The Postman: the Movie
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Years ago, about the same time that studios were bidding for The Postman, my wife Cheryl and I went to a screening of Field of Dreams. As we emerged, she turned to me and said, "That's him. He's the one."
Of course she meant Kevin Costner -- her choice as the right man to portray Gordon, the hero of my novel. What could I say in response, except "Honey, we'd never be that lucky!"
Well, doesn't time tend to heap ironies on us all? A decade later, when we heard that Costner would actually star in The Postman, we were thrilled. When it was further announced that the Academy Award-winning director of Dances With Wolves would also direct this time, I knew we were in for a ride.
And when months passed without even a word from Costner, an invitation to dinner or even a phone call, I began to worry that we might be in trouble...
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Let's go back to the beginning.
The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization's fall. It's a story about how much we take for granted -- and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were. It would take a special kind of actor to play the lead role -- a ragged survivor, deeply scarred, yet still willing to hope. In this era of cynicism, we need reminders of the decency that lies within.
That sense of strength, openness, and hope was what we felt after watching Field of Dreams. The Postman is a very different story, yet it aims to deliver the same message to the heart: We are in this together. (Ironically, The Postman movie's message is exactly opposite to the moral message conveyed by Waterworld... think about it!)
The book obviously affected people. Within months of its publication, at the hasty urging of my then-agent, I sold movie rights to the first bidder. Producer Steve Tisch then hired veteran screenwriter Erik Roth to do an adaptation. And at first I thought this would bode very well! Under gifted directors like Robert Zemeckis, Roth had acquired a reputation as a skilled adapter of already-existing material. Alas, this time, without a strong director holding the reins, Roth decided to toss out every iota of the book and start from scratch with a story that was completely his own... incidentally going out of his way to reverse every moral point of The Postman!
The resulting script -- despite at least half a dozen dubious rewrites -- became notorious in Hollywood, discouraging even such figures as Tom Hanks and Ron Howard, who had been attracted by the overall concept. After helplessly reading successive drafts, each more bizarre than the last, I finally concluded the project was dead. Following the advice of many past authors who were disappointed with Hollywood, I determined to shrug my shoulders and walk away.
Unfortunately, that was hard to do! People kept phoning and writing to me, asking about "film rights to your wonderful novel..." Richard Dreyfuss, for instance, enthusiastically offered me first crack at the screenplay, before I even had a chance to interrupt and break the news that rights were already gone. As one might imagine, such calls (almost monthly for nearly a decade) struck me as sad reminders of what might have been.
Then something happened. Kevin Costner came aboard, bringing all his might and prestige to the project. Though I was never consulted, he nevertheless agreed with my own impression -- that an evil, incoherent and rapacious central character might be a bad idea! Instinctively realizing that the tale ought to be about decency, heroism and hope, he threw out all the dismal old drafts and hired Brian Helgeland, esteemed screenwriter of LA Confidential, whose first comment was: "Say, you know there's a pretty good novel by the same name. Why don't we borrow some stuff from it!"
So began The Postman's return from damnation.
Well, sort of.
Between them, Costner and Helgeland restored a few scenes from the novel... and thought up a whole lot of new ones on their own, combining characters and bringing in several new ones. This hardly surprised me, and certainly did not offend! Unlike many novelists, I understand Hollywood and know that prose fiction is only glancingly related to what you see on the big screen. It's a director's medium, calling for visual storytelling skills and an eye for dramatic moments that are shown, not told.
In fact, I found many Costner/Helgeland innovations to be rather clever! A few were even deeply moving. (Lord only knows how they expected me to react, or if they cared. I have an impression they were rather surprised when they finally learned my overall attitude, as if for some reason they had been bracing for a rather different response.)
Above all -- and for this I will forgive a thousand slights -- they rescued the "soul" of the central character, making The Postman once again a story about a reluctant hero, a liar who slowly comes to realize his own value, and the importance of hope.
[image from Wikipedia]
Cheryl and I were invited as very very small fish to the Hollywood premiere. Though we were seated in back with the assistant gaffer, it was nevertheless a terrific evening, as well as cause for reflection about what a long and tortuous road it can be, getting a story to the screen...
