Monday, 5 December 2011

Goals on Film - Fever Pitch

What do they say?  The film’s never as good as the book?  Well, I present for the prosecution exhibit A: Fever Pitch - the story of one fan’s obsession with Arsenal.

Of course the very obvious differences in the two media mean that a book and the film-of-the-book will inevitably almost always be different but there are many films which are perfectly acceptable adaptations.  (For me, The Beach is one.  Both the book and film, while different, chime with my time in Thailand although, unfortunately, I didn’t find an idyllic hidden community but nor, fortunately, did I nearly get killed by local cannabis farm workers.)

Fever Pitch however doesn’t fall into the same category, which is strange because the screenplay is written by the book’s author Nick Hornby.  It’s probably over a decade or more since most people will have read what was the most famous title in the early Nineties wave of nouveau ‘intelligent’ football literature which also gave us the likes of All Played Out and Football Against The Enemy.

Perfect mis-match
It’s therefore easy to forget exactly what it is like.  Although it’s semi-autobiographical (early editions were sub-titled A Fan’s Life) and has a linear narrative starting in 1968 and running through to 1991 (the year before publication) there is, in a sense, no real story.  It is instead made up of a series of essays (if he wrote it today, it’d probably be a blog) each using as a starting point a particular game (not all, necessarily, featuring Arsenal).  Many of these are on the nature of fandom and Hornby’s relationship both with the game and The Gunners, but many are just about the game itself.

In a way it’s an un-filmable book and so when he turned it into a film script Hornby had to include a MacGuffin (to use the piss-poor Hollywood term) and that was a relationship between Paul, an Arsenal-mad English teacher (played by Colin Firth), and Sarah, also a teacher and new to the school (played by Ruth Gemmell).  Set against a backdrop of Arsenal’s 1988/89 title-winning season, the pair’s initial antagonism turns to attraction but after several months together Sarah accidentally becomes pregnant and Paul has to reassess his priorities: Arsenal and football or Sarah and the bab?  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you it’s a close-run thing.

And herein lies the film's central failing, Paul is portrayed as a boorish, at times mono-sylabic, twat, quite the opposite of the way Hornby himself comes across in the original text.  For sure, Hornby is obsessed with the Gunners and at times that obsession impacts negatively on his personal life but he also always maintains a healthy sense of introspection and analysis. 

So, in the book Hornby describes watching the famous game at Anfield in 1989 (when Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals to take the title and did so deep into injury time) as being a nervous but exciting affair.  Paul, his cinematic alter-ego, is miserable throughout (both that game and the entire bloody film).  So at half-time with the score at 0-0 he says they may as well be losing 8-0 and he isn’t even happy when Arsenal go 1-0 up.

It’s clearly a dramatic conceit - even his best friend is moved to call him a “miserable bastard” – but why make Paul so relentlessly dour?  I know there are blokes like this – I’ve grown up with them, I’ve worked with them - but that’s not what Fever Pitch was about.  The book is about the fact many fans love the game, are even a little obsessed by it, but are also smart enough to be able to take a step back with some self-awareness.  Paul totally lacks that insight and so becomes a one-dimensional tosser.

Another, perhaps better, illustration of this point is the different reactions to the Hillsbrough tragedy in the book and the film.  In the book, Hornby suggests that the tragedy was inevitable and could have happened at any ground (think back to what it was like in those days and you know he’s right) but that no one in charge of the game has “ever been interested in the foreboding of fans”.

He argues persuasively in favour of all-seater stadia, and against fans’ conservative, sentimental attachment to terracing.  He also suggests if some clubs go to the wall as a consequence of all-seater stadia being introduced then so be it – it’s a small price to pay to save lives.  Seems obvious now, but it wasn’t a popular view in the early Nineties.

(Interestingly he also argues that the police should not be brought to trial; that while they “messed up badly” it “would be terribly vengeful to accuse them of anything more than incompetence”.  I wonder, given the on-going Hillsborough Justice campaign and the criticism of Mr Justice Popplewell in October, if Hornby would articulate the same view today.)

In the film, Hillsborough occurs on the day Paul takes Sarah to Highbury for the first time.  She is clearly increasingly uncomfortable as the terrace newbie; the only woman struggling among the aggressive, swearing, surging crowd but Paul effectively leaves her to fend for herself making you think: (a) Paul, you really are a monumental dickhead, aren’t you?; and (b) leave him, Sarah, leave him now before the condom splits…

When they get home and see the aftermath of the tragedy on TV, Sarah says: “They must have known something like this was going to happen.”  But Paul just dismisses her: “One afternoon on the North Bank and you’re an expert?”  She then suggests that the disaster is so tragic football itself can’t survive.  Again Paul reacts angrily, saying: “The game will go on.  They’ll even replay this one.  It doesn’t change anything.”

Now, in the book, Hornby expresses similar sentiments but as he does he also recognises how perverse that is.  He is aware that the passion football engenders is so all-consuming it can shift people’s priorities making them lose “tact and common sense”.

Not quite so on the ball
In the end it all works out for the best; Arsenal (as I’m sure you know) win the title and Paul and Sarah (as you – rightly – probably don’t care) are reunited among the celebratory crowds outside Highbury and walk off into the moonlight, her in her red-and-white dress, him explaining to her why she’s like George Graham.

And that’s the final problem: It’s all too easy for Paul.  He’s a twat to begin with, he becomes more of a twat in the middle of the film and he’s still a twat at the end, albeit a happy twat because his team has won the title.  He’s been on no journey whatsoever – it’s Sarah who changes, but given how miserable and selfish he is, why would she?

At one point, just before her trip to Highbury, Sarah’s friend warns her about how women are subsumed by men's obsession with football: “You get colonized.  Your native culture gets replaced by stuff you don’t like and don’t even want to know about.”  It’s an interesting thought, but it’s not expanded on and it's effectively what Sarah meekly allows to happen to her. Again: Why would she?

Not for the first time this is hugely at odds with the book, in which Hornby rarely mentions the girlfriends he has in the period of his life it covers.  However, when he does briefly discuss his long-term partner he tells us she grew to become almost as obsessed with Arsenal as him and how he doesn’t like that.  A film about how the “colonised” woman aggressively takes on the new masculine culture to the consternation of the man would have been far, far better.  Ah well…

Fever Pitch as a film is what it is: a throwaway, British, light, romantic drama (I’ve deliberately left out the word comedy) about an obsessive dickhead who doesn’t deserve the woman he ends up with.  It has absolutely nothing of value to say about football, or anything much for that matter.  Don’t waste your time.  Instead, seek out your dog-eared copy of the book and give it a re-read, it’ll be a far more worthwhile than watching this shit.

Last Goals on Film: Mike Bassett: England Manager

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Graeme said...

Very nice, Roger - you're right, it is a completely flawed film. Tried too hard to be a mainstream romcom, when the joy of the book was precisely that it was not just the average story with a beginning, middle and end. A better version was The Perfect Catch (Fever Pitch in US) with the obsession changed to baseball. Someone took the trouble to make the leads likeable - always a sensible move... Still nothing like the book, but a decent enough film.

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