Books and Films have to compete for teenage attention with records, television, video, video games and other attractions. The cinema’s answer seems to be as new genre of `young appeal’ films. The latest of these The Outsiders and Wargames both have tie-in books.
Will they help us to get kids reading? We went to the cinema to find out.
The Book of the Film
A teenage boy who almost starts World War III, a teenage girl who helps him stop it, a ‘mad’ professor, lots of computers, and the US Defence Department are the ingredients Laurence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes gave themselves for a film which everyone hoped would keep the box office ticker machines whirring. They couldn’t have come up with a more promising list for a story for the eighties if they had tried market research, and director, John Badham (he also did Saturday Night Fever and Blue Thunder) has created from their screenplay a fast-moving, highly entertaining adventure with a very broad appeal. It’s already a smash hit in the States and looks from its London reception as if it will do as well here when it goes on general release at the end of October.
David Lightman is seventeen, a low achiever at school, but nevertheless a whizz kid with computers. In his bedroom he keeps a stack of sophisticated equipment through which he can, among other things, key into the school’s computer and change all his grades. Through a telephone link he explores the computer universe and, looking for the computer of a manufacturer of video games from whom he hopes to steal a program before it goes on sale, he finds himself in conversation with a computer which offers him a list of games to play. David chooses Global Thermonuclear War, decides to be Russia and starts to play.
What he does not know is that he has keyed himself into the biggest games program in the world – the Defence Department’s War Games Computer. Joshua, designed to simulate every possible strategy and option for World War III and learn from its mistakes. Now for the first time Joshua thinks he has a real opponent. And he is programmed to want to win. David. when he realises what he has done has the problem of convincing the experts that they are not really being attacked. The only way is to find the man who taught Joshua to think, and David has just 27 hours and 59 minutes to do it in.
David is at the centre of the film. ‘When we meet him at the beginning of the movie.’ says Walter Parkes. ‘he is still a boy, playing with toys. By the end he has taken a giant step into the adult world. He has realised he has to take responsibility for starting this thing.’ And that goes for pretty well everyone else in the film too! Dr John McKittrick, in charge of the whole defence warning system, who thinks computers are the answer to everything: General Berringer, the nuke-the-commies officer in charge of defence: Dr Stephen Falken, the computer genius who created Joshua and then opted out when he discovered how they planned to use his invention: Jennifer, David’s girlfriend who at the beginning of the film thinks the most important thing in life is aerobics, and even Joshua, the computer who has been programmed to think and learn. (He/it is the real star of the show.)
When the film is over you remember some dazzling computer graphics, some very watchable acting, but above all a very well-made suspense thriller which at its heart has a strong simple point to make about nuclear war. Go and see it.
A Good Read
And then read the book. David Bischoff has done a good job of turning Wargames into book form. At great expense and after a tense telephone auction, we are told, Penguin acquired the UK paperback rights from the American Company, Dell. They have brought out two editions: a Penguin at £1.75 and a Puffin Plus at £ 1.50. The Puffin, apart from being 25p cheaper, has had some of the more colourful language toned down and been given a cover which shows David and Jenny. heads together, looking worried. The Penguin cover has David alone, looking much younger and with an innocent, bewildered expression. An interesting demonstration of what publishers think sells books to different parts of the market?
What’s inside is a good read for anyone from the early teens upwards. For less experienced readers the writer’s concern to make clear all the implications of the film could be useful. Just one word of warning. The opening (based on the pre-credit sequence of the film, the significance of which becomes clear only later in the film) could be confusing: and the story has a rather slow build up (the main plot doesn’t really get moving until about page 80). So warn potential readers and encourage them to keep going. They’ll be glad they did.
War Games. David Bischoff, Puffin Plus. 0 14 13 1701 5, £1.50; Penguin. 0 14 00.7050 8, £1.75
Stills from Wargames on the right by courtesy of Penguin Books.
The Film of the Book
At the end of The Outsiders a caption flashes on the screen.
‘The film The Outsiders is dedicated to the people who first suggested that it be made – librarian Jo Ellen Misakian and the students of The Lone Star School in Fresno, California.’
