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.
The hook is hard to resist. The body of Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of General Joe Campbell, is found — naked, spreadeagled, and staked to the ground — on a Fort Hadley rifle range. The rope around her neck indicates that she was strangled and her condition suggests rape. Paul Brenner, of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, knows the bizarre scene must have an equally strange explanation. His job is to find it, and the murderer.
Nelson DeMille makes this stuff look easy, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s nothing easy about writing a compelling mystery, especially one like this, which could easily have slipped into prurience. But this is a book that, as its title tells us, is about Captain Campbell — her life, history, and personality. Though she is dead when we first see her, it is about bringing her to life and showing us how she met her tragic fate.
And so, like any mystery, information is paramount: when we get it, how we get it, and whom we get it from. DeMille doles it out beautifully, with a mix of detective work and forensics, interviews with suspects and acquaintances, and clues in Campbell’s personal effects. As the suspense builds, so does our understanding of Captain Campbell.
It’s a sordid story, but that’s not to say the book is depressing. It begins on a humorous note, as Paul discovers that fate has put him on the same base and in the same room with an old lover, Cynthia Sunhill. Their previous encounter didn’t end well, but Paul has carried a torch for her ever since. Because Cynthia is a rape specialist, she is assigned to work alongside Paul on the Campbell case. Their personal and professional interaction provides just the relief the Campbell case needs.
And then there’s Paul himself, who is like an early, somewhat toned down version of the author’s John Corey character. Also a loose cannon, also smart-mouthed, also a man’s man, Paul, however, is military, dealing with a military crime with mostly military suspects; it helps keep him from indulging in some of the more outrageous behavior that Corey gets away with. I don’t think he’s ultimately any more sensitive than Corey, but maybe his sensitivity is a little more evident here. He’s funny and tough and his heart is in the right place.
It’s a description that applies to the book itself. This is a page-turner with heart. The crime, we learn, is far more devastating that it at first appears (which is saying something), and DeMille handles it all with tact and grace.