Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Full Metal Jacket

The Short-Timers [1979]
Written by Gustav Hasford

Full Metal Jacket [1987]
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Full Metal Jacket in my generation's (and subsequent generations') understanding of the Vietnam War. For thousands of American men and women, Vietnam is a historical abstraction, photos of green-clad grunts in worn history textbooks. For those who don't have a primary connection to the conflict (like a dad or uncle who served), and this includes myself, it seems as impenetrably past as World War II. Our introduction to the terrible realities of the war comes through film, particularly Jacket and Oliver Stone's Platoon. Of the two, Jacket seems to have become the (and I know how morbidly ironic this will sound) popular favorite. Maybe because "Me so horny" is part of the lexicon and a sampled staple of hip-hop. Maybe because R. Lee Ermey parlayed his drill instructor role into a well-deserved career. Or maybe because the film, like most of Kubrick's work, is a fucking masterpiece of cinema. But like most of Kubrick's work, the whole thing started with a book: former Combat Correspondent Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers.

I cannot begin to address in its entirety the issue of Kubrick and adaptation. Through the progress of this blog I hope to look at things on a case-by-case basis. At times, the director is an exacting cinematic transcriber of text to celluloid (c.f. A Clockwork Orange). Sometimes he plays fast and loose with his source (c.f. Dr. Strangelove). Jacket is something of a halfway point between the two; in fact, the film is divided into sections which are, respectively, a to-the-letter filming and a condensation of disparate material.

Hasford's "The Spirit of the Bayonet" concerns the Parris Island training of Combat Correspondant Private Joker. While Kubrick makes some slight changes here and there (Private Pyle is now a lardass rather than an actual dead ringer for Gomer Pyle), his fidelity to the book is at times uncanny. Consider the following passage (and you'll instantly recall the exact scene in the film):

"During our sixth week, Sergeant Gerheim orders us to double-time around the squad bay with our penises in our left hands and our weapons in our right hands, singing: This is my rifle, this is my gun; one is for fighting and one is for fun. And: I don't want no teen-aged queen; all I want is my M-14.
"Sergeant Gerheim orders us to name our rifles: 'This is the only pussy you people are going to get. Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over. You're married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood, and you will be faithful.
"We run. And we sing:
Well, I don't know
But I been told,
Eskimo pussy
Is mighty cold

Dead on, nah? If anything, Kubrick (with the assured participation of Ermey) elaborates on this section of the book. What Hasford describes in a sentence, Kubrick allows Ermey to stretch into whole minutes of profanely quotable film.

Joker's wartime experiences constitute the final two sections: "Body Count" and "Grunts." Kubrick compresses these two sections into the film's second half. The adaptation is not as literal, but retains the fundamental thrust of the narrative. The centerpieces of both book sections are sniper attacks on the company Joker is attached to (first as a correspondent, then as a grunt). The setup is mostly from "Body Count" (the woman sniper in a dilapidated building), but the slow picking off of the marines is straight outta "Grunts."

Other sequences and patches of description and dialogue undergo recombination for film. We get some downtime, but Joker and Rafter Man see The Green Berets and don't meet the "Me so horny" prostitute. The rat hunt is eliminated, but the dead VC's birthday is intact. "The Mickey Mouse Club Theme" even shows up, though its placement in the movie serves as a grim coda to the previous 120 or so minutes.

From the literary perspective (my supposed grounding in this monotonous process of blog-typing), what is most phenomenal about Full Metal Jacket is its ability to translate without translation. Hasford wrote The Short-Timers in the military-slang-filled language of the marine. Even the title is a euphemism for a draftee forced to serve 100 days in country. As we have seen, Kubrick keeps this particular dialect . It would seem like a daunting enterprise (remember how they had to give out glossaries to early screenings of Dune?), but through context and cultural osmosis the reader/viewer quickly becomes acclimated to the rhythms and content of speech and description.

Sadly, all of Gustav Hasford's works are OOP. I had to inter-library loan my copy of the novel (thanks to the Ann Arbor and Grand Blanc libraries!). Should you want to read the book (and you should) and such a route is not be open to you, the complete text of The Short-Timers is available at the author's website: http://gustavhasford.com/

Read, learn and remember.

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