How to Adapt the Book to Screen
Scott Holmgren ::
I was convinced the story of We Answered the Call needed to be told.
Colonel James Wilhite’s story of building an academy of higher learning and military training based on the West Point model – in Afghanistan! – had captured my imagination. Not only did it play out in a war zone where media-filtered accounts and sometimes misportrayals of what was going on spun a one-dimensional rendering, but it was also a fiercely personal journey of a man pursuing his life’s purpose against the forces that opposed him. It was a story both unlikely and unnerving but original and inspirational. Harrowing yet heroic.
But could it be told as a movie? What potential was there for producing a feature-length screenplay?
In discussing the project with Jim, we both agreed that the building blocks for a narrative film were there. The main protagonist had a clear and strong objective with numerous, escalating roadblocks in his way. There were also several subplots that could be included to support and accentuate Jim’s main story. Jim’s character also underwent change as he had to overcome obstacles that were both situational and interpersonal. Lastly, there was a clear resolution to the main story arc.
However, there would also be several challenges in adapting the story.
First, there are lots and lots of characters. Lots. Besides Jim and his wife Emily, the supporting personnel comprising Jim’s team who rotated in and out of the mission were numerous. Several people were permanent fixtures at OMC-A. Throw in all the Afghan officers, governmental leaders, translators and one very disconnected NATO officer, and we had a cast of named characters numbering over seventy-five. Like I said, lots. How many would be too many for an audience to follow?
Second, there was no clear antagonist. George Bailey has Mr. Potter. Maximus has Commodus. Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader. But Jim had no direct opponent. Now certainly many great films have the hero of the story working against forces and situations without one face. In Saving Private Ryan, Captain John Miller must overcome the German army to find and evacuate Private Ryan. In Black Hawk Down, the American forces are battling the army of the Mogadishu warlord. But these stories rely heavily on dramatic action to propel the situation forward. How would Jim's story flow without a main antagonist?
Third, stretches of the book contained lengthy information or exposition. These passages would need to be either set aside or woven into the story progression. How would we handle them?
Finally, there were several problems that were solved "off screen" in the book. In real life, the building of the academy was very much a team effort. Many of the named characters did things and made decisions that kept the opening of the academy moving forward. But often there were just mentions of these solutions without descriptions or Jim's direct involvement. Could we integrate these situations?
Knowing these challenges we set about to adapt the book into a screenplay. With Jim advising, I finished a first draft, 120 pages, as faithful and close to his book's narrative as it could be.
And then we needed some objectivity. We were both so close to the story, it was difficult to know what was working and what wasn't. As far as I knew, I had just completed either the next Casablanca or the next Battlefield Earth. A producer I know suggested a script reader, and off we sent the script to L.A. to be read and returned with some professional analysis.
Colonel James Wilhite