The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
was published as a book in 1991 and released as a feature fim in 2002. Written by Chris Fuhrman, Altar Boys is a coming of age story about a group of Catholic boys in 1970’s USA. There are some significant differences between the book and the film. I managed to finish reading the book the day before I watched the film, so the details of the book were fresh in my mind as I loaded in the DVD.
Francis Doyle is a young teenage boy in an American small town in 1974. On Sundays he serves as an altar boy at the local Catholic Church. During the week he attends a Catholic School where he struggles to express his creative side while staying out of trouble. He’s got his eye on class-mate Margie and wants to ask her out. A prank at school, involving a comic book depicting nuns and priest in compromising sexual positions, puts the prospect of Francis and his friends graduating year 8 in doubt. So a plan is hatched to distract everyone and save the day.
One thing that surprised me, and had me skeptical, about this story is the alcohol and drug use among these young teenagers. They are rarely sober. Was alcohol consumption so prominent among 13 year olds in 1970s small town America? I can only speak about Sydney here and now, but 13 year olds getting drunk would be the exception and not the norm. And definitely not to the extent shown in this book. Is this a shock tactic by the author or an accurate portrayal of the time?
Missing from the movie, but building in the background of the book, is the racial tension of the time. In the playground the ripple effects of this tension are constantly felt. They are always there, simmering in the background. Towards the end, there is a protest march, which leaves our protagonists, young white men, caught up in a situation that has them freaking out. It’s a well written scene that I wish was developed more. None of this is present in the movie, which is a shame. It’s one of the reasons that I feel the 1970s setting is wasted in the movie as it doesn’t really contribute to the story at all.
The relational focus is different between the two works. The focus of the book is the relationship between Francis and his close friends, especially his best friend, Tim. While Margie is there and has significant scenes with Francis, the relationship between the two of them seems secondary to the relationship between the boys. This gives the book a very Stand By Me feel, as the boys set out on an adventure and come of age as a result. The movie introduces Margie much sooner and focuses on their relationship. This means that Margie is included in more scenes, to the detriment of the boys. In the movie, several of the boys are compressed into fewer characters. Tim, especially, is weakened as a character, with much of his motivation, as well as significant foreshadowing, watered down.
The movie employs animated cut sequences to underscore the movements of the story. These are in the form of a superhero story, produced by Todd McFarlane (Creator of Spawn). For me, these scenes struck out for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t think they were that good. They reminded me more of standard 90s cartoons, which didn’t really work for me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from the guy responsible for the Spawn cartoon and some awesome Pearl Jam film clips. Secondly, it has a superhero tone, which does not really work with what the boys are into. These boys are reading 1970s Swamp Thing comics. They’re leaning towards the alternative, the off centre. Not 90s “hip” superheroes. For these reasons, the animated scenes fell flat for me.
Francis and his friends call themselves atheists. They’re rebels. They are reacting against what they are taught because it doesn’t make sense to them and it is forced upon them. They want to challenge what they are told and discover it for themselves. When given a choice between traditional Catholicism and the “freedom” of Byron, they choose Byron. It makes me wonder how things would have been different if they had been helped to understand Scripture, to discover it for themselves, to ask questions and challenge the text, to own their faith for themselves. Calling for blind faith leads to people who don’t know why they believe. These are young men looking for something to believe in. If only they had been shown the beauty and freedom of the Bible instead of regimented, believe-because-I-tell-you-so Christianity.
The ending of the book felt quite rushed. I actually had to reread it carefully several times to work out what had happened. I discovered later that this was because the author had passed away before finishing the final draft. This is an incredible shame. The first half of the book is great, but things that are alluded to and set up don’t seem to pay off. I can’t help but wonder if this would have been different had the author had the time to finish his story the way he wanted. I recommend the book and found it a good read.
The movie on the other hand, was a big miss for me. Characters were changed for no reason (Francis suddenly has sisters in the movie, where in the book he has two brothers) and important themes, such as the racial under currents were not there. This combined with the animated scenes which didn’t work for me left watching the movie an unsatisfying experience.