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Birding goes Hollywood

March 18, 2010
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The birdier parts of the internet are buzzing with the news that Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year, which follows three intrepid birders on their quest to see as many North American species in one calender year, is being given the big screen treatment.  Responses have been mixed, with some birders excited about the potential prominence our dear avocation could receive in Hollywood’s hands and others worried that birders could come out looking like the butt of a 90 minute cinematic joke.  The cast, which includes A-list stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, doesn’t particular make the case for either treatment as any of the three actors is capable of both a nuanced take on the slightly absurd aspects of birding (and Big Years in particular) and a fall down slap stick role that makes us out to be fools.

I certainly hope it’s the first, because in the right hands The Big Year could be great for us as a group, portraying just the right sense of intensity and affability that birders generally possess.  There’s a lot of humor to be mined there without making blatant fun and birders should be able to laugh at ourselves because the lengths to which we go to look at birds, even without the added insanity of a Big Year.  If, in the end, we add a few more to our number because of the movie, and especially if that translates into proponents of bird conservation initiatives, than that has to be considered to be a good thing regardless if we get our pride dented a tad.  Consider me, then, cautiously optimistic.

The obvious worry however, is that the screenwriter and director don’t attempt to make birding appealing, that they take the easy way out and turn birding into an object of ridicule.  With screenwriter Howard Franklin, writer of such box office flops as Antitrust and The Man Who Knew Too Little, responsible for the content I’m not holding my breath for an entirely nuanced treatment, but would a completely accurate portrayal of birders even play to the general public anyway?  There will likely be moments in the movie that make us uncomfortable, and the big question is how much fun at our expense would we be willing to accept.  Second to that is probably how many times would you be able to hear Hey! You doin’ one of them Big Years? in the field before you put a tripod straight through someone’s chest.

I suppose we’ll have the answer to these questions soon enough.

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5 Comments
  1. March 18, 2010 11:17 am

    The problem is that the subject matter doesn’t really portray birders in a good light to begin with. A big year is about ticking off species, living on a plane and in hotels, spending money and fuel to see how big the list can get. The book, to me, was more of a comparison of the 3 characters with birding as a vehicle to show their obsessions with winning an informal competition. As birders, we appreciated the rare birds and interesting locations where the characters went. We understood the need to preserve these locations and the birds that live there. I find it hard to believe that this film will spend much time at all discussing conservation, but will spend more time making the characters look like lunatics.

  2. Nate permalink*
    March 18, 2010 12:19 pm

    @Patrick- That’s a good point. But I think there’s a fine line between poking fun at the absurdity of the competition (which is absolutely fair game) and poking fun at birding as an activity, which would be the easy way out in a lot of ways.

    And second, I think it goes without saying that a lot of the characterization of the protagonists is going to be from a “hey, get a load of these weird-os” perspective, I just hope it doesn’t necessarily spill over into a mean-spirited characterization of birders in general. But I admit that’s a fairly fine line.

  3. March 18, 2010 2:52 pm

    It’s a tough call: I think a flat-out, full-blown slapstick approach might actually be taken less seriously (or harmfully) about birding than a more documentary approach with frequent comedic elements, but then I’m a Martin/Wilson fan anyway. And I’m not a lister so maybe it’s easier for me to not be overly concerned. (Conan O’brien once did a take-off on birding on his late show that was hysterical even though it played on stereotypical images of birders.)

  4. March 18, 2010 3:06 pm

    I have no hope whatsoever that we’ll get a fair portrayal in a Hollywood movie. It’s gotta sell, right? Fair doesn’t sell. However, any press is good press – we will win in the end, if we like the way we’ll win or not doesn’t matter. It’s the end result that counts.

  5. Nate permalink*
    March 18, 2010 8:06 pm

    @cyberthrush- You may be right. Non-birders would have a hard time pinning the clearly absurd to us. And I remember the Conan sketch and also thought it was hilarious.

    @Jochen- Any press is good press eh? I hope you’re right, look at Toyota!

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