Thursday, January 31, 2008

Read And Right

Awake again last night, well into the early hours, which was a real pisser. Pacing about, this time I figured, forget the bursts of audio-visual stimuli from the BBC iPlayer – there was the chance after all that I could accidentally find myself watching sodding Lark Rise To Candleford or something just as odious. Instead it was time to sort myself out with a book that would help send me off to sleep.

Of course this course of action comes with its own set of problems. Choosing a thriller would be a bad idea. If I took anything by Dennis Lehane or Lee Child off the shelf there would be the possibility I’d still be reading as the first glow of morning light began to seep across the rooftops to the rousing chirrups of the dawn chorus.

Slightly more off-centre thrillers, like Douglas E. Winter’s Run and God is a Bullet by Boston Teran, which I can highly recommended, were books I just wasn’t in the mood for. And it only seemed like a short while ago that I’d read Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon, tempting as it was. Instead, deciding it was best to stick with something familiar, I drifted over to the non-fiction bookshelves.

Obviously, at some point, I’m going to get around to reading Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth and A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, but not right now. Instead, wedged between Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring I found the perfect answer.

The Right Stuff was the result of Tom Wolfe asking himself the question, “What is it that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse?” I’m sure that’s something we’ve all asked ourselves in the past. Wolfe, however, went and did something about it.

It’s been a while since I last read the book. Certainly after Philip Kaufman’s film came out, probably after I had a copy on VHS but not since I snapped it up on DVD. It’s important to make that distinction because now that I catch the film on a semi-regular basis, reading the source material has become a whole new experience.

Wolfe took the material from all his interviews – starting with the astronauts gathered to watch the launch of Apollo 17, to the ”many people, pilots and non-pilots, who were intimately involved in the beginning of the era of manned rocket flight in America” – and produced a book virtually bereft of straight attributed quotes. In writing the screenplay, Kaufman had to take the poetic prose and turn it into dialogue, apportioning it to the characters.

So that Wolfe’s...

There was an emergency meeting (what emergency?) of government, military, and aircraft industry leaders to discuss the possibility of getting a man into space before the Russians. Suddenly there was no longer time for orderly progress. To put an X-15B or an X-20 into orbit, with an Edwards rocket pilot aboard, would require rockets that were still three or four years away from delivery. So a so-called quick and dirty approach was seized upon. Using available rockets such as the Redstone (70,000 pounds of thrust) and the just-developed Atlas (367,000 pounds of thrust), they would try to launch not a flying ship but a pod, a container, a capsule, with a man in it. The man would not be a pilot; he would be a human cannonball, He would not be able to alter the course of the capsule in the slightest. The capsule would go up like a cannonball and come down like a cannonball, splashing into the ocean, with a parachute to slow it down and spare the life of the human specimen inside.

becomes, in an early draft of Kaufman’s script...

We learn from our failures, no? Might I suggest what I call my quick and dirty approach? By using available rockets such as the Redstone and our just-developed Atlas we will launch a pod...

A pod?

A container. A capsule. We will be in full control of this pod which will go up... like a cannonball... and come down like a cannonball, splashing down in the ocean with a parachute to slow it down and spare the life of the specimen inside.


No, specimen!

What kind of specimen?

A tough one. Responsive to orders. I had in mind a jimp.

A jimp? What in hell is a jimp?

A jimp? A jimpanzee, Senator! An ape!

Kaufman may have played fast and loose with the facts to create a strong narrative thread, and certainly took every opportunity to poke fun at NASA and the US government. But he got Wolfe’s suggestion that the American strategy to get a man into space seemed solely to recover from what was an embarrassing Cold War public relations fiasco.

Kaufman also clearly understood Wolfe’s assertion that the test pilots were the real heroes and possessors of “the right stuff”. That still included the seven astronauts selected for the Mercury programme as they strove to me more than just a “redundant component” on the sub-orbital and orbital flights.

The other thing you get from the book is that, originally hired to write the film’s screenplay, William Goldman was a complete and utter cock to think that he could simply ditch Yeager and go with Mercury. Kaufman knew Chuck Yeager was absolutely vital. Wolfe certainly did. The book may not begin with Yeager but it ends with his later career. It was Wolfe’s magnificent introduction of Yeager that sold me the first time I read the book:

Yeager had started out as the equivalent, in the Second World War, of the legendary Frank Luke of the 27th Aero Squadron in the First. Which is to say, he was the boondocker, the boy from the back country, with only a high-school education, no credentials, no cachet or polish of any sort, who took off the feed-store overalls and put on a uniform and climbed into an airplane and lit up the skies over Europe.

After hostilities ceased he was sent to Muroc Field (later renamed Edwards Air Force Base) in the high desert of California, the Mount Olympus for test pilots. There he climbed aboard the Bell X-1 and punched a hole in the sky. How can you not mythologize figures like this?

Anyone interested in comparing screenplays adapted from another medium with the source material should check out Tom Wolfe’s book and Philip Kaufman’s film. Kaufman, by the way, wasn’t even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1984 Academy Awards.

I was hoping that tonight I’ll get a good seven hours sleep. I think that instead I might still be reading.


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