115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Dubious Authenticity: Military Memoirs and Adaptation

John Nelson, United States Military Academy, West Point

This paper will examine the complexities of adapting the contemporary military memoir to film.  I will focus on memoirs from the Vietnam War to the present, primarily Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (the Vietnam War), Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead (the First Gulf War), and Chris Kyle’s American Sniper (the Iraq War), along with their respective screen adaptations.

Proposal: 

This paper will examine the complexities of adapting the contemporary military memoir to film. To limit this study’s scope, I will focus on memoirs from the Vietnam War to the present, primarily Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (the Vietnam War), Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead (the First Gulf War), and Chris Kyle’s American Sniper (the Iraq War), along with their respective screen adaptations. Soldiers share a long tradition of conveying their wartime experiences through the military memoir genre: personalized accounts of fighting on foreign soil that capture unfamiliar human and physical geography. These memoirs function as a variant of the travel-writing genre, with the author displaced—at times abruptly and involuntarily—onto unfamiliar terrain in anticipation of pending violence. The soldier-author thus attempts to convey to an unfamiliar reader this sense of displacement and its accompanying anxiety with a semblance of authenticity conveyed through a first person narrative voice. What happens to this perceived authenticity, then, when those firsthand experiences are translated from text to film, mediated not only by the soldier-author’s own subject position, but also by the screenwriter, director, actors, and multiple other interpreters of the soldier’s firsthand account? Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien claims, “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing much is ever very true.” O’Brien’s observation holds true even more so for those film adaptations that are, by necessity and desire, filtered through multiple interpretive lenses, which by definition alter the texts’ meaning due to logistical, artistic, and other decisions, thus distancing the screen representation even further from its antecedent(s). Each of the memoirs listed above highlights the civilian-military divide and the oft-cited gap between the American public and the soldier, particularly during times of armed conflict. Do the screen adaptations of these memoirs help to bridge this gap or widen it? Each of these autobiographical narratives follow similar trajectories: an ordinary American childhood informed by patriotism and youthful zeal, military training and indoctrination, deployment to the combat zone and engagement with the enemy, and then subsequent redeployment and strained (or failed) efforts at reintegration. How do the film adaptations condense this vast temporal, geographic, and psychological scope into cinematic format without sacrificing essential components of these variants of the coming-of-age genre? I plan to draw from Robert Stam’s ideas on the moralistic language of adaptation criticism (infidelity, betrayal, deformation, violation, vulgarization, desecration (543)) from his essay “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adapatation” as I analyze the military memoirs and their respective cinematic derivatives.  

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