Friday, May 18, 2012

Today, My Fictional Boyfriend Is Pvt. Bob Witt

As I noted, I watched The Thin Red Line (1998 version) yesterday. I became very curious about how the character of Pvt. Witt developed in the original James Jones novel. Was he really intended to be such a saintly figure, bonding with the natives and helping fellow soldiers through the passage between life and death?

Unable to cope with the gap in my literary knowledge, I went to the library and checked out its yellowed copy of The Thin Red Line. Lightly penciled on the first leaf is “This book belongs to B. Asher,” and the volume is redolent with sweet old-book smell. It looks the same as the first edition pictured here. From Jones’ 1962 work, we learn the following about Witt:

He is 21 years old and from Kentucky. He pronounces fire “fahr.” His first name is Bob.

Witt is both proud and stubborn. 

He first appears on page 100. He’s considered a troublemaker by the first lieutenant, Welsh (played by Sean Penn in the movie), and by the captain, Stein (called Staros in the movie, and played by my old friend Elias Koteas – whom I remember fondly from the J.G. Ballard/David Cronenberg Crash, which I’ve now managed to mention twice this week).

Witt will fight you - but his own bro code means that he'll give you a verbal warning before he throws a punch. 

Witt’s a bit of a drunk - but, Jones admits, many of the men at Guadalcanal are. In one scene, he gets drunk, falls down and cuts his cheek on a rock. 

He has malaria. His appearance is gaunt and faintly yellowish.

He expresses to Cpl. Fife (played by Adrien Brody in the movie) his anger and bitter disappointment at not being allowed to fight with C Company. On page 208, we learn that Fife Stein thinks Witt’s desire to rejoin C Company, even though it places Witt in greater danger than his stretcher-bearer job, is terribly romantic, “Like something out of Kipling. Or Beau Geste.”

Page 309 informs us that Witt’s camaraderie with C Company is passionate and “almost sexual.” Several times in this novel, various characters experience sexual arousal from combat situations, and sometimes they have sexual feelings for their fellow soldiers. (This, I think, is what some early readers of Jones' novels found so objectionable in the mid-20th century.) Witt himself does not express any overt sexual intentions toward the other men. (Fife worries that he - Fife - might be gay, but he also knows that he likes women. Bi for the win!

On page 310, Witt meets the scout Ash, whom we learn will eventually die of gangrene after being wounded in the knee. Witt offers to help Ash walk back to camp with him, but otherwise isn’t particularly comforting toward him. However, later in the novel, Witt is comforting to Gooch, who dies in his arms. Gooch and Witt have both been boxers in the army (Robert E. Lee Prewitt, the central character in From Here to Eternity, is also from Kentucky and refuses to box after accidentally blinding a man).

Witt does not sacrifice himself for Fife and the others in the book – he’s alive at the end of the novel. He’s transferred and promoted to sergeant.

The nobility, philosophical bent and self-sacrifice Witt displays in the film, then, are products not so much of James Jones’ novel as of Terrence Malick’s screenplay. These are some of movie-Witt’s lines, from

Private Witt: I remember my mother when she was dyin', looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothin' beautiful or uplifting about her goin' back to God. I heard of people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. 

Private Witt: I wondered how it'd be like when I died, what it'd be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same... calm. 'Cause that's where it's hidden - the immortality I hadn't seen.
Private Witt: I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination. 

Private Witt: Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of, all faces are the same man. 

IMDB also says that Terrence Malick ( has a degree in philosophy from Harvard as likes to use philosophical themes, and that a hallmark of his writing is narration by one or more characters. Maybe he wanted a more uplifting version of Witt to temper some of the darker themes in Jones' novel? 

In conclusion, while I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading the book, it's a very different experience from the movie, especially when it comes to the character of Witt. You should read James Jones because his contributions to American literature are, according to the New York Public Library Literature Companion, winning the National Book Award for From Here to Eternity and, in Eternity, Line and Whistle, summing up the pre-war, wartime and post-war experiences of "ordinary servicemen" in a crucial part of 20th century history. 

Whistle is the full title of the third book in the trilogy, by the way. Prewitt/Witt becomes Prell in the third book. 


Erin O'Riordan said...

"What is 'From Here to Eternity?'" was an answer on Celebrity Jeopardy! tonight. Anderson Cooper didn't know the answer.

Erin O'Riordan said...

P.S. Stein is the one who thinks Witt's desire to return is terribly romantic.