In December, 1944, the Wehrmacht — the German army — was trying to push through the Ardennes mountains in Belgium. Easy Company, of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, was among the defenders in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Stephen E. Ambrose chronicled this, and other Easy Company missions, in his 1992 book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normany to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, which HBO made into a ten-part miniseries in 2001.
It is a remarkable series, dramatic and horrific and visceral and tragic and heart-rending (sometimes all at the same time), and it is one of the best book-to-television adaptations you’re ever likely to see. Here’s a clip from the Battle of the Bulge episode:
One reason the series captures the flavor of the book is that Band of Brothers is a visual book. Check this out, from page 82 of the 2001 paperback reissue:
Time for the second gun, Winters thought to himself. He left three men behind to hold the first gun, then led the other five on a charge down the trench, throwing grenades ahead of them, firing their rifles. They passed the two Jerries at the machine-gun who had been wounded by Winters and made them prisoners. The gun crew at the second gun fell back; Easy took it with only one casualty.
That could be, with very minor changes, stage directions in a screenplay. Ambrose’s vivid, dramatic writing style creates pictures in your mind; all they had to do when they made the series was recreate those pictures on the screen.
Another reason why the series works so well: the screenwriters and producers — including a couple of guys called Spielberg and Hanks — made sure to keep some of the book’s smaller, but more pleasing, moments.
They begin the series, as Ambrose begins the book, with an episode that focuses on Lieutenant (later Captain) Sobel, the widely despised martinet who was Easy Company’s first commander, and his treatment of his men, including his clash with Dick Winters, his second in command.
But here’s the thing: at the end of the series, they show us the moment when Winters (now Major) runs into Sobel (still Captain) and, when Sobel ignores him, Winters says, “Captain Sobel, we salute the rank, not the man.” This is a fist-pump moment for the audience — take that, Sobel — but it’s mostly irrelevant to what’s going on at the time. It’s one of those small scenes in a book that can drop right out of a screenplay, but if you lose it, you lose a little bit of the flavor of the book — you move a bit too far away from what the book’s author intended.
Spielberg and Hanks are the executive producers, and sure they made changes to the material — that’s unavoidable when you turn a book into a television series. But listen: they kept the fist-pump moment, and a lot of other small (and easily jettisoned) moments. They cared about the story Ambrose was telling, and they cared about making sure their audience saw the same story.
There are a lot of television and movie producers who could stand to take a lesson from Spielberg and Hanks.