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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010 2:08 pm
Reading the Screen: Staring at Goats Can Be Baaad For Your Health
Posted by: David Pitt

goats-1Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004) was made into a nifty movie.  The movie is a lot of fun — George Clooney always looks like he’s having a hoot when he does comedy — and it manages to be substantially different from the book, and faithful to it, all at the same time. Take a look at the trailer and then we’ll have a little chat.

The book is a work of nonfiction. The subject might be wildly implausible — a secret government program to develop psychic abilities — but book, which recounts Ronson’s journalistic investigations of the First Earth Battalion, is straightforward reportage. The problem, if you want to turn the book into a movie, is this: there are a lot of characters, and some of them appear for only a few pages, and the story, the actual history of the secret government program, is told out of sequence, as Ronson learns more bits and pieces.

Well, this won’t work for a movie. (That’s not true, obviously. All the President’s Men stuck pretty closely to the format of the book. But let’s pretend it’s true.) You need a fairly linear plot in a movie, a story arc, a cast of characters who appear throughout.

What they did when they turned Ronson’s book into a movie is actually pretty smart: they took various scenes from the book, involving an assortment of people, and gave them to a single character, Clooney’s Lyn Cassidy (a fictionalized version of the book’s Glenn Wheaton, psychic spy and self-appointed Jedi Warrior). That way the movie keeps the important moments — the lesson in disabling an opponent, stopping a goat’s heart by staring at it, the cloudbursting scene you saw in the trailer – without having to introduce a string of characters who come and go in the space of a few minutes.

The movie also provides us with an actual plot: the narrator, reporter Bob Wilton (a fictionalized Jon Ronson), hooks up with Cassidy and follows him into Iraq, where they have a series of misadventures as Cassidy tries to carry out his top-secret mission. The movie ends with a nice twist, too, when it turns out the mission isn’t at all what we thought it was.

The filmmakers cut plenty of things from the book — “psychic” Uri Geller, remote viewer and tireless self-promoter Ed Dames, the connection between the First Earth program and the Heaven’s Gate cult, and more — but they kept the most important thing: they kept the feel of the book. Ronson tells a lightly comic story about some people who risk their careers (not to mention their sanity) in very serious pursuit of a truly out-of-left-field idea, and that’s exactly what the movie is, too.

If Ronson’s book whets your appetite, I can heartily recommend Jim Schnabel’s Remote Viewers: The Secret History of America’s Psychic Spies (1997), an evenhanded overview of the U.S. government’s adventures in paranormal research; and Michael Shermer’s The Borderlands of Science (2001), which approaches the subject, and others of a similar nature, from a more skeptical point of view. He makes some interesting comments about Schnabel’s book, too.

Ronson, by the way, also wrote Them: Adventures with Extremists (2002), an offbeat look at conspiracy theories and the surprisingly wide variety of people who believe in them. It’s the perfect companion piece to Goats.

And if you’re keen to learn more about conspiracy theories, check out either of these:

Richard Roeper’s Debunked! Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century (2008), a very entertaining and rational-minded look at some of our most fondly-held misbeliefs.

Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop On Freemasons, the Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, the New World Order, and Many, Many More (2009), which is more comprehensive, and less funny, than Roeper’s book.

I can steer you toward many more books, if you’re interested, but those will get you started.


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