I’m so excited to announce my first collaboration with Silver Screen Capture, where blogger Stephen Brown and I talk about the page to screen journey of various books into film. Our first collaboration is Kim Barker’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (The Taliban Shuffle MTI): Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey and opens in theaters on Friday, 4 March. Stephen and I saw an advance screening Tuesday night. Read on for my review and then a Q and A with Stephen and me.

Kim Barker was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  The Iraq war was the sexy war. No one payed much attention to what was going on elsewhere in Asia, particularly Afghanistan where the US also had troops on the ground, and Pakistan, our allies in the “War on Terror”.  Enter Kim, expendable because she’s a journalist, single, and childless. And bored.   And looking for a reason to not really have to commit to her boyfriend, Chris. What better way to dodge making a decision than by signing up for a gig in Afghanistan and reporting on the war for a few months.

It’s easy to expect a memoir like this to be filled with colorful characters and edge-of-your-seat adventures, and there are certainly plenty of those in the book, but they aren’t what makes it a compelling read to me.  No. That comes from a different part of the story.  The part that I found most compelling was Kim’s descent into addiction- not to booze or opiates produced from the plentiful Afghan poppy fields- but to the place and the lifestyle itself.  It took a lot for her to realize that living in Asia, embeds with the Military, the next big disaster or bombing was taking her too far out from other integral parts of her life.

What you’ll get in the book that you don’t get in the film  is a better understanding of the Afghan and Pakistan cultures. The ancient relationships and rivalries between loosely aligned tribal groups. The obvious disconnect between a strict Muslim culture that also produces the bulk of the world’s supply of opiates. The culture that provided alcohol to foreigners although it is strictly banned in their religion.   It illustrates perfectly why the American (and NATO) military involvement in these countries is different than anything we had seen before, and why “success” has been such a moving target.

This isn’t Eat, Pray, Love  or  Wild where there is some great character-defining epiphany.   Instead, it is a recounting of a woman’s journey into a dangerous place- dangerous in general, made more dangerous by her gender- and dangerous in the way it becomes so intoxicating.   So much flux, as it is set against the backdrop of layoffs in the print journalism industry unprecedented to this point.  At what point do you stop running and start living life on different terms?

Read on for the Q and A between Stephen and me, and don’t forget to check out the movie review here.

Question: What made this an important story to tell?

Stephen Brown: Although the characters and contours could be sharper, the film depicts men and women driven by destiny to be superb stewards of their craft, be it military peacekeeper or crusading journalist. The protagonist’s strong POV offers an unusual portal into the story and a meaty, unapologetic female lead role.ashleywilliams-stephenbrown

Ashley Williams: This is a great question because there are two broad aspects with which to answer it. The first is understanding the drive of someone to put themselves in a war zone and continual danger. Kim essentially becomes a junkie- addicted to Afghanistan, seeking out ever more dangerous assignments- until it nearly destroys her. And in the book, we get so much more backstory about Afghanistan and Pakistan and why our military efforts have been so protracted. It really highlights how much the American mentality is ineffective in dealing with the cultures of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Question: What about this work is effective on the page? What makes it cinematic?

Ashley Williams: The visuals in the film really bring this story to life, but there is a humanity in the story told on the page that really made this an interesting read to me. Kim really came to care for many of the people she met in these countries. She is also able to talk a lot in the book about the seeming contradictions in the culture. It’s this next layer, of really being able to glimpse what day to day life was like, that kept me turning the page.

Stephen Brown: The you-are-there quality is dialed up to great effect, with several of the close encounters with deadly assaults among the most jarring. I did feel more could be done with the atmosphere of the “fun house” where all the journalists were lodged and that some of the relationships with locals could have been more vividly developed.

Question: What were the biggest changes made from book to film?

Ashley Williams: I laughed when I saw this question. Because SO MUCH! First, in the book, there’s Kim was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, not a TV reporter. Aside from that, though, the film focuses specifically on Afghanistan. During the years Kim was over in Asia, she was based in India, and shuffled between Afghanistan and Pakistan with some regularity (hence the book title, The Taliban Shuffle). The whole Pakistan experience is missing from the film, but in the book, we get a good glimpse of the political climate in both places during the War and how that impacted our military effectiveness. Also, the Billy Bob Thornton character isn’t in the book.

Question: What did casting bring to the experience?

Ashley Williams: Tina Fey was spot on. Farouq, too. No one else really matters in going from page to screen because the other film characters are amalgams of people in the book.

Stephen Brown: Tina Fey owned the part with such command that I could imagine no one else in the role. I’m delighted she went out on this limb.

Question: Memoirs are notoriously tricky to adapt. They can range from cerebral (think My Week with Marilyn based on The Prince, the Showgirl and Me: Six Months on the Set with Marilyn and Olivier by Colin Clark) to adventurous (such as 127 Hours based on Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston). Where does this adaptation of The Taliban Shuffle fit in?

Stephen Brown: Despite the fact that it is very entertaining, this film won’t go down as among the best of this genre. I will say it compared favorably to Eat, Pray, Love and was an interesting examination about what an unmarried single woman in mid-life can do to shake things up considerably. These memoirs seemed destined to get the movie treatment.

Ashley Williams: I agree that the book won’t go down in history the way a memoir of say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsberg might. And I admittedly haven’t read many other memoirs of reporters embedded in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The film and book are so different, I really am not sure they are comparable. But comparing this memoir to the book Eat, Pray, Love or the inexplicably popular Wild, the difference for me is that Barker doesn’t come out of this with an amazing epiphany or self-actualization moment. She’s an ordinary woman who ended up in this extraordinary situation and she learned a lot about herself, but I read this more as an exploration of how running from something can take us to places we never expected. That circumstances can drag us more deeply into something than we desire, and at some point, we have to decide how we want to live.

Did you have favorite plot points?

Stephen Brown: There weren’t that many standout moments, but I actually liked a sequence in the last fifteen minutes when a minor character is re-introduced, and a moment of catharsis ensues.

Ashley Williams: It’s so funny that Stephen mentions his favorite fifteen minutes at the end of the film, because this was glossed over in the book, awarded three to five sentences max. For me, in the book, it was Kim’s going away party, the resolution of her friendship with Farouq.

Question: So was it overall something you’d recommend?

Ashley Williams: Yes, both the book and the film. The book because it’s a perspective I don’t think we have seen a lot of in a tense region that is so different than our own. And the film because I was thoroughly entertained.

Stephen Brown: Absolutely. I was very pleasantly surprised and entertained. This isn’t one of those film experiences that stays with you a long time, but it is far more accomplished than expected.