...and now it seems that it will also be a long road before the movie is accepted by the arbiters of art. After nearly unanimous denunciations by all the big time critics, it would be all-too-easy for me to throw up my hands and declare "It's not my fault!" I could play martyr and moan aloud, as so many other authors do, about having been "betrayed by Hollywood." (I finally met the executive producer at the premiere, twelve years after the rights were purchased.)
And yet, all told, Cheryl and I came away more pleased than unhappy with what Costner created. Despite many flaws, it's a pretty good movie -- if you let yourself get into it. One that deals with important issues and is more faithful to the book than I expected at any point in the last decade. Costner's postman is a man of decency, a callused idealist who has to learn the hard way about responsibility and what it means to be a hero. The movie is filled with scenes that convey how deeply we would miss the gracious little things, if ever they were gone. In fact, it includes some clever or touching moments that I wish I'd thought of, when writing the book!
Fans of the novel will note that he chose to concentrate on the basic story in the first third of the novel. That is what I'd have advised. "Talking computers" and "augments" worked fine in the book but they would have made things too complicated for a film. When all is said and done, the movie tries to convey, with the image of a humble letter carrier, the same sorts of things that Field of Dreams said, using the metaphor of baseball.
Science fiction fans might note how the moral message about citizenship is quite different than the one Veerhoven delivered in his satire, Starship Troopers. It is less ethereal than Contact. And yet all three movies were somewhat faithful to good novels. All three 1997 films dealt with -- and should provoke discussion of -- serious issues.
So why was the film such a dismal failure in the marketplace?
Well, for one thing, the jury will be out for a long time. Word-of-mouth has wrought an upsurge of interest in the video, for instance.
But in fact, I was already on record predicting that three groups would come down on Costner, and come down on him very hard. The right wing would hate him for slapping down the militia-solipsist movement, while leftists would despise him for depicting dignity and tolerance under the protection of an American flag. Above all, cynics would carp against the "goody" morality tale.
My prediction proved true in spades, as reviewer after reviewer (what more cynical profession can you name?) slagged the "aw shucks idealism" of the film. One critic likened The Postman to "Mad Max, directed by Frank Capra."
The diagnosis is correct! There truly is a Capra-esque quality to Costner's film... and according to this critic we are supposed to assume that's a bad thing? (Hint: who can name the folks who panned It's a Wonderful Life? Capra endures precisely because he called on us to note the best parts of ourselves, while willingly criticizing what can be improved.)
My best analogy is this: watching Kevin Costner's three hour epic is a bit like having a great big Golden Retriever jump on your lap and lick your face, while waving a flag tied to its tail. It's big, floppy, uncoordinated, overeager, sometimes gorgeous -- occasionally a bit goofy -- and so big-hearted that something inside of you has to give... that is, if you like that sort of thing.
Anyway, that was one reason why I lent my name and considerable time to helping promote the movie, giving numerous media interviews and being a team player. One result -- The Postman Curriculum Web Site -- may wind up being the most positive thing to come out of this whole episode!
[image from listal.com]
The music, by James Newton Howard, is excellent. The visuals are even more stunning than they were in Dances With Wolves. (If Costner hadn't been good looking, he might still have won an Academy Award by now, as a cinematographer.)
Unfortunately, some sections stretched far too long. Costner needed to have people around him unafraid to say which scenes were bloated and which others were self-indulgent -- e.g., the stuff with Tom Petty. There were missed opportunities to have a little fun. And I'd have written the final battle scene quite differently.
There certainly SHOULD have been a cameo appearance by the original author, somewhere in the back row of a crowd of snarling bad guys! That one lack almost certainly cost the film an Academy Award! (Well... maybe...)
But these are all minor authorial quibbles, more than made up for by the film's touching denouement, featuring Costner's son as a little boy so filled with rediscovered hope that it pours from the screen. Only the most hardened or cynical critic would not be moved.
Well, well. It's time to move on, especially since more and even better opportunities loom on the horizon (making it hard for an honest man to complain!).
In sum, despite many disappointments, I have to say that I'm not ashamed to be associated with The Postman movie. Yes, the book is much better! ;-) And yes, the film might have benefited a lot if the director ever had a few brews with the guy who told the original story. Yet there's something deeply likable about this film, despite its flaws. Above all, in these days of rampant and contagious solipsism, with so many people claiming to despise a civilization that has been so kind to them, this movie's overall message needs to be heard.
We are in it together. Civilization means something. IAAMOAC
-- David Brin, December 1998.