Men Who Stare at Goats, The: Book to Film

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"The Men Who Stare at Goats," which stars George Clooney as is directed by Grant Heslov, is an adaptation of Jon Ronson's novel. The films is being released November 6, 2009 by Overture Films.

Some stories seem destined to be made into movies, like this one: an army of New Age warriors is bankrolled by the U.S. government to develop methods of combat using only their minds. Amazingly, this story is true. In his extensively researched bestselling book The Men Who Stare at Goats, journalist Jon Ronson uncovers the history of the First Earth Battalion, and in the process sets the stage for an astonishing and hilarious cinematic look at a virtually unknown chapter of American military history.

When producer Paul Lister received the first two chapters of the book from Ronson’s literary agent, he found the title irresistible. “It’s such a great title,” says Lister. “It made me pick up the book right away and say, ‘What is this?’ And it’s the central idea in the movie.”

“The chapters were very funny,” he adds. “I couldn’t wait to get the rest of the book. It was full of strange, true stories that had resonance. That was the draw for me—I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. How can something so funny and strange be real?’”

The book contained enough offbeat revelations for two movies, but it didn’t conform to a traditional three-act narrative. Screenwriter Peter Straughan was brought in to further develop the story into a script. “As much as I loved the book, it didn’t really present as a movie,” says Lister. “Peter came in with the vision we needed to transform it. He moved away from pure fact into a fictionalized series of events and characters inspired by the book.

“Peter delivered an unbelievably strong first draft,” the producer continues. “It was smart and funny and fresh. There’s just nothing else out there like it.”

Straughan says his challenge was finding a thread that ran through Ronson’s interviews that he could shape into a straight narrative line. “I literally went through the book with a marker and underlined everything I thought couldn’t be left out,” he says. “Then I tried to work out a storyline that would fit in as much of that as possible.

“What I added was the more mundane stuff that was needed pull it all together,” he adds. “People may think we’ve added the goofier, more slapstick stuff, but it’s all true. All of the backstory, like trying to walk through walls, or kill a hamster by staring at it, is taken from various different experiments that were tried out in the Army or the CIA throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.  Some of the sillier scenes in the film are taken word for word from interviews Jon did.”

The finished script combines sharp-witted satire and sweet hopefulness, in the spirit of the book. “I kept thinking, what if the hippies had controlled the army, what would the world be like then?” says Straughan. “The tone really comes from the persona Jon brought to his interviews, which is very open and accepting. He’s never snide about the people he’s interviewing, however strange their ideas might seem. I ended up feeling the same way about the characters and the strength of their beliefs, even if I couldn’t always share them.”



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