Robert O’Connor

Buffalo Soldiers, Robert O’Connor

Vintage, 1992, 324 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-679-74203-4

Comparing film adaptations to their source novels is a source of quasi-endless fascination, especially if you make the trip from the derived to the original work. The movie leaves you with images, structure and a smattering of good moments. Reading the book deepens the experience, and sometimes even takes you in a different story. Interestingly enough, more obscure source material (as in “I didn’t know this was adapted from a novel!”) usually reveal more interesting differences than celebrated media blockbusters of the Harry-Potter kind: It’s easy for a studio executive to mess around with lesser-known material without a fan base, but Warner Brother studios would be burned down to the ground by the kids if they even tried to mess around with the original. (“We can’t do that, sir! The kids will kill us! Won’t you think of the children? THE HORRIBLE CHILDREN?!”)

Approaching novels after seeing the film isn’t just a mere exercise in frivolity and facilitated reading: Storytellers should learn how a story gets adapted from one work to another, which details need to be dropped, which changes are necessary to get the audience’s sympathy and so on. Even so-called “hard-edged” movies like FIGHT CLUB are nowhere near as nasty as their literary progenitors.

And so it goes with BUFFALO SOLDIERS, a little-seen film with an interesting history. Billed as a satire about America’s Army at the close of the Cold War, BUFFALO SOLDIERS deals with an amoral anti-hero who manages to turn his stint in German barracks into a profit-making venture on the back of Uncle Sam’s supply lines. Drug-dealing, senseless deaths, inter-service conflict and racial tensions all play a large part in a film that brings to mind many other dark military comedies. Alas, this movie was premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10th, 2001. The perceived profitability of cynical portraits of soldiers fell to the ground the very next day, sending the film back on the studio shelves, and then (much later) to a limited theatrical reserve and an even softer video release.

Too bad, because if the film loses steam in its second half, it’s a serviceable little black comedy with an appealing anti-hero and some neat direction in its first half. It’s dark, but not unbearably so. It doesn’t portray the army favourably, but neither is it an all-out attack on the institution.

The novel is something else.

For one thing, protagonist Ray Elwood isn’t simply the clever petty-thief fixer of the film’s Joaquin Phoenix. In the novel, we’re quick to understand that this miserable heroin junkie is skating on a thin ice of brutal enforcement, cheap thrills, overwhelming greed and careful power-playing. Movie Elwood is a decent, if somewhat amoral chap. Novel Elwood is holding together solely because of fear and smack: Nearly everyone he knows would knife him in the back if they could.

The rest of the novel runs in pretty much the same vein. The events are more similar to the novel that you’d expect (Elwood sees his position threatened by a new authoritarian Master Sergeant, so he seduces his rival’s daughter and sets up an epic drug deal as his last hurrah in the underground business. Then things go wrong.), but the tone is a lot darker. Some changes are significant, yet meaningless (Ray’s new girlfriend is an amputee in the novel, but the film’s Anna Paquin didn’t need the handicap one bit to fit the character), while others are small but important (the novel is set in, at the latest, the early eighties while the movie takes place in 1989. This is significant given how, historically, the US military had unbelievable morale problems in the seventies, gradually clawing its way back up to a far better all-volunteer fighting force. The harsh environment described in either version of Buffalo Soldiers makes sense close to the seventies, but increasingly less so after then.) And then there’s the ending, which was drastically altered from the novel to the film… and I’ll let you guess which one is happier.

And yet, even as a written-word purist, I can’t really fault screenwriter Eric Weiss for softening up the story for the big screen. It’s not a revelation if I say that different mediums have different tolerances for excess: I can think of many scenes that work on the page and would be insupportable if captured on cinema. Junkie-Elwood is a fine novel narrator (except that he speaks in “you”), but he wouldn’t earn more than five minute’s sympathy on screen. The rough stuff that follows is interesting on the page, but would be stomach-churning if seen. The film is fine, and so is the novel: fast-paced, decently-written, sharply-detailed and cynical enough to make anyone think twice about enlisting. See the film, then read the book!