It’s hard to believe that when speaking to several fans of the beloved NBC TV show “Friday Night Lights,” they didn’t know the show is based on a book published 25 years ago.
Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Penned by Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who decides to spend a year in Texas to understand the beauty and darkness that lay beneath the Friday night lights, the book became a huge bestseller and later spawned a movie of the same name and the TV show. That book had such stunning success for good reason.
First of all, Bissinger has a beautiful way of writing; his description, attention to detail and tone bring the reader to the football fields and locker rooms with him. His prose is moving and powerful, yet understated. Seriously, it’s rare that I pay that much attention to an author’s writing, but Bissinger made me take notice.
What’s amazing is the depth with which he details not only the games played each Friday night, but also the backstories of the six players on whom he decides to focus the book and the history of the city of Odessa itself — one of financial crisis, racism, socioeconomic gaps and crime. In this way, the book includes many things the movie and TV show never get the opportunity to touch. In this day and age when the gap between the rich and poor and between black, white and Hispanic seem to be widening, those details would have been a revelation to see onscreen.
But then again, the movie is now 12 years old and the show 10 years old. Unlike the television series, the movie follows the book exactly, specifically following that 1988 season of the Permian Panthers including Boobie Miles’s injury-sparked downfall and Chris Comer’s rise to the occasion. The TV show takes the premise and many elements from the book and dramatizes it into its own separate — and still mesmerizing — story.
However, Boobie’s story is far more devastating in real life and in the book than in the movie. Where, as the book details, Boobie heart-wrenchingly hurts his knee in a meaningless pre-season scrimmage, the movie has it happen in the first big game of the season, which is a) more dramatic but also b) less ironically shocking and sad. And where, as the book details, Boobie quits the team and is forgotten about, never to speak with most of his former teammates again, the movie finds him standing on the sidelines during the state championship game, cheering for his boys. I get it; the movie producers wanted the movie to have a happy ending. But part of what makes Friday Night Lights (the book) so good is its depressingly real demonstration that things don’t always work out the way you want them to, even if you are a star athlete in high school; sadly, dreams don’t always come true.
It’s safe to say that if you liked the movie or TV show, you will like the book and maybe even appreciate the onscreen adaptations more, knowing the real story. (I also highly recommend reading the 25th anniversary edition, which came out earlier this year. It details a 2015 update on each of the six players Bissinger details in the original edition.)