Trumbo and Me – Adapting Johnny Got His Gun
1914. World War I begins. Thirty-seven million casualties (a war euphemism if there ever was one) counted by the end (speaking for myself, why do I not feel gut-kicked when I read that number?). Ask a historian "why?" and they will start by saying, "It's complicated." It's always complicated. It certainly couldn't have had anything to do with obscenely wealthy, entitled royal families with intertwined bloodlines and armament businesses deciding they needed MORE? And what exactly the murder of an Archduke in Serbia had to do with millions of young men in America and across the globe killing each other, is also a question worth asking.
Naive, ill-informed, unrealistic, unpatriotic, Marxist-Communist-Socialist-athiest-vegetarian are a few names for those who ask such questions. But tell the thirty-seven million dead and dismembered -- and the millions since -- "It's complicated," and then listen to what they have to say.
"What do the dead say? Any of them ever come back and say I died for decency and that's better than being alive? And whose idea of decency are we talking about?" Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo's novel, "Johnny Got His Gun," asks the question. Joe and Dalton demand an answer.
Published in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II and set during the First World War, "Johnny Got His Gun" quickly joins the ranks of the greatest anti-war novels ever written, alongside "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "Red Badge Of Courage," winning the American Book Award in 1940. It spawns a radio broadcast in 1940 with James Cagney playing Dalton's reluctant hero, Joe Bonham. A movie, directed by Dalton in 1971, that many consider to be the first truly independent American film, staring Timothy Bottoms, Donald Sutherland and Jason Robards. A hit song, "One," by the heavy metal band, Metallica. An Obie-Award-winning and Drama Desk nominated play in 1982 staring Jeff Daniels and a film of the play in 2008, staring Benjamin McKenzie. The book has sold millions of copies in thirty languages and forty editions, the latest editions with forwards by anti-war activists Ron Kovic and Cindy Sheehan. The book continues to be required reading in American high schools. And this year the novel celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary, as we also recognize the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War.
So how did an obscure, unrelenting, brutally unapologetic -- and hauntingly beautiful -- novel by an unknown novelist about a World War I soldier, who awakes in a hospital room to realize he has no arms, no legs, can't see, hear or talk come to so profoundly impact the hearts and minds of millions around the globe?
I can only attempt to answer that question by describing a bit of my own journey with the material, a journey I have discovered that is surprisingly similar to many, many others who find the novel delivered into their unsuspecting hands.
I was a high school junior when I was first drawn to the compelling book jacket in a book store, the equally classic, stark black and white cover image of two angular fingers extended into the familiar 'v' peace sign. I had recently registered as a "conscientious objector" during what turned out to be the last draft of the Viet Nam War for the very good reasons of not wanting to kill or be killed. Dalton gave me a few more.
I remember reading it in one sitting, a first for me at the time, like so many others I have met over the years, each of us unprepared for the onslaught of piercing language and shocking imagery, ferociously driven forward and seemingly without punctuation. Reading the racing, white hot prose was like riding a screaming train careening down a mountain, brakes burned out. You feared what lay at the end of the tracks, but you couldn't jump off. Dalton didn't let you.
And neither did the innocent Joe Bonham.
I didn't know at the time that Dalton and I (whom I never have the privilege to meet in person, Dalton dying in 1976) shared another connection of Colorado, my family having a small home in Cedaredge, not far from the small town of Montrose, where Dalton was born in 1905. I sometimes fished with my father near Grand Mesa, where Joe Bonham fished with his father in the novel and I assume where Dalton fished with his father. (I also came to know of the horrors of war at an early age as my father had been a survivor of the Bataan Death March and three years in a Japanese prison camp in Manila. As every veteran knows, the war doesn't stop when the battles end. As every family of a veteran knows, the fighting continues.)
Dalton worked at a bakery after the family moved to Los Angeles. Joe Bonham's father worked at a bakery in Los Angeles before going off to war. My father worked at a bakery in Denver before going off to war. Dalton attends college at the University of Colorado, leaving for Los Angeles in 1925, where he attends the University of Southern California. I attended the University Of Colorado at Denver. Dalton begins writing short stories in Colorado and then Los Angeles. I begin to write in high school in Colorado, moving to New York in 1980 to pursue playwriting. I take a worn copy of "Johnny Got His Gun" with me.
