Point of Impact, Stephen Hunter

Bantam, 1993, 569 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56351-3

It’s commonplace to say that movie adaptation are a chance to re-interpret the material to another medium’s strengths, but it struck me while reading Point of Impact that adaptations are also a form of wide-screen literary criticism. Everyone can read a book and complain about the lengths, the characterization, the ending and the hundred of other choices made by the authors. But who can actually do something about it? Who can authorize radical changes to a story that has already been published? When you realize that the audience for the most average Hollywood blockbusters is an order of magnitude bigger than even New York Times bestsellers, it’s no exaggeration that filmmakers can forever change the perception of a given story. Maybe even improve it, if they know what they’re doing. Have you tried reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather lately?

Point of Impact was finally adapted to the big screen in 2007 as SHOOTER after fourteen years on bookshelves. Director Antoine Fuqua transformed Stephen Hunter’s potboiler thriller into a decent action/adventure film that wasted little time and delivered the expected thrills. But it wasn’t a transparent adaptation: a number of details were updated, simplified or changed, and it can instructive to study what has been changed, and why.

The basic premise remains the same: a retired top sniper called Bob Lee Swagger is called back in service to counter a possible assassination plot against the president of the United States. Unbeknownst to him, his counter-sniping groundwork ends up forming the plan for a true assassination, and he is framed for the attempt. Running for his life, Swagger has to uncover those who played him, clear his name and take revenge. Both the ex-wife of his deceased partner and a disgraced FBI agent end up playing a parts in the events that follow.

One of the most dramatic change from the book to the movie has been the update of all temporal references. In the 1993 novel, Swagger was a retired Vietnam veteran tied to a plot linked to Central America. In the 2007 film, Swagger is a recent veteran of dirty little wars in Africa, which also ends up being a part of the overall true conspiracy. In order to be played by Mark Wahlberg, SHOOTER’s Swagger is younger, and the events of his personal history have been compressed to only a few years of back-story. Also much younger is sidekick FBI agent Nick Memphis: In an effort to streamline the film, a fairly important subplot about a botched hostage rescue attempt and its consequences has been excised from Memphis’ history, with little adverse consequences.

Also simplified are Point of Impact‘s main claim to fame as a thriller: Its detailed and lucid description of the art of sniping. Hunter has obviously done his homework in studying the field of precision shooting: The novel is crammed with details about the rifles, the techniques and the shooters themselves. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book says that “Stephen Hunter has done for the rifle what Tom Clancy did for the nuclear submarine” and they’re not kidding: Point of Impact is mesmerizing in no small part thanks to the slew of references, lore and little quirks about this specialized field, and the result will certainly appeal to all techno-thriller fans. Perhaps inevitably, this aspect of the novel isn’t carried over to the film, something that will benefit readers tackling the novel after being impressed by the movie.

One area in which the film does complicate matters is in describing the conspiracy facing Swagger. The Clinton-era book limits itself to rogue elements operating at arm’s length from the government’s intelligence agencies. In the film, reflecting the prevailing winds of the Bush administration, the conspiracy is far more pernicious as it reaches up to the Senate and diffuses loosely in the American “military-industrial” complex. The book ends up with a decisive victory; the film, with a quixotic revenge fantasy.

But the film at least has the good sense to wrap the action quickly, boiling down a length courtroom epilogue into a short, sharp and hugely enjoyable confrontation in an FBI briefing room. The main point is the same, but it’s handled far more efficiently.

And that may end up forming the epitaph of every competent adaptation: “Faster, more efficient, more intense” is what’s needed to boil down a satisfying 550+ pages novel into a movie that fits within two hours. If you’re worried about the movie’s simplification, stop hyperventilating: the book is still available, and it’s very entertaining even for those who have seen the movie.

[August 2007: Black Light is not just a sequel to Point of Impact, but also to Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. Bringing together events and characters from both books, Black Light is smaller in scale and more intimate in tone. Here, the conspiracies take place on a rural level, involving secrets buried for decades. Swagger is once again teamed with a younger, less knowledgeable partner and their quest for the truth takes them in unexpected places as the twists keep piling up. While it’s pleasant to see so many red herrings and plot complications, the conspiracies-over-conspiracies that end up defining daddy Swagger’s death also stretch credibility, even as they allow the book to go back to the sniping theme of the original. Fortunately, Hunter’s prose is readable, the characters have their own appeal (even the antagonist is a likable operator), and no one will feel cheated by the ending. More sniping tactical tricks will appeal to fans of the first volume. On the other hand, it is a bit of a let-down after the large scale of Point of Impact, and is best reserved to fans of Hunter’s entire body of work.]

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