There’s more sports hyperbole in the book than the film, to the point that I mentally replaced exclamation points in Lewis‘s prose with periods and de-italicized the words in italics+. I’m still haven’t read as much about sports as I’ve read about SF/fantasy or, say, media stuff from David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek to Bill Carter‘s The Late Shift -- I didn’t really watch NFL Films as a kid, either, though I was aware of it -- but as I’ve gotten more into sports as I’ve aged, I’ve read more and have yet to get used to that hyperbole. Sports are dramas played out on a limited field; many things can happen on, say, a gridiron (“…in a stadium. War Memorial Stadium.” -- George Carlin), with all sorts of possible patterns involved in Trying To Win, but ultimately, as a fun as sports can be, there are few dramatic outcomes. You win, you lose, maybe you tie. (Or maybe you break a leg, literally, as both the book and the film talk about right at their start.) The hyperbole makes up for that relative lack of possible dramatic outcomes, having more fun with the journey towards those goals. Still, one of the things I liked about John Lee Hancock’s film was how it quieted down that story and its hyperbole, befitting its very quiet central character Michael Oher. Obviously Leigh Anne Tuohy, as played by Sandra Bullock, isn’t quiet, but the film seems to take more of its cues from Oher’s quietness. This story would’ve been deadly in Michael Bay’s hands.
The book, however, is better at the details, and at showing humor, like when Coach Tuohy gets exasperated while being interviewed by an NCAA arbiter re: Oher’s academic requirements --
Him: What part of “I don’t know” fooled you?-- which is also the first moment the book records Oher actually laughing about something. Humor shows a lot about a person’s personality, after all, and I love seeing that.
Her: That you’re [Michael]’s legal guardian and you don’t know if he’s supposed to take English or math or science. That’s the part that still baffles me.
Him: Ma’am, I hate that it baffles you. But all you asked me to be is truthful. You didn’t ask me to be smart.
The more I thought about it while I read, a vague feeling I’d had when watching the film gained sharper relief: certain details of the film felt overly generic, like Hancock was guessing at what the real people he was writing about were actually like beyond what had been mentioned in the book. Michael and Sean, Jr. singing along to “Bust a Move” in the truck, and Sean, Jr. saying “That’s what I’m talking about!”: a cringe moment. Maybe Sean, Jr. really would sing along to that song and say that, but it seems more like a writer’s guess at what a 7-year-old kid would say. The true detail of Sean, Jr. asking the college football coaches for concessions to him as they courted Michael: it also feels more true. The kid got shrewd, but he still seems like a kid.
Meanwhile, the other young people in the film version of the story, considering it makes a big deal out of them, don’t get to show too much personality, either. The young man who’s Michael’s neighbor in the Hurt Village housing project seems out of not Central Casting, but Central Writing. I wonder if he’s a composite character, meant to stand in for many of Michael’s peers in the poor section of Memphis. There’s a touch of cliché there: gangbanger content to be part of what feels like a fiefdom, and just interested in drinks, sex, and guns. He’s not in the film much, so there’s only so much Hancock could’ve shown to make him more distinctive. But that could’ve been stronger.
The book, because it has far more room to do so, is better about the larger socioeconomic issues: Oher wondering if the Tuohys would’ve been interested in him if “I was going to be flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” the difficulties of getting out of an environment like Hurt Village -- a potential piano or financial prodigy would be even less likely than a sports prodigy to be discovered there, the book points out -- and the general “is this a white guilt thing?” question. But the film does what it can, in its quiet way, also while suggesting how good Oher is at just observing and taking in details. And its moments that I hadn’t seen before in other films make it worthwhile, too: the moment that sold me on seeing the film was the Oscar montage’s inclusion of Michael lifting San, Junior like a weight, Sean, Junior with a big grin on his face.
+ I overuse italics myself. I’m working on that. [pause] I am.**