Dalton writes articles for "Vanity Fair" and "The Hollywood Spectator" in Los Angeles, eventually being hired as a reader by Warner Brothers in their story department. Dalton goes on to become one of Hollywood's most successful and highest paid screenwriters, penning over forty scripts including "Roman Holiday," "Papillon," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Exodus," and "Spartacus." However, Dalton goes on to become even more famous as one of the "Hollywood Ten" blacklisted writers, called before the House Committee On un-American Activities in 1947 to account for their political beliefs and to 'name names' of fellow suspected Communists. Trumbo, a supporter of the anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War (we should just start listing wars alphabetically, or better yet, as corporate profit/loss statements) was a supporter of early Communist and liberal causes, though also writing the occasional patriotic script like, "A Guy Named Joe."
Being asked on the witness stand to name fellow Communists, Dalton refuses, telling the prosecutor, "Very many questions can be answered 'Yes' or 'No' only by a moron or a slave." Dalton and the others are sentenced to Federal prison and blacklisted by the Hollywood film industry. Serving ten months, unable to find work in Hollywood under his real name, Dalton moves his family to Mexico, where he writes screenplays (in the bathtub, where he always wrote) under various pseudonyms, or using other writers as "fronts." In 1958 Kirk Douglas hires Dalton Trumbo to write "Spartacus," and in 1959 Otto Priminger hires him to write "Exodus," both projects effectively ending the blacklist.
From my first reading of "Johnny got His Gun," to my arrival in New York as an untested playwright, I knew I wanted to adapt the book as a play. Dalton directed his own graphically realistic vision of the material in the 1971 film, that was honored by the Cannes Film Festival with the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury Award. As for myself, the power of the book lay in the reader's imagination, which placed the reader fully in the very center of Joe Bonham's tortured mind, an experience that theatre can also recreate. And the power of the book also lays in Dalton's magnificent use of language and imagery, also a power inherent in theatre. So I decided to pare the book down to an eighty minute running time, with only one actor, portraying a healthy Joe onstage, free of any suggestion of war wounds, as he tells the audience his story of personal and political awakening. It was my hope that by seeing a healthy, youthful person onstage, an audience would not only have to confront the horror of Joe's condition, but also the ongoing horror of a life cut short, of human potential viscously destroyed forever.
The play opened at Circle Rep staring Jeff Daniels in a staggering performance that earned him nightly standing ovations and an Obie Award for Best Actor. The play continues to be performed around the world.
A deep regret of my life is that I didn't get a chance to meet Dalton Trumbo and ask for his blessing on the project, but I did have the good fortune to spend many hours with Dalton's wife, Cleo, and his son, Christopher (a writer as well, who wrote a successful play based on his father's letters, "Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted"), each offering their support for the project. I did have the wonderful opportunity to meet Ring Lardner, Jr., who wrote the cover piece on my play for the New York Times, and who wrote the screenplay for another great anti-war film, "M*A*S*H*. Ring was one of Dalton's Federal prisonmates and a fellow Hollywood Ten blacklisted writer. He told me that Dalton would be pleased by the play. And that means the world to me.
Dalton Trumbo died of a heart attack in California in 1976. But his life is about to be deservedly reintroduced to the public as actor Bryan Cranston plays Dalton in the upcoming movie of Trumbo's life. Like Joe Bonham, Dalton Trumbo is an American literary and political hero. He and his life deserve all the continuing attention and accolades possible.
On a more personal note, for the words I never got to say to Dalton Trumbo: Thank you, Dalton, for your words and for your life. For Joe Bonham and "Johnny Got His Gun." For awakening in me my political conscience. For showing us not only the true horrors of war, but also the perverse glamorizing of war, the evil glorifying and patriotic fetishization of murder and death. And to all those who continue to polish and sell war and destruction to the world: It is not really complicated at all. Just ask Dalton Trumbo. Just ask Joe Bonham. Just ask the dead.