The Iraq War Homefront Moves from Story to Comic to Film

The Iraq War Moves from Comic to Film

When Benjamin Percy wrote his short story “Refresh, Refresh,” he never imagined that it would take on the life that it did.  Impressed by the harsh reality of the writing, Percy’s longtime friend James Ponsoldt adapted the story as a screenplay, and when Ponsoldt mentioned the narrative to First Second graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff, Novgorodoff knew that she’d found her latest project.

Refresh, Refresh is a 2007 collection of short stories by Percy, named for and featuring its title story.  Refresh, Refresh is an in-development feature film, written by (from the story by Percy) and to be directed by James Ponsoldt.  And Refresh, Refresh is a graphic novel from First Second, debutied this month, written (from the story by Percy and the screenplay by Ponsoldt) and illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff.

“A few years ago, I had encountered so many news articles and programs about Iraq, but no fiction, so I set out with the express purpose of tackling the war,” said Benjamin Percy of the origins of this multimedia crossover.  “In particular, I was inspired by a National Guard unit whose soldiers came from a small town in Ohio; overnight, more than a dozen fathers, uncles, brothers and sons were killed in an ambush. I grew up in rural Oregon. I imagined the same thing happening there and could hardly imagine the cavity left behind.

“At the time I didn’t feel I could write—with any credibility—about what was happening in Iraq, among the sand dunes and desert flats, the bullet-riddled streets of Baghdad. I have friends and family who have served, but I have no military experience. For whatever reason you can write about bull-riding even if you’ve never hurled a lasso—you can write about the moon even if you’ve never worked for NASA—but when it comes to the military, readers want to know you’ve worn cammies. So I decided instead to write about what was happening in the states, the battleground at home.”

At the core of the story are three boys: Cody, Josh and Gordon.  How their lives and futures are impacted unfolds as each finds himself beset by pressures of being an adult that none are fully prepared to grasp.  Cody and Josh make the most effective contrast, as Cody is trying to be the man in the family to his younger brother, but doesn’t have the experience to do that.  Josh wants to escape their little town, but he’s trapped by the uncertainly in his life.

Danica Novgorodoff described them, saying, “There’s both love and a bit of resentment between these two best friends. Josh wants to leave and go to college, Cody wants Josh to stay with him and join the Marines. Josh has the means to get out; Cody’s family is in a constant struggle to pay the bills. Josh doesn’t want to be held back, but he doesn’t want to hurt his friends. These are all things they would never say straight out to each other — they’re more likely to beat the shit out of each other in order to show their affection, and their pain.”

“It’s interesting – the third friend (named Gordon in the graphic novel) existed in a rough draft of the short story, but not in the final version, and I don’t think he’s going to have a spot in the film, though he did exist in the draft on which I based the graphic novel,” she explained, offering some insight into how the three versions evolved and differ, while ultimately telling the same story.

“As James makes clear in his screenplay, in a relationship of three, one of the three is inevitably left out,” she continued.  “It was often that way between my brother, sister and me. Gordon is the outsider to Josh and Cody’s intense friendship; he’s more of an observer – he watches, he records on his video camera. He’s not an impartial observer – he longs to be on the inside, and is self-conscious of his masculinity (especially now that he’s the only man in a household of women) and of his role as a follower and a pushover. Gordon nurses a quiet rage over his powerlessness. It’s that desire to be strong, and to be part of a powerful group, that drives him to join the military.”

Percy: “I tend to be wary of partisan storytelling. Occasionally it works, but more often I feel as though I’m the victim of an after-school special, with the message so obvious and the characters coming across as puppets the author has shoved his hands into … If a reader feels they’re being manipulated, the magic is gone: they are aware that they are reading a story, and so the vivid and continuous dream, as Gardner refers to it, has been interrupted. So here I am writing about a hot-button issue: the war in Iraq. I wanted to make sure I was being political without being polemical. I didn’t want to say war is good or war is bad, but instead this is war.

“I suppose I’ve been successful. Ever since ‘Refresh, Refresh’ released in late 2005, I’ve received several emails a week about the story, all of them so varied in their interpretations,” he said.  “Vietnam and Persian Gulf vets; the wives and mothers of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; ROTC cadets; college professors and high school students; inmates; and so many others, they praise—or smear – the story for entirely different reasons. Among the critics, some say I’m a liberal pantywaist; others say I’m a conservative nutjob. One guy went so far as to say he hoped to see me hang alongside Bush and he would laugh as our faces turned blue. At first, I was pissed, thinking: buddy, did you read the same story I wrote? But then I felt strangely pleased, because, based on so many different responses, his included, I had apparently succeeded in occupying a kind of moral gray area that invited the reader into their own unique, visceral experience.”

To avoid the pitfalls he describes and stay true to the story’s core statement – a look into the lives of three boys without strong guiding hands in their lives – Percy adopted a simple motto.  “Character first,” he explained.  “That’s the way I tried to avoid the trap. Create living, breathing characters and let the story emerge from there. I suppose that’s one of the defining principles of literary fiction — and that’s what I was putting into practice here. These boys are me — they’re the kids I grew up with — just as this landscape is my own backyard. My buddies and I used to shove our hands into boxing gloves and beat the crap out of each other after school. We tore around on dirt bikes and sledded perilous slopes and dreamed about escaping. These boys hopefully transcend central Oregon — and their situation hopefully transcends the war in Iraq — so that by the end the reader knows them as kids without daddies. That’s what the story’s about at its heart.”

