Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dear John: The Movie' and Rants About War Movies

** This post will contain major spoilers for the book and film Dear John. I will also have in-depth discussion and analysis of The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss.**

"The way I see it, Steve's married to the Army." (Michelle, Steve's wife, in Stop-Loss)

"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug." (Chris Hedges, epigraph to The Hurt Locker)

My review of the book is located here.

My viewing of Dear John was delayed by the fact that public transportation here sucks! :) I went with two girlfriends today to see the film, finally. I was the only one who had read the book, but it didn't so much matter.

As a film, I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually good--I've stated my distaste for the film adaptation of The Notebook before, as I felt it was melodramatic and poorly acted. Dear John is melodramatic, yes, but the acting was really pretty good. Channing Tatum pretty much has a certain range as the repressed angry guy, but he was a decent romantic lead. Amanda Seyfried elicited the same mixed feelings I had for Savannah in the novel. Richard Jenkins was really perfect as John's father, who has Asperger's Syndrome; I really pitied him and felt for him.

As an adaptation of the book, the film did decently well-- there isn't too much plot in the novel; it's more a study of the relationships and things like John narrating his experiences in the Army. So the film did pretty well with the core elements of the story-- John and Savannah's relationship as it develops early on, John and his father's relationship, John deciding to re-enlist after 9/11 and the tension it causes among him and Savannah, Savannah eventually getting engaged to another man, John's father dying, and then John seeing Savannah again for the first time in years.

Parts of it were done really well-- I especially liked how nicely the scenes with John and his father were handled. The opening monologue, which turns out to be John's letter to his dying father, was very sweet and touching. I was crying when John comes home and learns of his father's condition and when he reads his father the letter. (To a person who will never read this: nice older lady who handed me a tissue after the letter scene was done, thank you again!)

The parts that were changed, I wasn't quite sure why they had to be-- the ending is a big one, which I'll explain below. Two things felt unnecessary: John getting shot, an incident that doesn't happen in the book, and Tim being changed from close Savannah's age and Alan's brother to older than Savannah and Alan's father. John getting shot, I can sort of understand-- it is the impetus behind the letter he writes to his father years later. Changing Tim to Alan's father and older than Savannah was really unnecessary; I think it was just to further the agenda of the filmmaker, which I'll also try to explain my interpretation of below.

The movie did what I feared would happen-- Hollywoodized the ending. Changing the ending changes the entire point of the story, and it frustrated me to have an otherwise good movie severely marred by missing the point of the story simply to give the characters a Happily Ever After.

To explain my feelings about why the book's ending was necessary, I'll have to rehash the book's ending here. It is mostly intact in the movie, but with some important differences.

John goes to see Savannah after his father's funeral and learns that she has married Tim, a friend of hers who has an autistic brother he has taken care of in the wake of their parents' deaths (I believe). He learns that Tim is ill with cancer and doesn't have much time. Savannah wants to get Tim into a clinical trial, but doesn't have the money. Tim, when John visits, tells John that he wants him to make Savannah happy in the event of his death. Moved by Tim's love for Savannah, John calls his attorney to sell his father's extensive coin collection and asks the money to be donated anonymously to Savannah. After the donation is made, Tim receives the treatment and survives. Some time later, John watches her from afar and sees her looking at the moon, which they did on one of their first meetings-- he knows part of her is still in love with him. He is a lifer in the Army and Savannah continues her life with Tim.

The movie retains everything through John selling his father's coin collection, though it does not keep the scene where Tim asks John to be with Savannah after he dies. The movie's ending is different in some important details: John's donation allows Tim to get the treatment... which only gives Tim two more months to live. He dies, and some unspecified time later, John sees Savannah in a restaurant. She runs out to him and they hug, which ends the movie.

