vietnam movies were pretty played out by 1989. They were still big business / big prestige, but a lot of clunkers had gummed up the works.  I filed it away for later.

When I was at the University of Rhode Island in 1992, I had to read the novel:

Bobbie Ann Mason, 1985. (All subsequent images from the movie)
I was a pretty ridiculous excuse for a college student for most of the '90s, but that 1992 to 1993 year in particular was just goddamn absurd. Fun as hell, sure. The rumor at the time was that URI had been voted one of Playboy's top party schools. It wasn't in actual fact but everyone sure acted like it was.

I'm just setting the stage - I didn't go to class much is what I'm getting at. But perversely I kept up with (most of) the reading. One of those assignments I read (and really enjoyed) was In Country for my Novel class.

So it seemed a timely choice to begin a new and self-explanatory umbrella series, From Novel to Film


"She wonders why horror movies keep getting remade. Was it because the world kept getting scarier?"

In Country is a coming-of-age story that takes place over the summer after Sam (the main character)'s high school graduation. She lives with her uncle Emmett, a Vietnam vet with PTSD. Her mother lives downstate with her new husband and child. Her father was killed in Vietnam before she was born. The summer culminates in a road trip to Washington DC to see the newly built Vietnam Memorial. It's a story about Sam's attempts to learn more about her father - what kind of man was he? What did his life (and his death) mean? To get these answers, she immerses herself in Vietnam.

At the time I first read it, I was just about the same age of Sam and could relate pretty well to her story; many of the details matched up with my own. This time around I found I related more to Emmett. (Uh-oh, I thought.)

"That's not the way science works, Sam," said Emmett. "They don't put two and two together, based on the obvious facts right in front of their noses. They don't make connections. They have to work ten years in a laboratory and kill nine million rats and mice, and then they might come to some conclusion. But you take anything obvious and they say - where's your proof? How many rats did you use in your experiment?"

Emmett makes the above remarks after getting evaluated for the strange acne and brain-pains that plague him, which Sam is convinced are caused by Agent Orange. His disillusionment is understandable. As one of his fellow vets tells Sam at one point, as a result of his experiences "in country," Emmett thinks the government and its domestic enablers are totally in the dark about what's going on in the world. "Emmett won't go out of his way to deal with the V.A. anymore."

Subsequent events - not just at the V.A. - make this next quote rather painful:

"The main thing you learn from history is that you can't learn from history. That's what history is."

It's important to note, though: this is not a cynical novel. One of its virtues is how sweetly it treats all of its characters, how well it sketches small-town life without any artifice or agenda. Emmett's essential truth is that he spends all his time keeping it together simply because the world - and his niece and his cat - are worth being here for. Not necessarily for his own sake or even theirs but for memories of dead friends. Survivor's guilt, in other words, though that's a clunkier term than I'd like. One gets used to this sort of thing in Vietnam-related fiction, but it comes across very well here.

Like all great novels, it champions unheralded heroism and our collective struggle to keep peace with our own souls, and the obstacles and discoveries both cultural and personal along the way. But it's a tough one to pin down; you don't quite realize the road you've traveled until it's in your rearview. Let me focus on some of the book's motifs, and see if they shed any light on what I'm trying to say.

1) M*A*S*H: Emmett and Sam watch M*A*S*H every night while they eat dinner. At one point, Sam thinks:

"It seemed appropriate that Hawkeye should crack up at the end of the series. That way, you knew everything didn't turn out happily. That was too easy."

Her observations about the show throughout the book ring true to anyone who's ever had a syndication habit, but the whole thing works well as an equalizing ritual they both observe: just close enough / just removed enough to make room for the third presence (Sam's father) between them. 

2) Springsteen: It makes sense for Born in the USA to be such a presence in this book, as it accompanied just about everything the summer in which the story is set. But the mood and lyrics of the album certainly re-enforce Sam and Emmett's story.

3) Egrets: Throughout the book Emmett is searching for a mythical egret that he believes he saw in Vietnam. Everyone tells him there's no way he saw an egret in Vietnam, and he has learned enough about birds to realize this is likely true. Still, he searches.

4) "Leave My Kitten Alone:" Sam hears this unreleased Beatles song several times on the radio but is never able to show it to either Emmett or her mother. It's a ghost song - played with no warning or rhyme or reason, unavailable on vinyl or cassette. The interested can read a relevant excerpt here and see for themselves how this sort of thing rounds out the mix.

(A sidenote, as a result of reading In Country, when this song finally appeared on Anthology 1, I must have played it a hundred times. Maybe I would have anyway; it's fantastic. As of this writing, this link is still active.)

Those are just four. There are more - the novel is a model of my kind of literary engineering. Very subtle, very real, very immediate, but (to repeat myself) you don't realize how skillfully you've been led to your destination until the road traveled is in your rearview.

The p.o.v. is especially great. Here's a good example - is this being 18 or what?

"The mall is split by a median strip of tropical plants, thriving under skylights. The palm trees are tall, and vines - familiar houseplants - are climbing them. Sam stands transfixed by the trees and the thick foliage. They become the jungle plants of Southeast Asia. And then they change to the cypress trees at Cawood's Pond * and the murky swamp water, infested with snakes, swirl around her. All of these scenes travel through her mind like a rock-video sequence. She wishes she knew the song that goes with it."

*  Scene of the story's penultimate scene. Throughout, Cawood's and the Kentucky woods are contrasted quite well to the jungles of Southeast Asia, something picked up on quite well in the movie:


The movie opens with a backwards-flying flag over a group of soldiers leaving for Vietnam. A voice-over (which we soon discover is the speaker at Sam's high school graduation ceremony) intones solemnly about God, duty, and country. As the recruits board the troop transport in an orderly fashion, the scene fades to Kentucky.

It's a very effective opening. With the exception of Rollerball - which I absolutely love; it is to the 70s what Robocop is to the 80s - I normally find Norman Jewison to be too heavy-handed. And while In Country occasionally paints with broad strokes - such as the scene where Sam's family is saying their mealtime prayers and the camera slowly pans from the table to a war shrine for Sam's dead father - many scenes and images of this film are not:

"All of these images create emotional momentum without revealing where they're leading us.""

The caption above is a quote from Roger Ebert 's review of the film. As is this: "(The film) sneaks up on us with a series of incidents from daily life - moments that don't seem to be leading anywhere in particular, until we're blind-sided by the surprising emotional impact of the closing scene."

We'll get to the closing scene, fittingly enough, near the end of this post. Before we do, let me cut to the chase: In Country is probably not a great Vietnam film (though it's certainly a good one, more than decent, anyway.) But is it a good adaptation of the novel? Let's break it down:

1) Location. Filmed on location in Greenup County, Kentucky.

Goes a long way.
Though, Emily Lloyd is one of those ankles-snap-back-to-the-buttocks-while-running runners. i.e. not someone who seems to be a bonafide runner.

In the novel, Sam's ongoing run-through-town punctuates things. It's her thing - everyone in town notices  and comments on it. It's a familiar metaphorical state for anyone from a small town, and actual-location-from-the-book-shooting brings it to life very well. (Scored quite appreciably to "I'm on Fire.") This brings us to perhaps the film's greatest strength, its:

2) Authenticity. Emily Lloyd's performance and the fashions and less-than-metrosexual look of most of the cast might be a little too unmanicured for nowadays folk. These days even background extras have six pack abs, and if anyone's got bad eyebrows or a paunch it's a visual shorthand (uncritically accepted by the great unwashed) for "loser." Personally, I think there's a real sense of authenticity here, on all levels: authentic country, authentic family, and authentic adolesence.

As such, I felt very defensive while watching it. Even when I was trying to remain critical. I just felt like these were real people who needed to be protected from jaded 21st century eyes.

Real-life vets of Hopewell, Kentucky play themselves in this scene at the gym, with their real-world medals and mementos.
The only aspect of the film that was staged / artificial was the Vietnam flashback stuff. All of it is visually impressive:

"Emmett - incoming! Watch your ass, buddy." (Understatement.)

But take that last screenshot above. Is it at all believable that soldiers on night patrol would stop in the middle of the river (bunched up, too - that's Military 101: Do not bunch up) to watch signal flares? Read any Vietnam fiction or non-fiction and you see the same thing from just about anyone - when you saw the flares, you hit the deck. This annoyed me. Mildly, but just the same. 

3) The Cast. (Maybe I should have put this one first. Ah well. My own drummer and all that.) First off, Emily Lloyd plays Sam:

Her career never really took off the way it was expected to back in the 80s. Ebert was very impressed with her Kentucky accent. I have no expertise in this particular regional dialect, but I agree that for a British actor, she sounds pretty Appalachia.

The character in the novel seemed a little less aw-shucks to me, but it was probably the right note to strike.

Bruce Willis plays Emmett.

Bruce Willis wasn't quite Bruce Willis at the time. He'd achieved stardom with Moonlighting and Die Hard (and The Return of Bruno! Lest we forget.) but it would be a few more years until audiences accepted him in dramatic roles. 

He's not bad here - is he a good fit for Emmett? Well, I can't help but notice the lack of face-covering Agent Orange acne. But he does pretty good. I think he flubs Emmett's most important speech (near the end, at Cawood's Pond) which is the emotional climax of the novel. But, not the film, so flubbed or not, it doesn't torpedo proceedings.

Ebert again: "Emmett isn't the kind of stereotyped Viet vet who has become a staple in action movies: the crazed nut case who runs amuck with a machinegun. He has disappeared inside his own passivity, and seems content to let his life slip through his fingers."

Other notables:

Stephen Tobolowsky as one of Hopewell's fellow vets,
Joan Allen as Sam's Mom,
Peggy Rea as Mamaw,
And John Terry as Tom, another vet with whom Sam tries to have an affair.

Given the difference in ages between the two, it's a tad uncomfortable watching their love scene. But it's an important relationship from the book and is transcribed pretty well to the movie. Sam isn't really motivated by romance or lust; it all arises - somewhat creepily but understandably - from her drive to know her father... not "know" in the biblical way, of course. I'll stop now before I get this blog flagged by the feds. 

4) Adaptation. Some scenes are switched around or compartmentalized.

For example, while the novel starts with Sam already in possession of this shoebox, in the film its discovery serves as a catalyst for Sam's subsequent questions.

But for the most part, it's a pretty faithful adaptation. Except for the motifs noted above, which while mentioned in passing, don't get too much attention. I can see why, though - while the pop culture and brand name references work well on the page, that stuff adds up on-screen. Not just as distractions for the viewer, but budget-wise. When Mad Men used The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" for less than a minute's worth of screen-time, it cost them $250,000. Worth it, undoubtedly, but it would have been extravagant to throw that kind of money around for this movie.

As for M*A*S*H, there's a blink and you miss it reference:

And I've already mentioned "I'm On Fire." Another change: Emmett and his Vietnam vets meet at McDonalds in the novel. In the film:

Some of the characters (like Anita, Emmet's ex-and-perhaps-future girlfriend, or Emmett himself) don't remind me too, too much of themselves from the book, but performance-wise, they're fine.

5) Ending

Ebert again:

"The movie is not constructed in the usual ways, with clear milestones in the plot. It is only at the end, when Sam and Emmett and Sam's grandmother go to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, that we see what the movie has been leading up to. It's there, in a scene of amazing emotional impact, that Jewison releases all of the emotional tension, all of the sadness and bewilderment, that has been piling up during the film."

Man he is so right about that. I was blindsided by this scene, even though I completely knew it was coming. And I can provide no real explanation as to why, except holy moley - be prepared for a very real (and a very earned) lump in your throat, or even full-on sobs, if you watch it. 

I don't want to say too much about it, really. It's easily among the most moving things I've seen; so much is accomplished with so little. Of course, one needs to understand the context, not just for the characters, but for the country. Maybe not even that, though. It just works.

"Hot Shot says we're almost there."

Verdict: Brilliant novel, pretty good adaptation, decent film with a brilliant ending.

"I don’t get angry. I sit quietly in the corner and say 'no'." - Bobbie Ann Mason.


  1. You had me at "I'm on Fire."

    I've never seen this, but I remember it being a big deal of sorts due to Bruce Willis appearing in a movie where he wasn't cracking wise or retaking a building from a consortium of thieves.

    Sounds like the novel might be well worth checking out one of these days.

    1. That song's been in my head since watching this a few weeks back. Literally everyday. I break out into the "woo-woo-oooo"s far too often. I'm doing it right now, actually.

      Bruce's best tune? Don't know. My favorite? Probably.

      I need to read the rest of Miss Mason's catalog. I look forward to that. I've read "Shiloh" which I really enjoyed, but that's about it.

    2. Narrowing down the best Springsteen songs to one which could be labelled "the best" would be an exercise in Lovecraftian despair. But I would put "I'm on Fire" in contention, most definitely.

      I'm also struck by how improbable it is that a song as good as "Leave My Kitten Alone" could go unreleased for over thirty years. Even if it is just a cover, that's an awfully good vault item. The Beatles, man...good lord.

      Looking over the filmography of Norman Jewison, I see that I am really quite weak in my knowledge of his career. I've seen precisely three of his movies: "Other People's Money" (about which I remember nothing), "The Hurricane" (which I thought was okay), and "Fiddler on the Roof" (which I absolutely love). Never saw "Moonstruck," "Rollerball," "In the Heat of the Night," or "The Thomas Crown Affair," all of which I would theoretically like to watch at some point. And now "In Country" is on that list, too.

    3. Rollerball seems quite different from everything else he's done. I love the crap out of that movie.

      You said it: The Beatles, man... good lord!