By: Kevin Jordan
A case study.
When it comes to movies, writing is more important than everything else. Without writing, the stuff in a movie is meaningless. Costumes are being worn because actors get cold and the movie is supposed to be rated PG-13. Sets are just piles of wood, nails, and paint that actors run across because a guy with a bullhorn and a headset just gave the go ahead to blow up that car. Lights are turned on so the actors don’t trip over props while running from the explosion. In other words, nothing is happening for any reason, and nothing you are seeing has any meaning…without a story. Writing gives all of that stuff purpose and good writing ties all of it together in ways that make you glad you spent money and time to watch it. And that’s how we got The Dark Knight. But without a story or any decent writing, I guess a movie like that must simply meet its release date. And that’s how we got Suicide Squad.
But, this isn’t about DC movies. This is about a movie called War Dogs. War Dogs is the perfect example of how good writing makes a great movie. More specifically, it’s a perfect example of how to adapt source material into a screenplay. One of the biggest complaints by moviegoers about Hollywood book adaptations is that “the book was better.” In other words, Hollywood often screws up the source material in an adaptation. While there are countless examples of poor adaptations, there are also numerous examples of superior adaptations, and War Dogs is one of them.
War Dogs is based on a Rolling Stone article titled Arms and the Dudes telling the story of the rise and fall of two twenty-something American men who became international arms dealers and found themselves winning a $300 million defense contract to supply arms to the US military in order to arm the Afghan army.
If the screenplay writers had adapted the story with no changes, it would have made for a fairly uninteresting movie. Don’t get me wrong, the article is fascinating and worth the read, but it isn’t worth two hours in a theater. The two men, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) are both greedy war-profiteers who have no qualms about the legality of what they are doing. The US government officials contracting them are well aware of what they are doing and simply don’t care. They work with several shady arms dealers who are all in it for the same reasons – money. Do you see the problem here? Not one character or entity discussed in the article comes off as the hero or even anti-hero in this story. So, in the movie version, who are you supposed to root for? After watching such a movie, you’d wonder why they spent $45 million on what amounts to a 60 Minutes segment.
Rather than bore you with an overly long night-time news segment, the writers took the characters, the bones of the story, and a couple of fun details (David was a masseuse prior to running guns) and turned it into something worthy of a theater. To start with, they made David the hero and improved his motivation. He also gets a pregnant wife, Iz (the gorgeous and scene stealing Ana de Armas), and is forced to work for Efraim because he is failing to earn enough money to support his family. In contrast, the writers bring Efraim as-is because being a sleazy, greedy, shitbag of a friend makes him the perfect villain. Now we have two well-defined characters whose roles are clear throughout the film.
Then, they embellish a couple of the contract stories and align them in a way that perfectly escalates the stakes and the tension as the movie approaches its climax. The best way to describe it is as a movie that plays out much like Two for the Money or 21. Our hero is brought into the lucrative business, finds early success which leads to more success, which leads to the ‘big one,’ which leads to the inevitable crash, which leads to a satisfying end. In addition, the US government doesn’t come off nearly as shady because the movie needs it to be the uncorrupt lawman (if only this wasn’t an embellishment *sigh*).
There were a few more tweaks, but that’s the meat of the movie and I’m not sure they could have adapted the story any better. On top of that, they nailed the casting. Hill was every bit the villain they needed him to be and you’ll want to punch Efraim as much as David does. Teller also proved that he can actually act when given a decent character and we can now forgive him for his abysmal Mr. Fantastic. As I mentioned earlier, de Armas manages to upstage Teller in their scenes together, especially when she calls him out for being a liar late in the movie. And then there’s the gorgeous and scene-chewing Bradley Cooper (playing arms dealer Henry Girard), every bit as engaging as we’ve come to expect from him. Even in his relatively few scenes, it’s hard to believe he’s not actually a slimy, dangerous arms dealer brought into this movie to make it more real. And that, my friends, is how you write a movie worth watching that is based on literary source material.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go read that article.