Okay. I have had to explain my feelings about the book's ending to many a misguided fangirl. Here goes: Dear John is a tragic love story. John and Savannah are not meant to be together. John's relationship with Savannah is a teaching point in his life: Tim is the one who gets him to realize what true love really is. This is exemplified when Tim puts Savannah's happiness above his own by essentially giving John permission to be with Savannah after his death. John is somewhat shocked that Tim cares enough about Savannah to value her happiness above his own priorities, because he has never done that. When the time came to choose between going home to Savannah and re-enlisting with the Army, he chose the Army. The Army is John's first priority, not Savannah, and for Tim, Savannah comes first. Seeing that Tim truly loves Savannah is what motivates John to do what he does. He decides Tim should live because Tim loves Savannah in a way John never can. His priority is the safety of his country and this is why he is a lifer in the end.

I understand the moviemakers felt the need to provide a happy ending, but I really feel as though the entire point of the story and its message about true love has been undermined. I would have much preferred the original ending, but I'm sure that would have led to many complaining fangirls ranting about how John and Savannah just have to be together, even though they aren't meant to be. I was also distressed that the movie changed Tim's character into a single father-- it seemed to give the impression that Savannah marrying him was an obligation. She states that she married him because he was sick and needed her help. In the book, she marries him out of love because he has always been there for her. I was annoyed that the filmmakers made the marriage into one of convenience just to make John/Savannah look better.

I said in my last review that I have had issues understanding the typical hero in a war movie. This applies to the heroes of The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss, and to the ending of the book of Dear John: I'd like to see a war movie, just once, where the hero does not go back in the end. The Hurt Locker upset me because, in the end, James decides that the adrenaline rush from defusing bombs is something that he loves, even more than his love for his family. The movie ends with James returning for another year-long rotation with the bomb defusing unit. Stop-Loss upset me because a man who had already done all he could for his country was forced to give it all again-- though he considers leaving the country, he goes back on tour in the end.

I suppose I jinxed myself-- I said I wanted a movie where the hero didn't go back in the end and BAM, the ending for Dear John was changed, much to my chagrin. There's something interesting about the attitude of the lifer hero, but I wish war movies would offer a more hopeful ending once in a while. I get tired of seeing these films have the same downer ending. As much as I love this genre, I'd like to see a happy ending once in a while-- just not one that compromises the entire story, as the movie's ending did to Dear John.

I really did like Dear John as a film-- it was a good adaptation of the book, besides some unnecessary changes. For anyone that wants to see other war movies that are profoundly affecting, I very much recommend The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss.


  1. Hmm. How would you feel about the movie in its OWN right, rather than as an adaptation of a book? I've long since come to think of movies "based on" things as simply mining those other materials for ideas, rather than being "movies of" those other materials.

  2. In its own right, I was surprised at how good it was. If something is too different from what it's based on, I try to look at it that way, too. (A good example is the movie Just Like Heaven with Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. It is very different than the book, If Only It Were True, but I really liked both for their own merits.)

    The cast was very good-- mainly it rested on Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, and Richard Jenkins, and the actor who played Tim had a few scenes. Channing Tatum has played very similar roles, so this was familiar to him, but he did well with John's conflicting emotions. Savannah is a difficult character to make sympathetic, and I feel that Seyfried did well with that, as well as eliciting the mixed feelings I mentioned. Both of my friends, neither of whom had read the book, agreed.

    I was very impressed with Richard Jenkins-- I've seen him in other films, such as The Visitor, but he was very good here. It could be because I just rewatched another film with a character who has Asperger's (ADAM with Hugh Dancy), but I felt his portrayal was spot-on and touching.

    It was emotionally affecting, which is something I look for, and for that, the screenplay had to be well-written. The letter John reads in the beginning and towards the end was a standout. My friends who hadn't read the book felt it was well-plotted and had enough twists that they didn't know what would happen next.

    I really enjoyed the film itself as a whole; my problem was just losing the point of the story for a happy ending. It's something that was also done with My Sister's Keeper last year. But the people who don't know the book's ending don't know what they've missed, so it's satisfying for them in a way the original ending wouldn't have been. I don't think someone who hadn't read the book would have sat through almost two hours for a Did Not Get the Girl, so on its own, I think it did the best it could have.