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The Big Year: A Birder’s View

By Mel White

Word got out months ago that a movie was in the works based on the book The Big Year, which recounts the true exploits of three birdwatchers competing to find the highest number of species in North America in a single calendar year. This wasn’t some made-for-TV cheapie destined for an obscure cable channel either: Owen Wilson, Steve Martin, and Jack Black had signed to star, and the director would be David Frankel, who had helmed (as the trade papers say) The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me.

It was exciting news for us binocular-toters, of course, but there was an element of uneasiness in the messages on blogs and Facebook, to wit: Are those fancy-schmancy Hollywood types going to make fun of us again?

People of a certain age may remember Miss Jane Hathaway, a character on the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies. She was a walking, talking cliché: a skinny, priggish spinster who existed just to kill everyone’s joy; in case her homely haircut was too subtle for you, the producers made her a birdwatcher, too. Then there was the obscure 1969 movie The Love God? starring Don Knotts, who made a career of playing wimpy nerds. His character’s rise to become America’s leading sex symbol was supposed to be even more hilariously unlikely because he was in fact a virgin birdwatcher.

So, even as anticipation grew for The Big Year, many fretted, “But will it be good for birdwatching?” You have to wonder: Did bowlers worry that The Big Lebowski would portray them as foul-mouthed, pot-bellied, beer-swilling layabouts? Are birders’ egos that much more sensitive? Isn’t a better question about any movie, “But will it be any good?”

Because I was out of the country when The Big Year opened, I walked into the theater having managed not to read a single review. I walked out shrugging my shoulders. And I had plenty of room to do it, too, because my wife and I were the only ones in the theater for a Wednesday matinee.

There’s nothing embarrassing to birders in The Big Year, but it’s an unsatisfying compromise of a movie. The things that make birding such an addictive sport aren’t really elucidated, and wouldn’t make a compelling dramatic narrative anyway. The personal conflicts added to try to hold nonbirders’ attention (most of which weren’t in the book) don’t rise above the soap-opera level. If it’s supposed to be a comedy, all I can say is that I slightly chuckled twice, and one of those times was when I read the closing credit for “Hair stylist to Mr. Black.” The scenery, though, is very pretty.

The movie gets some things right about birding: the anticipation of discovery, the camaraderie, the tedious driving from one site to another, the famous locations from the city dump at Brownsville, Texas, to Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog. (A shot of a vehicle floorboard covered in McDonald’s wrappers would have been nice.) It also makes many laughable (to birders) errors, most especially the CGI simulation of the migration “fallout” at High Island, Texas. This is a real, and exciting, phenomenon, but the movie scene belongs in an aviary, not in the natural world. In The Big Year, the “world’s greatest birder” can’t find a snowy owl to save his life; it’s more likely that a Chicagoan wouldn’t be able to find a good pizza joint.

Birding has brought me some of the greatest thrills of my life—you’d understand if you’d been with me when an ornate hawk-eagle landed nearby while I stood on a ruined Mayan temple in Belize. But then again, so has reading great books, and I’m pretty sure neither pursuit alone would make a good movie. The screenwriter realized that—hence the baby-making drama, the big-money wheeling and dealing, the father-son conflict, the threatened adultery, the divorce.

You may ask, at this point, why I’m not criticizing The Big Year for the biggest Hollywood cliché of them all: the tacked-on, feel-good romantic ending, with the nerdy birder meeting the beautiful girl and finding true love.

Good point, but there’d be one awkward thing about that. I met my wife on a birdwatching trip.

–Author Mel White is a longtime contributor to National Geographic. He’s written about many bird-related topics, including ivory-billed woodpeckers, the World Series of Birding, and the seasons of a birder’s life.