So I’m watching The General’s Daughter, it’s nearly over, and I already know what I’m going to say about it. Then something magical happens: screenwriters Christopher Bertolini and William Goldman say it for me. Bad adaptations are typically bad for a number of reasons. This one is different. Everything that is wrong with this movie is encapsulated in a single mistake in judgment. And Bertolini and Goldman, almost as if they were proud of it, spell it out and practically sign it, right there in the screenplay.
It’s so brazen, I feel as though I should reward them for it. So I’ll let them tell you what they did to turn an excellent novel into a poor movie.
In the book, at the very end, narrator Paul Brenner muses, “The human eye can distinguish 15 or 16 shades of gray. A computer image processor can distinguish 256 shades of gray, which is impressive. More impressive, however, is the human heart, mind, and soul, which can distinguish an infinite amount of emotional, psychological, and moral shadings, from the blackest of black to the whitest of white. I’ve never seen either end of the spectrum, but I’ve seen a lot in between.”
In the movie, again near the end, Paul watches murder victim Captain Campbell, who works in Psychological Operations, or Psy-Ops, speaking about her job on a videotape. She says, “The human eye can distinguish 16 shades of gray. A computer image processor, analyzing a fingerprint, can distinguish 256 shades of gray, which is impressive. The human heart, mind, and soul, however, can distinguish an infinite number of emotional, psychological, and moral shadings. In Psy-Ops, we deal with the blackest of black and the whitest of white.”
Brenner is talking about the real world. Campbell is talking about Hollywood.
Captain Campbell (here named Elisabeth instead of Ann for some reason) is found murdered — naked, spreadeagled, and staked to the ground. Paul Brenner of the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division must find out what happened to her. The basic story, then, remains intact. But this is itself a mistake, for this crime is too horrible to be reduced to black and white. Where the novel was about bringing Campbell to life and confronting us with the moral, ethical, and psychological contradictions of her existence and eventual death, the movie is about nothing more than identifying and punishing the bad guys (one of whom, gratuitously, is turned into a homosexual).
Having made the decision to sweep any shading under the rug, the filmmakers knew they had to replace it with something. I’m guessing it took them about two seconds to settle on their answer: action and mortal danger. In this kind of movie, bullets and shrapnel are what pass for penetrating stuff.
A bad adaptation doesn’t necessarily entail a bad movie. I knew where this one was going in the first 15 minutes or so, but it was enjoyable, and I was prepared to like it. I’ve liked John Travolta since his Sweathog days, and I was pleased to see his flagging career revived with Pulp Fiction. I wanted to like this movie. But polarization means simplification, which, sometimes, morphs into trivialization. And that’s what happened here. Captain Campbell’s character deserved more than justice; she deserved respect.