In Hamlet, when talk of the ghost scares but fails to full convince an ordinary man, he’s told that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. It’s a poetic way of saying that as long as you live with an enquiring and open mind, you’ll find yourself surprised.
Reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats, the same sort of thoughts go through the mind. It’s generally best not to compare a film adaptation with the book it is based on – arguments of fidelity are pointless when you are dealing with two radically different art forms. Even reading a book requires interpretation and a kind of mental editing, so of course that happens to the power of twenty in film adaptations. The film of this book, though, was not without merit – but was ultimately disappointing. Good actors were left in search of a tone; the story just didn’t work and the final scene blew any good work that had gone before almost completely out of the water. In that context, though, the book the film was based on is a far more satisfying experience. Episodes portrayed in the film are noticeable here, but they’re in the context of a piece of investigative journalism related as a journey down an increasingly bizarre rabbit hole. Ronson’s tone is just right – he doesn’t mock, he doesn’t patronize – he allows the surreal events to speak for themselves. Members of the military researching how to stop a goat’s heart just by looking at it? Hamsters? Honestly, what else do you need to say? It’s one of those books you want to read in the same room as other people so that you can annoy them by reading sentences out and share the laughter. The laughter, though, is somehow never cruel and given the subject matter, that’s some commendation.
It’s the economy of style that works so well. It serves comedy and it serves serious reflection equally well. Whether that later is in the influence of harmless madness on the darker aspects of the War on Terror, or a son’s quest to discover the truth of his father’s death – in each case the material breathes as Ronson step as graciously out of the way as Ewan McGregor’s character unhelpfully intruded.
So how and to whom to recommend this? Some may be put off by the film; either because they enjoyed it or they didn’t. Either way, it’s better; funnier and more insightful. Some may be put off because it seems a little too serious; who wants to read about Abu Ghraib again? I’ll leave it with this, then – I read almost all of this on a through the night flight, time flying by, laughs and pauses for thought staying just long enough to season the tepid airline food and recycled air. There was neither too much nor too little of each. Forget the film. Whatever your tastes, just read this.