In 1990, at the age of 20, Anthony Swofford went to war in the Gulf. In 2003 he published Jarhead, a book about his experiences. Andrew Wright spoke to Swofford about the new film adaptation of his memoir.

So how does a film tour differ from a book tour?

Bigger coverage. Nicer hotels. The people mostly seem to be on about the same literary level, though, which is nice.

So the big question, I guess, is how does it feel to be portrayed on screen by a Hollywood Tiger Beat dreamboat [Jake Gyllenhaal]?

Uh, I’m not sure Jake’s a dreamboat. Do they even exist anymore?

Yeah, but now they make cult movies, instead of things like Cocktail.

I see. Anyway, I always admired Jake’s acting, and knew he would bring some brio and verve and intensity to the role. I think he really nailed the self-realization of a green 20-year-old kid going off to fight.

So how does a book get turned into a movie, exactly? What kind of gymnastics do you have to go through?

Well, when it was still in galley form, I had an agent in L.A. who started passing it around. My book was published in February of 2003, and in April I started having meetings with interested parties, including Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, who eventually became the producers. Doug, especially, knew the book really well, and was quoting it back at me. And the way that he talked about how he saw a movie based on Jarhead – what it would look like, what it would sound like, feel like – was pretty close to what I was thinking. And we were in real agreement about certain scenes from the book that absolutely had to be in the film. So they brought a screenwriter [William Broyles Jr.] on board, and had a draft ready to go by early 2004. And then Sam Mendes was the first director they showed it to.

That seems to go against the usual adaptation horror stories. Barton Fink would hate you.

Yeah, I know. (Laughs.) It’s just in this case, the people in charge of adapting the story were all highly talented and were, across the board, concerned with making something that resembled the book. Emotionally, philosophically, and psychologically, they wanted the same heart in the film.

It must be strange to have, not only your first book, but something based on actual life experiences, put up on a screen for you to watch.

Sure. The first time I saw Jake being called Swofford and being abused by a Drill Instructor, it was really odd. I had the strange experience of watching a film where I already know what’s going to happen, yet the narrative tension is really high. I was experiencing it again through other eyes, which is rather weird. But after a few scenes I was able to distance myself. You know, I’m 35 now and I wrote about events that happened when I was 18, so there was a degree of distance there already. What happened was I found myself comparing my artistic work with what was on the screen, rather than my actual life.

Was the release ever in question of being delayed? I can’t think of another war film that was ever released during a time of war, let alone a war as controversial as this one.

Yeah, I was thinking about that the other day. Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now both came out when we weren’t at war. I mean, we were probably at covert war with somebody, but anyway. In this case, to the studio’s credit, I think they were concerned more with telling a story than with politics. Which is what more studios probably should do. (Laughs.)

Some folks on the internet have been saying that it’s disrespectful to release a movie now that’s critical about aspects of the military. What’s your take?

Well, I don’t think that this is an anti-war film. I mean, even if it were, I guess I’d disagree with those people anyway. But neither my book nor the film are anti-war. You know, they’re about men with rifles, not about the guys in suits who make the decisions.

How much input did you have into the actual development of the script?

Not a lot. The screenwriter generously let me read the drafts. He didn’t have to, but he wanted to hear my thoughts, and would occasionally ring me up and ask me practical questions about sniper rifles and training, and sometimes about characters. When I read his stuff, he’d say, “If I have anything wrong, just tell me,” and seemed really concerned about capturing the characters. One of the things that I think this film does really well is let the viewer see the making of this family onscreen. It’s not just my character that you get to know, but you also get some nice snapshots of the other guys in the platoon.

I was blindsided by Lucas Black. I’ve always seen him as this little kid in Sling Blade, and here he is all grown up and chiseled and toting around heavy weapons.

I thought he was great as the crazy Texan. Every platoon seems to have one or two crazy Texans.

Peter Sarsgaard has an interesting character arc. Normally he’s the guy who has everything figured out. Not so much here.

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Yeah, that’s an example of the really, I think, masterful compression of my book to the film. In the book, I had like 20 pages on the long-term conundrum of being trained to kill but not having an opportunity to do it, which Sarsgaard just nails in one scene. There’s a lot of that. In the book, I narrate how, in dark moments, I was willing to give up whatever I had to go back to war, to the point where I talked to the Marine Corps about reenlisting as an officer after I finished college. The main reason was that I was missing that thing which I called a family, how I wasn’t finding that intense companionship in the civilian world. And I think the actors here make you feel all that instantly.