Nothing should inspire reader panic like the words ”NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” emblazoned on a paperback. Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, both of them true stories and journalistic feats, prove just how dangerous the transition from page to screen can be. The triumph of the authors is their insistence that no life can be shuffled into the role of hero or villain to the exclusion of all character nuance. And the rub is realizing just how little Hollywood trusts its audience with the truth.
Nasar’s award-winning biography of mathematical whiz John Forbes Nash Jr. is riveting. The skeletal story—a genius is derailed by schizophrenia, driven into isolation and unproductivity, and ultimately resurrected with a Nobel prize in 1994—is a sweet one. But Nash’s life is as rich and troubled as one would expect from a genius, and Nasar doesn’t shy away from her subject’s complexity—or his faults. Her biography paints Nash as an anti-Semite. A lousy father. A violent man. A jerk to women (particularly the mistress he impregnated and abandoned, and the wife from whom he was separated for nearly 40 years). Nasar’s point—that what was beautiful about John Nash was the mind rather than the man—is completely massaged out of the film starring Russell Crowe. Gone as well is the depth of fear, felt not only by Nash but by his peers, that treating his schizophrenia would dull his genius, diminishing his worth.
The claim that has drawn the most sputters from fans of the film, which is more a story of marriage than math or madness, is of Nash’s homosexual leanings. Apparently, that bit of history was excised out of fear that moviegoers might be quick to equate schizophrenia with homosexuality. In her biography, Nasar discusses the Freudian concept in the 1950s that linked the two, a theory that has long since been discredited. But does the on-screen omission really hint at Hollywood’s perception that unevolved moviegoers will be more put off by homosexuality than by schizophrenia?
The movie version of Black Hawk Down is the more faithful of the two adaptations. Those familiar with Mark Bowden’s best-selling book—a minute-by-minute account of the 1993 skirmish that took the lives of 18 American soldiers and more than 500 Somalians—will appreciate the meaty chunks of dialogue and scene setting that make it into the movie.
Some of the most compelling elements of the book, though—those crucial chapters devoted to the Somalians—are dearly missed. Bowden balances out a U.S. sergeant’s perception that the Somalians, or ”skinnies,” as the American troops often referred to them, looked ”savage, or deranged,” with a Somalian lawyer’s claim that the residents of Mogadishu felt ”brutalized and harassed.” In one chapter, a Somalian whose uncle was shot that day wonders, ”Who were these Americans who rained fire and death on them, who came to feed them but then had started killing?” The beauty of Bowden’s thorough reporting is that the two viewpoints aren’t meant to contradict one another or to sway a reader’s allegiance.
In his epilogue, Bowden writes of the young soldiers he interviewed whose ”experience of battle, unlike that of any other generation of American soldiers, was colored by a lifetime of watching the vivid gore of Hollywood action movies.” His book provides the kind of valuable context that rarely finds its way into those movies. He describes the soldier who, while loyal to the man fighting alongside him, curses the government at home that put them in peril. And he allows the enemy a face. There are sides to be taken in wartime, but one would be wise to remember, the author seems to suggest, that both are made up of men.
Josh Hartnett, who plays Sgt. Matt Eversmann in Black Hawk Down, appeared on the Today show on Jan. 9. When asked to explain the events that led to the battle—the knotty political climate, the ambush of soldiers, the source of the Somalians’ hatred—the actor deferred to the text, and we don’t mean the screenplay. ”It’s good to read the book,” he said. ”It’s important.” Roger that. A Beautiful Mind: A; Black Hawk Down: A-