Books and films: The Rum Diary, decoded
In this column, we highlight films that have directly or indirectly inspired the most cherished and popular movies in contemporary cinema. We will discuss the antecedents of a popular movie in reverse chronological order, working backwards through film history. This week we’ll do the latest adaptation of a Hunter S. Thompson novel, The Rum Diary.
The Rum Diary, directed by Bruce Robinson and starring the uncanny Hunter S. Thompson stand-in Johnny Depp, failed to bring the unique qualities of the book to the silver screen. It’s one of those novels that lives in its prose, like The Great Gatsby. While The Rum Diary fell short as a film, we’d like to recommend those adaptations that made a fruitful transformation into the cinema. The following recommendations are at once films worth watching and novels worth reading. The titles listed below are formatted as such: Title (date of book, date of movie).
Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988, 2008) / Wonder Boys (1995, 2000)
We’re breaking our own rule for these recommendations right off the bat. Mysteries of Pittsburgh, originally written by Michael Chabon, is one of the most egregious and insulting adaptations of a novel ever made. The producers streamlined a wonderfully complex and rich plot into a hackneyed love triangle film. The book, though, is a magnificent read for any 20-something. It chronicles the misadventures of a kid in his first post-grad summer as he contends with his perceptions of love and friendship.
Wonder Boys, also originally penned by Michael Chabon, is both an excellent film and novel. The film boasts superb performances from Michael Douglas as a struggling writer, Frances McDormand as his married lover, Robert Downey Jr. as his sex-crazed editor and Tobey Maguire as his suicide-obsessed protégé.
Sin City (1991, 2005)
Graphic novels have had varied success in their transition to the big screen. V for Vendetta, 300 and Watchmen have all made the big jump. V for Vendetta and 300 received praise for their adaptations, while Watchmen was almost universally panned. The author of V for Vendetta and 300 just so happens to be the author of Sin City. As a comic, or graphic novel, its aesthetic is a blend of Steve Miller’s and film noir, so its jump to the screen seems sort of natural. The film manages to enliven the pacing of the comic, but for those who appreciate the images for their composition, spending time with the print version is well worth it.
Total Recall (1966, 1990)
Phillip K. Dick, author of We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (called Total Recall for the film), has had many of his science-fiction novels made into films (Bladerunner, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report, to name a few). His stories are ripe for adaptation because their narratives are rooted in conceptual play. So, the film adaptations are less hindered by bringing certain characters to a new medium.
Total Recall is a fascinating film about a future in which memories can be implanted into a person’s mind. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a boneheaded protagonist who purchases the memory of a vacation to Mars, in which he becomes entangled in a secret agent operation. While the memory is being implanted, the memory machine goes haywire, and it is at first suggested that the memory doesn’t take. Yet, when Arnold is suddenly attacked by some government operatives and then chased to Mars, false memory and reality begin to mix.
Being There (1971, 1979)
This was Peter Sellers’ last movie and was directed by Hal Ashby (the screwball behind Harold and Maude). It chronicles the aimless adventures of Chauncey Gardener, an indentured gardener who’s been cooped up in a stuffy cottage his entire life until his employer passes away and he is set free. The movie and the book portray him as a blank slate let loose upon the world. People mistake him for a political visionary, a seductive lover and a consummate gentleman. All and all, both the novel and film successfully lampoon the airs of upper-class America.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934, 1981)
As a novel, James Cain’s sparing prose left the narrative’s seduction and deception to the reader’s naughty imagination in the story of two fiery lovers held back by a bothersome, but wholly good, husband. You can guess the evil plots the lovers concoct. It’s a detective story that begins without a detective, pure film noir, but in print. On screen, the characters were made all the more seductive and malicious through outstanding performances from Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange.