From Novel to Film pt. 4: The Postman

 "You spelled tyranny wrong."

First published in 1985.
1997 film directed by and starring Kevin Costner.

" He'd come to realize his persistent optimism had to be a form of hysterical insanity.
Hell, everyone's crazy these days.
Yes, he answered himself, but paranoia and depression are adaptive, now. 
Idealism is only stupid. " 

THE PROTAGONIST: Gordon Krantz, a college student during the Doomwar (your standard chemical/nuclear holocaust) and a law-and-order militia member in the "shotgun blast of one mid-level catastrophe after another" that followed, wanders the landscape, heading westward from his home in the Twin Cities, MN., earning grub and rest from scattered settlements by reciting Shakespeare. 

THE PLACE: Post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest. Said apocalypse delivered only partially by the Doomwar; primarily it's the handiwork of survivalist cult crazies The Holnists in its aftermath. The Holnists are so named after their long-dead founder Nathan Holn, a genetically-advanced fascist philosopher who is seldom brought up without someone (usually Gordon) saying "Damn you forever, Nathan Holn." 

THE PLOT: The novel is essentially three different threads:

1) Gordon finds a bag of mail and pretends to be a Postman of the Restored United States of America. What starts as a falsehood grows to inspire the people of the Pacific Northwest, who establish their own carriers and routes. Gordon is swept up in his own self-invented legend.

2) The mysterious Cyclops, one of the last super-computers from before the Doomwar. The riddle of who or what Cyclops is all about builds quite well, but once it's solved, it doesn't play any role in the rest of the book. Not that it has to - it serves the general mood and conceptual terrain of things just fine. It also introduces the character of Dena, who is referred to by one of her fellow citizens as "a genuine, bona fide, rip-snorting feminist."

(She doesn't quite resemble that description to me, but neither for my money does Gordon resemble "the last idealist in America," as Brin often describes him.)

The agents of Cyclops come up with an ingenious scheme whose ultimate secret I will protect because all told, it was the thread of the book I enjoyed the most. But I can tell you that it involves giving the survivors repaired small electronic gadgets. One of which is apparently Space Invaders, which Gordon discovers by accident:

"A series of faint, eerie sounds at the very edge of audibility. The half-memories they pulled forth sent a shiver down Gordon's spine (...) Pink spiders emerged from flying saucers and stepped imperiously down the screen, to a crunching, marching beat. Arriving at the bottom without opposition, they bleated in triumph, then their ranks reformed and the assault began all over again."

Nice touch.
And finally:

3) The Holnists launch an offensive to capture the whole Pac-NW. Gordon attempts to convince the regional loner strongman, George Powhatan, to join the fight against the Holnists, but Powhatan refuses to commit himself. The Postman is captured by the Holnists and discovers that their leaders are genetically enhanced super-soldiers. Powhatan comes to the rescue and reveals that he too is a genetically enhanced super-soldier but a newer model, one with "neohippy" enhancements. Then there's a mano y mano between New Age Augment Powhatan and the leader of the Holnist army General Macklin.

Unknown to the reader until the end, Dena and her band of all-female spies have infiltrated the Holnists on a mission to seduce their way to the top and slaughter the worst men in their beds. But (off-screen) they are discovered and killed. As word of their mission and sacrifice spreads, so does their rip-snorting feminist spirit, to all women everywhere. As Gordon writes (in a letter, naturally) at the end:

"Maybe a fraction of us males are 'too mad to be allowed to live.' But taken to the extreme, this "solution" is something that terrifies me... as an ideology, it is something my mind cannot even grasp. Of course, it'll probably sort itself out. Women are too sensible to take this to extremes. That, perhaps, is where our hope lies."

I'm not exactly sure how we're supposed to feel at the end of The Postman. Beyond that, I'm not exactly sure what is precisely being proposed or how on earth it would be accomplished. But that it all comes out of absolutely nowhere and that it all happens off-screen are the more immediate problems.

I'd have enjoyed it if the Holnists were less cartoonish, or if Brin's real world antipathies and biases were reined in a bit more. At times he was ranting through his characters, particularly when Gordon reads a few pages of the Holnist Mein Kampf:

"'Today as we approach the end of the Twentieth Century, the great struggles of our time are said to be between the so-called Left and so-called Right - those great behemoths of a contrived, fictitious political spectrum. Very few people seem to be aware that these so-called opposites are, in reality, two faces to the same sick beast. There is a widespread blindness, which keeps millions from seeing how they have been fooled by this fabrication.'"

(Gordon hurls the book across the room and explains his anger to his cellmate.)

"'It's the same solipsistic philosophy of ego that stoked the rage of Nazism, of Stalinism, Hegel, Horbiger, Holn, the roots were identical. Derived truth, smug and certain, never to be tested in the light of reality. (...) Talk very fast. Weave your lies into the shape of a conspiracy theory and repeat your assertions over and over again. Those who want an excuse to hate or blame - those with big but weak egos - will leap at a simple, neat explanation for the way the world is. Those types will never call you on the facts.'"

In the above and in several other spots, I got the impression that if I went to Brin's website, I'd find a brainier version of Bill Maher. And that is indeed what I found when I went to it. And yet I found plenty of fun reading (in-between the considerable ranting) at Brin's site, whereas I'm very much not a Bill Maher fan. And who would begrudge a man a rant or two? (Or dozens?) Not me. 

As far as the ultimate test for an author - would you check out his or her other works? - the answer is very much in the affirmative.


"That movie was a fairy tale. The mistake I made was not having a scene where somebody opens a book and says, 'Once upon a time... 30 years in the future.' I like The Postman. I'm not turning my back on it. I know what a bad movie is, and it's not a bad movie." - Kevin Costner.

"Mad Max as directed by Frank Capra" - Kenneth Turan, LA Times

Joss Whedon was brought in to punch up the third act of Costner's immediately-previous-to-The-Postman film Waterworld and said "The problem with the third act is the first two acts." This is not something I would say of The Postman. The first two acts are perfectly fine. But, like the book, it starts swinging wildly in the third.

Unlike the book, however, its plot resolution does not happen off-screen, nor does it involve Dena. Dena's not even in the movie, nor is Cyclops. As Brin noted in his altogether charitable post on the movie made from his book: 

"Fans of the novel will note that he chose to concentrate on the basic story in the first third of the novel. That is what I'd have advised. "Talking computers" and "augments" worked fine in the book but they would have made things too complicated for a film." 

I disagree that it automatically makes things too complicated, but okay, we're just dealing with one of the three threads from the book, fine. The problem is that the film you've been watching for two hours turns into an extended montage for virtually all of the third, in-between which every character just keeps telling The Postman how awesome he is, over and over again.

Sweeping shots of horseback riding montage...
"The Postman delivers!"
And then Post-Apocalyptic Tom Petty shows up. As himself.
And is quick to join in the "You're awesome!" chorus. *
More horses!
More awestruck white folks! (The future is apparently Larenz Tate and Vernon Holly from The Wire (Brian Anthony Wilson) and a bunch of white people.)
More inspiration montage!
Battle montage!
"You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket."
And even this is montage.
And I didn't even screencap the execution of the mayor/ sheriff (Daniel Von Bargen, he of the "You're just a drifter who found a bag of mail" line) and all the "Ride, Postman! RII-II-IDE!" business.

* Two quick things about my snarky captions: 1) I only screencapped the one sweeping-horseback shot, but there's a variety of such footage and it's all good. There's just way too much of it, but the cinematography is all beautiful. And 2) I actually kind of love that Tom Petty shows up as himself. That's a bit of wacky indulgence that skirts the line of genius. It gets watered down by all the montage around it.
And then, after all this myth-making and bombast, comes the epilogue. We see what look like people in mass-produced factory-made clothes with cameras and microphones (indicating civilization is back on its feet) at a dedication ceremony for a new statue. Of? You guessed it:

Not only is this a rather stunning miscalculation of the audience's patience with what one critic called "a cast-of-thousands ego trip for its star," it also seems highly suspect that the activity cast in bronze would be so commemorated. Earlier in the film, a young boy 

played by the director/Postman's son.
rushes outside a moment too late to be seen by the Postman. But the Postman, as if his sleeve was tugged by the hand of God, slows and turns to realize his mistake. After an appropriate amount of time for the soundtrack to swell, he gallops back to the boy and in slow-motion close-up, takes the letter from his hands. 

I suppose it's just possible that in the years between the mano y mano and this dedication ceremony the story of how one boy almost missed having his letter mailed would have become part of the legend of the restoration of civilization. But... it doesn't seem likely, at least if the boy himself seems unaware that the statue was commemorating the event.

That's my impression from this scene of the boy, now an adult, in the crowd, who says "That was me" as if only just realizing it then.
As Ebert noted in his review, it was a misstep for Costner - and the investors/ studio who gave him 80 million to do it - to cast himself once again as the eccentric loner in the wilderness who discovers an isolated community and joins their war against evil marauders. After the bad press of Waterworld, Costner's reputation was one of a difficult narcissist. (Who also overestimated the audience's desire to stare at his naked ass in every other film.) It's hard not to read that into so many scenes from The Postman

Telling composition, this.
I agree with both Costner and David Brin that the two scenes above (and many of the bombastic ones) have nothing to do with narcissism or hokum but with emphasizing how the comforts and freedoms we take for granted now would be evaluated differently in post-apocalyptic terrain. But there's something to be said for managing perceptions. Not doubling down on them and serving them up to critics on a platter. (In one of the early scenes, a character criticizes Costner's Shakespeare performance and he testily asks him what the hell he (the character) has ever accomplished. Then tells him: "Bite me.")

The caveman noises the Postman makes upon finding a working Zippo are great, though.
As mentioned above, Dena is missing from the film. Instead, we get Abby, who is introduced in the novel in much the same way (she approaches the Postman to ask him to impregnate her, as her husband is sterile) but in the film becomes his love interest/ partner in his war against the Holnists.

She's played by Olivia Williams, an actress I admire, but the love story between the two leads is not very convincing.

Not bad, just no particular sparks.
From the music video montage part of the last hour:

That Holnist hunting down the mail carrier footage just doesn't work too well with the rest of it, does it? Tonally, I can hang with it, as it speaks to that what-we-take-for-granted aspect of things, but as yet more montage amidst all the other montage, not so much.

Speaking of Abby, she delivers the "you give out hope like candy in your pocket" line. (Ebert again) "It's the sort of line an actor-director ought to be wary of applying to his own character, but Costner frankly sees the Postman as a messiah."

"There is a shot late in the film where he zooms high above a river gorge in a cable car."
"(It) serves absolutely no purpose except to allow him to pose as the masthead on the ship of state."

Adding to all the above? The Shakespeare monologue narrated over it. (Once more into the breach...!)

All of that said, (!) I actually kind of love The Postman. I enjoyed it ironically at first and then began to admire different aspects of it through repeat viewings. Take an hour of montage out, and it probably would have been better received. Or, perhaps, put another hour in. As it is, its critical drubbing and box office failure delivered a serious blow to Costner's career as a leading man. In the years since, he's played primarily mentor-figure to younger leads, and he's only directed one other film (2003's underrated Open Range.)

Still, if you're going to strike out, strike out swinging for the fence, I guess. I'll leave you with these final thoughts from David Brin:

"When all is said and done, the movie tries to convey, with the image of a humble letter carrier, the same sorts of things that Field of Dreams said, using the metaphor of baseball.

 (It) might have benefited a lot if the director ever had a few brews with the guy who told the original story. Yet there's something deeply likable about this film, despite its flaws. Above all (...) with so many people claiming to despise a civilization that has been so kind to them, this movie's overall message needs to be heard."
Fans of the novel will note that he chose to concentrate on the basic story in the first third of the novel. That is what I'd have advised. "Talking computers" and "augments" worked fine in the book but they would have made things too complicated for a film. When all is said and done, the movie tries to convey, with the image of a humble letter carrier, the same sorts of things that Field of Dreams said, using the metaphor of baseball. - See more at: http://www.davidbrin.com/postmanmovie.html#sthash.x4s8YIQC.dpuf
Fans of the novel will note that he chose to concentrate on the basic story in the first third of the novel. That is what I'd have advised. "Talking computers" and "augments" worked fine in the book but they would have made things too complicated for a film. When all is said and done, the movie tries to convey, with the image of a humble letter carrier, the same sorts of things that Field of Dreams said, using the metaphor of baseball. - See more at: http://www.davidbrin.com/postmanmovie.html#sthash.x4s8YIQC.dpuf"


  1. My abiding memory of the movie isn't of the movie itself, but of defending it to people who hated it. I thought it was better than the reception it got.

    Reading my way through this, I both remember why and see why people thought I was nuts. Tom Petty?!? Man, that's nuts.

    I have not read the book, but I remember reading something by Brin once and liking it pretty well. It was called "Sundiver," and is about a spaceship in humanity's future that can actually descend partway into the sun. Pretty rad.

    Back to the movie. One of the things that I remembered liking about it was the way in which it mixed sci-fi conceits with Western conceits. I hadn't seen that done many times. One wonders if Joss Whedon took any inspiration for "Firefly" from seeing what Costner did. Probably not, but you never know.

    It really was a sort of nail in Costner's coffin, not merely as a director, but also as an a-list star. He kept right on starring in movies, of course, but never again anything of that scope. Kind of a shame; I've always liked the guy, myself.

  2. The sci-fi/neowestern genre is very appealing to me, as well. Lots of fun.

    Yeah, the Postman is what I'd call a beautiful mess. I can totally understand much of the criticism (the shameless messiah complex, the montage and bombast, etc.) But it was definitely pounced upon with an intensity not in proportion to its perceived crimes. Rightly or wrongly, it was seized upon as a referendum on Costner himself. For which he didn't really help his cause by the approach he took with The Postman.

    As an adaptation of the book, it was probably the right tonal choice to make, but for said referendum, it gave his critics enough ammunition to take out Costner, Inc. all but for good.

    Which I agree, is too bad.