Novgorodoff was drawn to the book by its timeless treatment of a timely message.  “I thought that Refresh, Refresh was a really important story of a contemporary generation of kids who have grown up in the omnipresent shadow of the Iraq war,” she said.  “It’s a war that, for many Americans, is now a familiar background noise on the nightly news, but for many others has been devastating. I was really moved by these boys, Josh and Cody and Gordon, who are trying to enjoy the last year of their childhood, while being forced to grow up fast, support their families (emotionally if not also financially), and deal with their fathers’ absence. The story felt so true to our current political and social climate. Plus, I think the story’s mix of small-town normalcy with startling violence, and teenage banter with moments of heartbreaking emotional honesty, really caught my attention.”

Filmmaker and Percy friend James Ponsoldt tells a similar story of his attraction to the material: “Well, I'd known Ben for a while – we were roommates at the Sewanee Writers' Conference years ago. So I'd read a lot of his short stories. But when I read "Refresh, Refresh" in The Paris Review while in a bookstore, I was floored. The story was like a punch to the sternum. It dealt with issues of boys and their fathers and depictions of masculinity – and violence – in a way that really struck a personal, emotional chord. To be blunt: it reminded me of my childhood in Georgia – and my friends from that time – some of whom are now in the military.”

After reading the story, Ponsoldt knew Percy’s story would make a powerful movie.  “I finished the first draft in the spring of 2007 (after starting the previous fall),” he explained.  “I then workshopped the script at the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab that summer. I've done several subsequent drafts since then.

“We're aiming to shoot next year in the high desert of central Oregon (in the areas around Bend and Prineville). I did a location scout earlier this year with one of my producers – and Ben Percy. We fell in love with the locations, which had been the inspiration to Ben for the story – because he grew up there,” Ponsoldt said of the film’s progress.

With the film already in process, Danica Novgorodoff added a third viewpoint to the Refresh, Refresh creative team.  Percy, author of the original short story, said, “James Ponsoldt (whose first film, Off the Black, starred Nick Nolte and Timothy Hutton) had adapted Refresh, Refresh into a screenplay that’s now in pre-production. He was in contact with Danica and spoke with such excitement about the project that she asked to see a copy of both the story and the screenplay.”

Novgorodoff acknowledges that her upbringing in Kentucky gave her some connection to the characters, but not as much to the small town setting.  “I’ve actually never lived in a very small town. I’ve lived in the country, in big cities, in the suburbs … but not in a town like Tumalo, Oregon, which the story is based on, and which has a Shell gas station at its center and can be walked across in about thirteen minutes,” she explained.  “So a big part of making this book was exploring that area – learning the landscape, what the houses are like, where people go for a hamburger, what they collect in their backyards, what kind of cars they drive. But I imagine that my Kentucky public high school was not very dissimilar from Josh, Cody, and Gordon’s school; the deer hunting is probably the same; the bars we tried to sneak into when we were in high school are probably the same sorts of dives that the boys in Refresh, Refresh get sloppy in. (Don’t tell Mom I said that.)”

On the process of seeing the story interpreted through so many eyes, Ponsoldt admitted, “It's the most natural and inspirational thing I can imagine. Working in film, you have to value collaboration and interpretation, and to be honest, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing your work through the eyes of someone who you think is brilliant (and that's how I feel about Danica). It's a bit intimidating – because she set the bar so high.

“Her work is stunning! She's created an entire, autonomous world. To use the film analogy, she worked as the director, production designer, cinematographer, and acted all the parts! It's really amazing. I had a clear image in my mind of the film as I was adapting Ben's wonderful short story, but now having read Danica's graphic novel, well … it's all very dizzying. So many interpretations in dialogue with each other. I wish this sort of thing happened more often!” Ponsoldt gushed.

Percy was similarly enthusiastic about Novgorodoff’s contributions: “We enjoyed working with each other so much that we’re collaborating again, this time on an illustrated book of dark fables.”

After having written her last few comic projects herself, including the well-received graphic novel Slow Storm, Novgorodoff enjoyed working in the ideaspace established by other creators.  “I think I love the story so much and worked on the graphic novel adaptation so long that I felt like it was mine – not that I had created it, but that it was (not to sound too new-age) meant to pass through me. Slow Storm was about things that I ; Refresh, Refresh is about things that I discovered. And it was comforting to know that it was already a good piece of art before I came to it, rather than the pressure being completely on me to make it into a good piece of art.”

Percy concluded, saying, “The short story is a form that is regularly ignored, so to witness RR go the distance, to see it anthologized, to hear it on NPR, to know that it’s taught in college courses, and now to have it adapted so powerfully as a screenplay and a graphic novel — it’s thrilling. And I couldn’t be more grateful. The icing on the cake is that James and Danica are good-hearted and immensely talented; they’ve given the story new life and made it their own.”

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