Book vs. Movie: Friday Night Lights
By Kim Hollis
November 19, 2004

There's no crying in football!

If movies like Freddy vs. Jason, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Alien vs. Predator, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Kramer vs. Kramer, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ecks vs. Sever, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla have taught us nothing else, it's that everything is somehow better in battle format. We here at BOP recognize this fact, but at the same time realize that our breed of super-smart readers sometimes yearns for a touch of the intellectual at the same time. And since Hollywood has a certain obsession with turning literature of all types into big screen features, we're afforded the perfect opportunity to set up grudge matches galore.

And so, whenever the Tinsel Town hotshots decide that it's a great idea to turn the little-known Herman Melville classic Redburn into a theatrical event film, we'll be there. Whether the results are triumphant (see: The Lord of the Rings trilogy) or tragic (i.e. The Scarlett Letter), we'll take it upon ourselves to give you the verdict and spark the discussion.

Friday Night Lights

I first read H.G. Bissinger's marvelous story of a West Texas city and the people's obsession for their high school football team over a decade ago. In fact, I picked up the book after having myself lived for a brief time in Odessa, home of the Permian Panthers. Would the movie be able to capture the gritty realism that made the story such a fascinating read?

The Book

Although Bissinger's story is a true-life recounting of the 1988 football season of the Permian High School team, it reads like fiction. The boys who gave completely of themselves for their sport are unique personalities. From dedicated quarterback Mike Winchell to Harvard-bound Brian Chavez to the inscrutable Ivory Christian, the team was full of young men who were singular human beings, each one bringing something special and indefinable to their group. And that's just scratching the very surface.

The book also recounts the tragic story of Boobie Miles, the team's star running back who had been highly recruited by all of the major programs. After blowing out his ACL in a scrimmage, the learning-disabled young man had a difficult time finding his way, and it is illustrated in heartbreaking detail.

Along with the captivating story of the players themselves, the book also does a tremendous job of describing how deeply involved the residents of Odessa became with the team. The Permian Panthers were a football team with a history of winning, and nothing short of the State Championship was acceptable to the boosters who lent their support. On evenings when the team *gasp* lost, it wouldn't be surprising to see a gaggle of "for sale" signs in the yard of the coach's house.

Bissinger also had the courage to tackle the societal issues that sometimes divided the town. Race relations, the economy and the divide between the wealthy residents of one city versus the more working-class denizens of another are all subjects that are given an in-depth examination.

It's an exceptional book and one that is nearly impossible to put down.

The Movie

After a strong outing in 2003 with the action-adventure The Rundown, director Peter Berg moved on to the dusty oil fields of West Texas and the bright lights of the high school football stadium. Adapting a story as notable as Bissinger's would be no easy task - although the Permian Panthers had a variety of great individuals on their team, in essence, it was that team unit that was most significant in the development of the tale. Imparting that notion while still giving attention to the unique personalities who played for Permian would be no easy task.

The happy news is that as a film, Friday Night Lights is both memorable and distinguishes itself as one of the better entries of 2004. It is certainly one of the top-notch sports films to come down the pike in some time, and that is taking into consideration the fact that both Miracle and The Rookie were excellent representatives of the genre.

With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines, the bulk of the cast is comprised of unknowns and rising young stars. Thornton is terrific in his role, playing the character as grizzled and gruff on the exterior, but there's still a gentle heart that resides deep inside. Lucas Black, who first caught my attention many years ago on the Sam Raimi/Robert Tapert television series American Gothic, is also particularly notable as the young quarterback Winchell. Derek Luke is outstanding as the showboating Boobie Miles, as well.

The editing of the film and the use of a yellow tint to accentuate both the economic situation and the unforgiving geography accentuate the coarse nature of the area and its residents. My one complaint about the film is that screenwriters Berg and David Aaron Cohen took some fictional liberties with the story that weren't really necessary. The real story is so compelling that the areas that were changed stand out rather significantly.

The Verdict

Even though I believe that Bissinger's book is superior, the theatrical adaptation still stands apart as one of the great football movies ever to see theaters. Even more importantly, it's probably the best sports-themed film I've seen in years. I strongly recommend both book and movie as stand-outs of their genre and must-read/ -sees for fans of football in particular.