Here’s why the new Friday Night Lights movie is absolutely necessary
You can only have two reactions to the news that Universal is working on a new film version of Friday Night Lights.
The first reaction — understandable but wrong — is confusion. More Friday Night Lights? Different Friday Night Lights? What’s left? Director Peter Berg adapted H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s nonfiction work into a lightly-fictionalized 2004 film, which was pretty good. And then Berg re-adapted Friday Night Lights into a TV show, which became — under the stewardship of showrunner Jason Katims — one of the great TV dramas of this century. Friday Night Lights lived on through most of this decade as a rumor, eternal horizontal reports of a reunion film. The new movie would not involve the TV cast, which is a bummer for many reasons — not least because it turns out Jesse Plemons is really really really good at killing people, so the prospect of a whole movie about Murder Landry suddenly feels like a not-bad idea. (A report in Variety describes the new film as a “reimagining.”)
The second reaction to this news — unlikely but accurate — is to say: How is it possible we haven’t had more versions of this franchise? Bissinger’s book is a resource only-just-barely tapped by several dozen hours of film and television. Originally released in 1990, the book looms larger every year as a defining American epic. The story of the 1988 Permian Panthers moves outwards from Odessa across Texas and the whole economic layout of the 1980s. Bissinger’s narrative becomes a complex cocktail of all America’s best pastimes: football, power, ruined glory, self-delusion, hope, despair.
You’ve read the book, right? It was a favorite in high schools back in the ’90s; it should be required reading for anyone with DNA. In Bissinger’s all-seeing eye, the football field encompasses big ideas that have only gotten bigger in the past 30 years. The book’s blunt depiction of racism is shocking, full of overt epithets, but also macro-historic, traced back across the 20th century and beyond. There’s a whole chapter about a campaign event by candidate George H. W. Bush, rendered by Bissinger as a “Bigger in Texas” version of the Mussolini scene from Amarcord. There’s a particular fascination with how football affects education, and a Kafkaesque (entirely true) narrative about how the State Championship came down to a math teacher who refused to lie about one player’s algebra test.
This is material the show could approach, but obliquely, sometimes reflecting a very network-TV notion of seriousness. There were always heroes on the television show — Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor was a pro-education goddess — but Bissinger’s book was more complex, much blunter in its depiction of the simmering tensions underpinning small town life. The de facto tone of the Friday Night Lights TV show was, like, hopeful melancholy. But there’s a yet-unmade version of Bissinger’s book that feels more like The Wire or The People v. OJ Simpson — cynical, hilarious, carnivalesque.
Is that what potential director David Gordon Green wants? His filmography points a hundred different directions: The outright satire of his work on Vice Principals, the Southern Gothic of Undertow, the biopic inspirationalism of Stronger.
Maybe some spark of this project comes from Bissinger’s careful, three-dimensional portraits of the star players. Derek Luke gave a fine performance in the 2004 film as “Boobie” Miles, the star fullback with a bright future derailed by injury. Miles’ presence was fictionalized in a couple different directions in the show: the idea of a star player suffering career-ending injury leads to Jason Street, while the particular plight of an African-American football star with a cool nickname inspired the struggles of Brian “Smash” Williams.
But there’s a version of Friday Night Lights that is only Miles’ story: the proverbial story of the exceptional black athlete left behind when he’s unable to perform. And the show and the movie could only barely scratch the surface of book protagonists Brian Chavez and Ivory Christian, the former a Harvard-bound overachiever, the latter a devoted religious guy who seems to struggle with how great he is at hitting people.
All of these men have had fascinating, sometimes disturbing lives since their high school football careers — explored by Bissinger in a new Afterword in the book’s 25th-anniversary edition, and material that also suggests a more ruminative angle on the Friday Night Lights story.
Of course, a lot has changed since the book was published, and since the show went off the air. Football is, on a national scale, one of the last cosmic brands in a dissolving media industry — and it is an endless source of controversy, the blast site for Trumpian political standoffs. On the Friday Night Lights series, coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) liked to offer up football as a force for good, an act of communal teamwork where young men could ascend into something like a state of grace.
In 2018, it’s becoming more common to discuss high school football as an existential health risk, and dropping participation in the CTE age suggests the NFL’s media dominance is a generational ticking clock. I’m not saying a Friday Night Lights reboot needs to address the head-injury epidemic — but it seems insane to make a football movie in the late 2010s that doesn’t. (Even if the new FNL is a direct adaptation of the ’80s-set book, it would feel odd to ignore the fact of concussions.)
Does this have to matter for a new Friday Night Lights movie? Can’t it just be about football? Have you been paying attention? In the vision of Bissinger and his adapters, nothing is just about football. It’s a cinematic universe with endless possibility — because, after all, it’s the universe we live in.