(Editor’s note: This column contains spoilers for both the film and novel, chiefly because the ending of the film forms a major point of contention in the difference between both versions. Forewarned is, of course, forearmed.)
As I’ve mentioned previously in this publication, I share a love-hate relationship with the author Chuck Palahniuk. On one hand, I feel he is one of the most innovative and skilled writers currently producing content, with a truly immersive style and fatalism well-matched to his reader base. On the other, despite mastery of his style he doesn’t have much maneuverability, most of his novels featuring an apathetic young man with a crazy love interest and passive rebellion that gradually turns aggressive.
That said, I still hold “Fight Club” as a favorite book and film, and also one of the benchmarks for adaptations – so naturally there were questions when Palahniuk’s later novel “Choke” came to film. I consider “Choke” a weaker book than “Fight Club” but with its inspired moments, and in those terms the films do not differentiate. In comparing the film “Choke” to its source material, it fares much better, snaring most of what made the book enjoyable.
Plot-wise, there is little to no core deviation. Victor Mancini, failed medical student, sex addict exploiter and colonial reenactor, makes a living by pretending to choke in restaurants and collecting money paid by his saviors. With his mother dying in a nursing home, he is scrambling to keep her alive, until her new doctor proposes a treatment that will push the limits of his beliefs and morality. This story is unmolested on film, moving through chapters and only removing elements for repetitiveness.
Tonally the film “Choke” is much different from “Fight Club,” less of the latter’s brutal anarchy and more about apathy. Despite thematic similarities between the books it does not emulate its predecessor, going for more of a sitcom/real life feel. This turns out to be the right choice though, because the book’s tone was in the same area – Victor was never about beating a maître d’ into a bloody pulp, but about weaseling money and sex from people he faked a connection to.
Palahniuk’s writing has always been about bizarre vignettes and shock value, and the best of them make it into the “Choke” film. Victor and Denny wandering the neighborhood drinking warm beer from suburban slug traps to collect rocks, Victor’s mom inhaling drugs and setting animals free, Victor having anal beads trapped in their destination for a third of the text – all surprisingly survive. A particularly wonderful scene is transplanted where Victor, desperate to remain a bad person, answers a sex ad for a simulated rape, only to find his client a neat freak whose rules he breaks in a wonderfully explicit way.
About the only complaint here is the excision of the chorus element Palahinuk is expert in using, most famously “I am Jack’s [insert body part]” and the eight rules of fight club. “Choke” has two of these choruses: “See also:” and “[Insert term here] isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind,” and neither of them earns even one mention in the book.
This is a shame, particularly because Sam Rockwell would carry those lines quite well. Rockwell, a skilled actor who seems to find himself trapped in a series of average film adaptations (“Matchstick Men,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), is tailor-made to play the unlikable angst-ridden young men Palahniuk’s canon revolves around. His character is played closer to Jason Lee’s “My Name is Earl” than Edward Norton, but again for the tone of both book and film it works. Victor (and Rockwell’s portrayal) is a weasel, squirming at the advent of morality rather than warring against it.
The rest of the characters are more hit-or-miss. Kelly Macdonald as Paige Marshall competently delivers the right lines, but her hidden craziness comes across solely as a monotone lack of expression. Brad William Henke’s Denny is softer than the book version but matches the film’s sitcom-esque tone, while Angelica Huston carries Ida with an unexpectedly regal air.
Despite small differences I found myself warming to the film, only to have cold water dumped on me by the excision of the last few chapters. The book ends when, responding to a news report, every single person who saved Victor from choking descends on Denny’s rock garden to contribute, only to realize en masse the scam he pulled on them. The film, by contrast, ends on a watered-down monologue and reunion between he and Paige that also extracts one of the book’s best lines (Paige’s “I guess that means I’m insane”).
“Fight Club” proved that altering a book’s ending can work – Palahniuk himself is on record preferring the film’s to his own – but it does not work in “Choke,” serving as a weak attempt to provide a happy ending where the original would have still worked. It’s all the more frustrating because they show the news report, building anticipation and then forcing an undercooked one down our throat. It may be an alternate ending on the DVD, but I view it only as a cop-out.
Final adaptation score: 7 out of 10. It comes surprisingly close to the mood of the book and a majority of the original text makes it onto the screen, but the watered-down ending takes away any possibility of a gold star.