Yes folks, the rumors are true: there's a Magnum, P. I. film in the works.
As a Magnum fan, I must join the throngs of all fans who have ever heard rumors of a favorite work being adapted, and denounce the project, sight-unseen, for failing to retain the spirit of the original.
The original Magnum is a Vietnam veteran in his thirties. But since most Vietnam vets haven't seen their thirties since the 1980s, I'm guessing the filmmakers will drop this detail about his war experience and update him to the present day. The trouble is that his status as a Vietnam vet IS NOT A DETAIL! IT IS THE ESSENCE OF HIS CHARACTER!
Join me as I explore that fact, in a delicious place I like to call The Sick, Sad World of Thomas Magnum.
Consider Thomas Magnum, former Naval officer and handsome private investigator. After fighting in the Vietnam War, he becomes disillusioned with his military career, and starts his own PI business in scenic Hawaii. Lacking a car and a home, he offers his services as a security manager in exchange for an apartment on the estate of an absent novelist, Robin Masters. Along with the deal comes the use of Masters's red Ferrari, and a fussy housekeeper named Higgins. Magnum spends most of his time bickering with Higgins, solving crimes for attractive women, and cadging favors from his best friends, Rick and TC. The stage is set for trouble and fun.
But amid all this freewheeling action is a somber mood of regret. Magnum is scarred by his wartime experiences. He reminisces often about the horrors of war, and the soul-shaking sights he witnessed in 'Nam. On another series, these nods to a character's backstory might seem cliched and routine -- a facile attempt to inject depth without consequence into stories about cars and bikinis. Not so, here. Every fiber of Magnum's world bears the smell of his festering mind-wound.
Note these symptoms of his shutdown, signs that his emotional development was arrested in 'Nam:
*Like an adolescent, Magnum owns neither house nor vehicle, but must borrow both from his absent father-figure, Robin Masters (the surname is no coincidence), and his nagging mother-figure, Higgins, who may revoke his driving privileges and ban his friends from the estate at will. He's frequently scolded and grounded by Higgins, causing him to plead and whine and finagle like a groveling teen.
*Magnum can't maintain a committed relationship with a woman. While most men his age are married and fathering children, all of Magnum's romances are brief.
*After the war, Magnum never quite makes it back to the mainland. He remains trapped in geographical limbo, literally and figuratively halfway between Vietnam and America -- a prodigal who can never go home. His new home, with its tropical climate and Asian populace, has more in common with the jungles where his boyhood ended than with where it began.
*He left the military to escape the burdens of war, but remains in a career which requires him to carry a gun. So again, he's in limbo: unwilling to accept the duties of military service, but unable to completely distance himself from his role as a soldier.
*His only close friends are also veterans. Rick and TC fought beside him in 'Nam, and Higgins can't shut up about his own service in World War II. Founded on memories of war, their group is closed to outsiders.
*His friends are themselves caught in the orbit of their war experiences. None of them can maintain a healthy relationship with a woman, let alone start a family. None of them return to their respective homelands, but remain in a tropical Neverland which resembles the lands where they fought. Each continues to go by the name he was likely known by in wartime -- Rick and TC by their boyish diminutives, Higgins by his surname. Each continues to bear arms and chase bad guys with Magnum at every opportunity. TC continues to fly a chopper, Higgins keeps killer dobermans, and in one episode, Rick chases a man out of a fancy resort and guns him down in the street with an Uzi. Despite their civilian exteriors, these men are still at war.
*Magnum's job as a detective requires him to seek answers about crimes. That his searches often provoke ugly memories of 'Nam suggests that the crimes he really seeks answers to are in his own past. He's a Peter Pan who can't return home until he finds and reconciles with his shadow, his darker self.
*When Magnum is finally gunned down by a crook in the 7th season finale, memories play through his mind alongside John Denver's "Looking For Space." The song's lyrics codify the underlying premise of the series: "I'm looking for space, and to find out who I am, and I'm looking to know and understand... All alone in the universe, sometimes that's how it seems; I get lost in the sadness and the screams. Then I look in the center -- suddenly everything's clear: I find myself in the sunshine and my dreams." In Magnum's case, the clear "center" is seen only in his coming demise.
These elements form a tragic backdrop to the show's more frivolous preoccupations. We may see Magnum's Ferrari roaring past palm trees, a beautiful girl washing sand from her arms in the surf, or TC's colorful helicopter soaring over the hills... but behind it all is a story of men ruined by war.
And their story was the story of America at large. As one critic notes: "By identifying personal narratives of memory with social historical narratives, the series links its characters' efforts to resolve past and present with society's similar efforts." Says another: "On one level, Magnum became the personification of an American society that had yet to deal effectively with the fallout from the Vietnam War." Magnum, the shell-shocked man-child, is 1980s America retreating from 'Nam into the pursuit of fast cars, fast women, and fast times. He mirrored our trouble, in a way that less-romantic shows like M.A.S.H. and All In The Family could not: by being the seamy fantasy in which we tried to hide ourselves, and letting us glimpse our horror through the seams. Far from the didactic scoldings of a Hawkeye or Meathead, Magnum's dire thoughts intrude like whispers into his dreamy existence. His life is a poem about our own sideways glances at pain.
None of this sinister beauty will survive in a film about a present-day Thomas Magnum. Even if he's cast as an Iraq War veteran, the lush Hawaiian setting will seem an escape from his past, not the halfway house it was in the series. Magnum, P.I. isn't about escape. The only suitable Magnum has one foot trapped in a lost war, the other in a paradise that's more facsimile than anodyne.
"And that, as they say, is the hell of it."