The Big Year Book Vs Movie Essay

Earlier this year, many fans of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 thriller Gone Girl were dismayed to learn that the author had changed the story’s ending for the film adaptation. As Entertainment Weekly reported in January, director David Fincher quoted Ben Affleck as saying, “This is a whole new third act! She literally threw that third act out and started from scratch.”

Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.

But that’s not quite true—and Flynn later described the reports that the ending had changed as “greatly exaggerated.” Indeed, the overall arc of the story remains the same in the movie as in the novel. Still, in adapting the book for film, some changes had to be made. So how closely does the movie stick to the novel?

Closely enough that, if you’ve read the book, there aren’t really any spoilers below. If you have not, however, spoilers abound.

The crucial plot points and the structure of the book remain. The first half alternates between Amy’s disappearance—seen primarily, though not solely, from Nick’s point of view—and her diary entries, before we get the big reveal that Amy has faked her death. The back story is the same, too: Amy is a personality quiz writer and the inspiration for her parents’ book series Amazing Amy, and she meets Nick in New York at a party; they move to Missouri after Nick’s mother becomes ill, and there Nick buys a bar (called The Bar) which he runs with his sister Margo (whom he calls Go). Amy eventually runs to her high school boyfriend, Desi Collings, then kills him and makes it look like an escape from a dangerous captor. She returns to Nick, becomes pregnant, and convinces him to stay with her.

But not everything is exactly the same. Below we’ve highlighted the principal differences.

Nick and Amy’s Courtship
In the book, Nick and Amy (Affleck and Rosamund Pike) meet-cute at a party in Brooklyn thrown by one of Amy’s friends. They leave together, then immerse themselves in a romantic cloud of powdered sugar wafting off a late-night delivery to a local bakery. All this occurs in the film. In the book, though, over eight months go by before Amy runs into Nick again, randomly on the street—he claims to have lost her number. And while the  book release party for the Amazing Amy wedding story is depicted in both versions—as are the invasive questions Amy answers about her own singledom from attendees—in the novel, this event occurs the night before she runs into Nick, and leaves her devastated about her marriage prospects. The moment in the film turns out to be a much happier occasion, as Nick proposes to her in front of the nosy guests after two years of dating.

Amy’s Clues
For the most part, Amy’s anniversary clues and their locations are taken wholesale from the book: Nick’s office at school (where red underwear is found), Nick’s father’s house (where Nick forgets the alarm code), and the woodshed in back of Margo’s house (where Nick finds all of the items he denies having purchased on his credit cards, including the Punch and Judy dolls). But one clue is absent from the film: Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up and where Nick spent his childhood summers. There, in the old courtroom of Mark Twain’s father, Nick finds a long note from Amy about how “witty” he is, as well as the next clue.

Nick and Amy’s Memoirs
Completely missing from the film is any mention of Nick and Amy’s respective memoirs. In the book, over a week after Amy’s return, Nick begins writing a book about his side of the story so that he can “burn [their relationship] down” and leave her for good; he spends his nights furiously typing it up. Amy begins her own memoir, which she intends to call, simply, Amazing.

As in the book, Amy, unbeknownst to Nick, kept semen of his that was frozen when they were trying to have a baby, and she impregnates herself after returning home. After learning that she is, in fact, pregnant, and that he is the father, Nick, in the novel, deletes his book at Amy’s request, feeling defeated and trapped into becoming the father he had always wanted to be. In the film, however, he slams her against the wall before reluctantly revealing the news during an on-camera interview with media star Ellen Abbott.

Missing Characters
In the novel, Nick seeks comfort in a bar that is not his own, and there he meets Rebecca, a young crime blogger who has flown into Missouri from New York just to interview him. He agrees on the spot, using the opportunity to “take control of the story” by gushing about Amy’s treasure hunt and playing up the “regretful husband” angle. (“I failed my wife so entirely. I have been so wrong. I just hope it’s not too late.”) The video goes viral and seems to sway public opinion largely in his favor. Both Rebecca and the video plotline are omitted from the movie entirely.

Also left out are Tanner’s wife, Betsy Bolt, described in the book as a “gorgeous six-foot-tall black woman” and “former TV news anchor turned lawyer”; Desi’s mother, Jacqueline Collings  who staunchly avows her son’s innocence; and Hilary Handy, a former high school friend whom Amy falsely accused of stalking and pushing her down a flight of stairs.

Other characters are present but have their roles much reduced. Andie, Nick’s young mistress, is largely relegated to the background, though she does make her televised announcement about her involvement with him as seen in the book. Nick’s father appears in the book several times, but his abusive, misogynistic tendencies toward women, including Nick’s mother, just barely make it into the movie: He appears on screen at the police precinct while Nick is first being questioned about Amy’s disappearance. (And as in the book, Nick returns him to his group home.)

Amy’s parents, Marybeth and Rand Elliott, are also smaller presences, rarely seen in the movie outside of the press conferences and one other scene in which they speak with the police about possible suspects. A tense confrontation with Nick in which they raise their suspicions about his involvement is absent from the film.

I wanted to critique The Big Year from a birder’s perspective. But since I’m the type of birder who, for instance, looks at a stilt’s long pink legs and is inspired to buy a pair of pink leggings, I asked two birding guides to see the film, too: Carl Howard, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, whom I met at a birdathon (coincidentally, Howard went to high school with this film’s director, David Frankel, of Marley & Me fame), and ornithologist Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society (he’s participated in international bird counts for 35 years). Howard and Butcher would never mistake a screwball comedy for a nature documentary, yet they were game to sizing up the film—plus, how many times would these guys get a chance to go birding at the movies?

