High School Football. “Those lights become an addiction if you live in a place like Odessa, the Friday Night fix.” (Bissinger,14) Racism, controversy, and pride. Permian High School in the west Texas oil town of Odessa, Texas. Small town, deep South, USA. Author H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s brilliant study of the 1988 football team set in this beautiful Texas town grew into a socially motivated novel entitled Friday Night Lights.
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While researching small town Texas football for his novel Friday Night Lights, H. G. Bissinger took a leave from the Philadelphia Inquirer and moved his family to Odessa. His motivation was to experience firsthand the Permian Panthers and become a part of their environment. He is at heart a journalist and comes to Odessa to report on a town and a team and their failures and successes. In the end, unlike a novelist, he must report the truth as he sees it unfold before him. What he reports is not pretty- “The American version of the Berlin Wall” (Bissinger, 89) but at the same time, it is moving when he shows us what the future holds for many of these players after their high school football careers are over. His viewpoint shown in the novel gave the world an Eastern perspective on a deep Southern tradition -“Life really wouldn’t be worth livin’ if you didn’t have a high school football team to support.” (Bissinger, 20), and though this did not settle well with many of the readers from the South, his novel grew to become the focus of a movie some label as the best sports movie ever made.
Bissinger serves as the narrator who expresses his first-hand experiences with the Permian Panthers during the 1988 football season. As an outsider new to the town and legacy of Permian football, Bissinger’s goal is mainly to understand the events and the emotions brought about by a painful season. Bissinger’s careful attention to even the organizational structure of the book shows his attention to detail and his dedication to his mission. The author begins with a preface explaining his motivation for moving to Odessa, Texas and follows with a Prologue placing the reader at the conclusion of a complicated season that ended with a devastating loss to Permian’s arch rival, Midland Lee. The story then uses flashback, a literary technique which takes the reader back in time and shows material that happened prior to the present event, providing the reader with insight into a character’s motivation. Bissinger divided his story into four sections: “Pre-Season”, “The Season”, “Push for the Playoffs”, and “Post Season”. This highlights the fact that the young men of Odessa and their lives are shaped by football. The reader can even see a metaphorical comparison between the division of the book and the divisions of the lives of the characters in the book. The Pre-Season section, relatively small, seems to assume that life outside of football gets very little respect and perhaps plays only a small role in the development of the player. The majority of the chapters are in the section “The Season”, which compares to the teenage years of the football players and the shaping of their lives by their performance in the season. Bissinger ends the story predictably with the devastating loss to Carter High School; a team that the Permian players believe does not deserve to win.
The chapter titles used by Bissinger exemplify the focus on racial tension, and further give the reader a true sense of the ongoing conflict. The Table of Contents is covered with conflicting statements such as, “Black and White”, “East Versus West”, “Civil War” and “Heads or Tails.” Bissinger uses the chapter titles to underline the difficulties and the hardships brought about by the ever-present hatred of racism.
Bissinger names two of the chapters after student-athletes, and ironically, both are black. Both Boobie Miles and Ivory Christian are as well respected as their white counterparts on the football field. Attitudes change, however, when the players walk off the field. Boobie Miles is one of the main characters, and gets the most attention throughout the book. Football is all Boobie has in his life. He lacks the academic skills he needs to get a college education without the sport- “While other students casually worked to complete the worksheet, Boobie ate some candy and left blank the entire second page” (Bissenger, 136). His whole life totally changes when he twists his knee playing football. One small move signals the end of his dream and ultimately, his future. This event can be a metaphor for life. It shows the reader that individuals are not in control of their destiny.
In contrast, Ivory is ruled by his nonchalant attitude toward football. Ivory loves the sport, but hates the pressure that comes along with it. Deeply religious, he considers being a preacher until he is contacted by a recruiter. After graduation, Ivory is the only player awarded a football scholarship. This character seems to reinforce the idea that, no matter how hard they try, the blacks of this community are unable to escape their designated role as football star- nothing more. Only by moving from the community and maturing is Ivory able to separate himself from the expectations of others and move forward to make the life he desires.
It took almost fourteen years for the printed version to make it to Hollywood. Written and directed by Peter Berg, the screenplay was finally made into a movie. The movie tackles many of most controversial subjects- racism, failure, and hypocrisy. It seems that at every ugly truth, however, the movie backs away, and shifts the focus to an event that is easier to watch.
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Many strategies were used to make the books switch to a movie realistic. The first and most apparent attempt at truth was the costuming. The uniforms worn by the football team are setting appropriate, and clearly not as “hi-tech” as the uniforms of today. Some of the film was actually filmed in Odessa, which adds to the authenticity of the movie. The “close-up” action shots of players hitting one another during the game capture the determination of the players as described in the novel. “In the intensity, in the pressure, in the way these kids are, it really captures the great phenomenon of Friday Night Lights. The very special, wonderful phenomenon of American football.” (Bissinger)
As can be expected, there are differences between the movie and novel. The language is filtered. Key words- such as racial slurs- disappear in an attempt to tone down the offensive racial tension. Key events are changed around quite a bit. In the book and based on actual events, Boobie’s injury in the scrimmage game led to him quitting the team, much to the disdain of the coaches. In the movie, Boobie on crutches meets the team bus to ride with his teammates to the state finals- a state-finals that really never occurred because of the big loss in the semi-finals. By portraying the characters and their actions differently, and making a hero of an undeserving player, the movie implies a unity that truly didn’t exist simply for dramatic effect
It is true that facts can be changed as long as the filmmakers carefully preserve those that are critical to the story. Invented moments are created in order to attract viewers. It is the distortion of attitude that becomes an issue. The book was very socially-oriented, and focused primarily on racial issues and displaced educational priorities. While the film touches on these issues, it is not the focal point of the movie. Perhaps the greatest request for the film maker is to make the movie what it pretends to be-authentic, genuine and true. His stretch from the truth loses the heart of the book. While the reader can accept modification and even dilution in some areas, the focal point cannot be minimized. In the book, Bissinger was after the truth. In the movie, Berg was focused on entertainment. Great talent and dedication to truth are required to combine authenticity with entertainment. Friday Night Lights is a feel-good movie- completely enjoyable and fun to watch- but it’s not real.
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