Adaptations and the media

Authored by: Kyle Meikle

The Routledge Companion To Adaptation

Print publication date:  April  2018
Online publication date:  April  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138915404
eBook ISBN: 9781315690254
Adobe ISBN:


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In early November 2004, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the first of journalist Jon Ronson’s three-part documentary series Crazy Rulers of the World, aired on Britain’s Channel 4 with the disclaimer, “The things we reveal in this film have remained, until now, US military intelligence secrets.”  The same month, Picador published Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, a companion to the series that begins with the sentence, “This is a true story” (2004: 1). Half a decade later, in November 2009, BBC Films released Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, a Hollywood movie “Inspired by the book by Jon Ronson,” whose opening credits include the intertitle, “More of this is true than you would believe.” To be sure, much of the history that “The Men Who Stare at Goats” (2004)—and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004) and The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)—recounts is unbelievable: the heretofore “secret history” (as Ronson says in the opening moments of the documentary) of the US military’s forays into psychological operations in the 1980s, including, but not limited to, a sergeant who attempted to stop a goat’s heart with his mind. Despite the connections between these texts—Ronson’s book is implicitly inspired by his documentary, while Heslov’s film is explicitly inspired by Ronson’s book—they qualify their believability in different ways. Indeed, Ronson does not pause to qualify the “truth” of his documentary at all, letting his use of news footage, talking heads, and voiceover do that work for him; instead, he focuses on the relative and revelatory newness of the truths he is about to present. Ronson’s book is similarly bound by its back cover, which categorizes its contents as “HISTORY/SOCIAL SCIENCE” (a categorization reflected on Amazon); the first sentence serves only to underscore the believability of the unbelievable truths that follow. Heslov’s movie, meanwhile, lacks the generic hallmarks of documentary or nonfiction literature, anticipating its viewers’ skepticism by playfully suggesting that at least some of what they are about to see is based in truth. While the documentary emphasizes the exposure of “long-held secrets,” the feature film follows the book’s lead by emphasizing that the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction—two typical claims, as Thomas Leitch argues, of adaptations “based on a true story” (2007: 286–88).

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