That brief dedication marks the end of a long story which started back in 1972 when Jo Ellen Masakian, newly appointed to the school library, discovered that The Outsiders was a book the kids, and especially the boys, actually wanted to read. In Spring 1980 she and 104 twelve and thirteen year-olds signed a petition asking that their favourite book be made into a film. But which director should they send it to? By chance Mrs Misakian had just read a review of The Black Stallion, got Francis Ford Coppola’s address from the reference library and sent off the petition with a letter. and a copy of the paperback because she knew he wouldn’t go out and buy one.
Unlike most letters of the kind this one actually got through to be read by Mr Coppola. He is reputed to have said. ‘I bet kids have a good idea of what should be a movie’, and passed it over to his colleague, producer Fred Roos, to ‘Check it out, if you want to’.
Mr Roos’ first impression was not good. He dismissed the book because the jacket was ‘tacky’. It looked, he said, as if the book had been published by some religious organization. (Publishers note!) But somehow the book got into his briefcase and weeks later, on a plane journey, he decided to give it ten pages. That was enough to keep him reading and convince him that the pupils of Lone Star School were right.
In the summer of 1980 he went to Tulsa to meet S. E. Hinton. The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning films. meant nothing to her: but she had seen The Black Stallion and felt that the people who made it could be trusted with young adult fiction.
Tough and Heroic
While setting up The Outsiders. Zoetrope, Coppola’s production company, was struggling with another film, One From the Heart, going way beyond budget. and trying to stave off bankruptcy. For Coppola, directing The Outsiders – working with half a dozen kids in the country – was relief from his problems. It was also a project with which he identified. ‘I wanted to make a movie about youth and about belonging.belonging to a group of people with whom you identified and where you felt real love.’ He responded strongly to the book and to get that response on the screen decreed that the ‘greasers’ were to be portrayed heroically and they were to have dignity. And indeed they are and they do. So much so that some critics have disliked the film for being over-romantic, over-sentimental, even too ‘beautiful’.
The gorgeous Oklahoma sunsets are, says Coppola. the perfect metaphor for the film. ‘Even as we look at a sunset we are aware that it is already starting to die. Youth, too, is like that: at its very moment of perfection you can already see the forces that are undoing it. The Outsiders takes place in an enchanted moment of time in the lives of all those boys. I wanted to catch that moment.’
He and his cameraman have captured those sunsets on the screen in all their golden glory. To reinforce the image Ponyboy quotes from Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay, and the theme song, sung by Stevie Wonder, is called So Gold. Over the top`.’ Well, perhaps a little. But all this is really counterpoint to the narrative and background for the real focus of the film – the boys, and in particular Dallas. the tough guy with a heart of gold, little Johnny and Ponyboy.
Late at night, in retaliation for a supposed insult. Ponyboy and Johnny are attacked by a gang of drunken ‘socs’. To save his friend from being drowned Johnny stabs and kills a ‘soc’. With Dallas’ help they hide out in an abandoned church in the country. When Dallas brings them news that Cherry. a ‘soc’ girl, will testify on their behalf, they decide to give themselves up. About to return, they see the church has caught fire and children on a school picnic who have climbed in to explore are trapped. The three rescue the children and are hailed as heroes: but Johnny is horribly burned and critically ill. At a final all-out rumble the greasers beat the ‘socs’. As it ends news comes of Johnny’s death. Dallas incoherent with anger and grief pulls an empty gun on the owner of a grocery store and is dramatically gunned down in the street by the police. Ponyboy is left to tell the story.
The film is faithful to the book. It was filmed on location in Tulsa with considerable concern for recreating sixties detail. S. E. Hinton, who thought the cast was excellent, comments, ‘Even in places where I thought it might have been better to change the book, Francis stuck to it. He made the movie for the kids who liked the book.’
The kids who saw it with us certainly enjoyed it in spite of the lyrical passages which they found a little slow. The action-packed bits, and even more the appeal of the characters were ample compensation. They were totally involved.
Filmgoers seeking the book, or book readers visiting the cinema will not be disappointed.