Adapted from Mark Obmascik’s best-selling book, The Big Year is a true story about three singularly obsessed men who compete to see who will be the “best birder in the world” by spotting the most species in a year (in their case, 1998). To win a “big year,” as the endeavor is called, a participant should expect to identify more than 700 species, travel 270,000 miles, and spend 270 days away from home. “It takes 100 percent of your concentration,” said Howard (he hasn’t done a big year but is enmeshed in the birding arena). Though the film is a comedy, Howard added that doing a big year is deadly serious: The winner must be ruthless, not to mention have a photographic memory, a supersonic ear, and the fortitude to brave blizzards and garbage dumps. It also helps to live near an airport. “The rest of your life—your wife, your kids—is on hold. It’s all about ego and selfishness,” he pauses. “But oh, what fun.”

Settled in plush theater seats, Howard and Butcher were happy to experience the competition vicariously. No rat-infested Quonset hut in Attu, Alaska. No careening helicopter ride through narrow mountain canyons. I was personally glad to observe the reigning big year champ, the obnoxious Kenny Bosticks (played by Owen Wilson) without having to engage him in dinner conversation, or anything else, for that matter. In the film Bosticks deserts his wife in the hospital to chase an elusive snowy owl. “Birds can lead to divorce,” Howard noted.

Both Howard and Butcher genuinely enjoyed the film and the respectful way it portrayed birders—the movie understands their goals and their culture. At the same time it excluded some aspects typical of real birding, and also took a few liberties. For example, there were no shots of the protagonists focusing binoculars, an absolute necessity in the birding arena (in a movie, it’s time-consuming and lacks narrative tension). Bosticks donned a bright pink T-shirt and lime-green pants—such sartorial flare would work only for birders who wanted to blend into a watermelon patch (khakis and camouflage are more suitable). And does anyone know actual birders who perform birdcalls for each other, as Jack Black’s character, Brad, does when wooing his love interest? “We only do that for Jay Leno,” quipped Butcher.

A true buddy flick (Steve Martin’s and Black’s characters team up against Owen Wilson’s), The Big Year portrayed women mostly as support staff, people who enjoy birds as an avocation, not as a calling. Yet in reality, women birders are as driven as male birders. Take Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person in the world to see 8,000 species. “Totally obsessed!” said Butcher. “Missed her kid’s wedding and everything. That would be a great sequel.”

Howard and Butcher agreed that the location shots, filmed in the Yukon, lent a quasi-IMAX grandeur to the nature scenes—until Martin showed up in a parka, joking, and viewers were jolted back into the spoof. Then there was the ludicrous bunting chase on Attu: Birders on bicycles nearly collide while in hot pursuit of a good sighting.

Birds, often computer-generated, were spliced into scenes like specimens in a celluloid diorama. This was wonderful—when they got it right (and let’s admit it, even when they didn’t). But Howard and Butcher couldn’t help noticing when the wrong bird turned up in the wrong habitat in the wrong season. “They had ducks on dry land,” Butcher laughed, rattling off other flights of fancy. “Early in the film they show a Swainson’s hawk in the snow, but they spend the winter in Argentina. They are not around when we have snow.” He added, “They had this great gray owl in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, and there’s never been a record of one in [in that state].”

Each of the three times they showed a pink-footed goose, it defied nature. “They had it in a heated pool [a hot spring] on top of a snowy mountain, and that would be wrong. The pink-footed goose is found in the northeastern states, grazing with Canada geese out in agricultural fields,” said Butcher. In another gag, a female birder drags a scarf in fish guts to attract birds to the smell and is attacked by gulls. Anyone who’s seen Hitchcock’s The Birds will get the joke. “But that doesn’t happen,” said Butcher. Pause. “It might happen in Ocean City, Maryland, but the birds wouldn’t attack her.”

Birders rely on weather patterns to see what the wind blows in. In The Big Year a storm on the Gulf Coast blows in thousands of birds that kettle in the air, causing the sky to turn black. “That was ridiculous!” said Howard, with a laugh. Butcher explained why some birders found this scene the most unrealistic one in the movie: “The thing about fallouts is you don’t see the birds in the sky like that. They are often on the ground, and it’s usually one species. I’ve never seen [a fallout] like that!”

Though the film departed from reality for the sake of some jokes, Butcher and Howard agreed that it nailed some important stuff. “One thing that was real is how birders share information,” Butcher remarked. “That’s a real hallmark of the birder community.” Bosticks, for instance, calls rare bird alert hotlines for the latest sightings. Those hotlines were the forerunners of today’s list-serves, and were compiled by other birders. “Every state has a list-serve now, and people all around the country find rare birds locally and report them. So it’s the people who are finding them—the local bird finders and the guides—who tend to be the best birders in the world,” said Butcher.

The film also got another aspect right: the emotional tug that draws people to birds. In one poignant scene, Brad shows his father—a nonbirder who finds his son’s obsession effete and odd—an American golden plover (a common species) on his iPhone app and said, “My favorite bird. That’s the bird everyone underestimates.” From another actor, the line would sound overwrought; from Black, it’s all heart. “’Underachieves’ in terms of its looks—it’s gray,” Howard said, emphatically, “But what makes it stand out is its story. It flies tens of thousands of miles in a year, migrating from [North] pole to [South] pole.” Brad’s father finally comes to appreciate the sheer beauty of a bird and its will to survive.

As the credits rolled, on a split screen to the left of the scrolling names, photos of the birds on Bosticks’s record-shattering list flashed by as fast as a shuffled deck of cards. As he stared raptly at the screen, Howard pointed out, “The real birders are looking at every one of these.”

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