Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Rum Diary Trailer

September 3, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that a couple of years back, I wrote a review of the Hunter S. Thompson novel “The Rum Diary,” a novel originally started by the famed gonzo journalist in 1959 and published almost 40 years later. At the time I showered it with a great deal of praise, comparing it favorably to early Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and it’s aged quite well over time. It paints a vivid portrait of the city of San Juan, is full of stories of drinking and journalism (the latter almost always affected by the former) and generally sits on all of my reading pleasure zones.

My enjoyment of the book has been tempered somewhat in recent years however, by the fact that a film adaptation has been lingering in development hell since before Thompson’s death – at one point becoming so gnarled that the Doctor himself termed the project a “waterhead fuckaround.” Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett all were signed at various points, but dropped off as the film went through multiple rewrites and two producers. Over time, this film has taken on the reputation of a Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana to me, the project that seemed to have promise but lingered so long that all anticipation had long since atrophied to a stub capable of feeling only echoes of its previous joy.

The last time it came up in the news – around the same time as another Hunter S. Thompson project, the feature article “Prisoner of Denver,” had been optioned as a film – it came up the film was supposed to come out in September of 2010. That obviously did not happen, but I wasn’t expecting it to given the years of disappointment. At the time, I said something along the lines of: “I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.”

Well? They’ve finally shown me a trailer:

So let’s talk more. Leaving aside the fact that there’s still no date given for release beyond the vague promise of “this year,” I’d say that the trailer hasn’t restored my anticipation completely but it does make me feel much better about the finished product. The atmosphere of the trailer captures the vibrancy of San Juan life which made the book such a vivid read, and also presents the right scenes: news rooms, carnival, ratty apartments, parties with big money. There’s a few more hallucinatory aspects (likely to appeal to the Fear and Loathing audience) than expected, but that can’t be faulted as “The Rum Diary” novel was full of moments of borderline madness via late-night rum binges.

Cast-wise, I can’t find too much to dock it for at first glance, mostly because in all its versions the film has retained Johnny Depp playing the Thompson doppelganger Paul Kemp. Between the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film and readings in the Gonzo documentary, Depp has a grasp of Thompson’s voice honed through a long-time friendship, and there’s no other man* I trust to play the Doctor or his alter egos. On the topic of extras, Amber Heard (soon to appear on NBC as the female lead of The Playboy Club) certainly seems to have the sultriness and raw appeal that Chenault exuded in the novel, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli have the degenerate scruffiness of Moberg and Salas respectively and the always dependable Aaron Eckhardt looks the part of consummate fixer Sanderson.

*Apologies to Bill Murray, but Where the Buffalo Roam has not aged well at all.

It’s story-wise that I have some concerns though, as the tone of the trailer appears to be going for something more overtly adventurous than the source material. It seems to have an almost caper-like atmosphere, putting Kemp and the San Juan Star staff in a position to bring down the real estate deals of Sanderson and his cronies, rather than the sense of pending disaster and near-existential crisis the book centered around. And of course, the omission of Dr. Gonzo-esque Fritz Yeamon is a decision whose impact is impossible to predict – reportedly he wasn’t in Thompson’s original draft of the book, but he was such a vibrant, destructive force in the finished product that absence will color everything.

But of course, you cannot judge the film based on the snippets of the trailer, so I’ll say in summary that it makes the film look very entertaining with at least some grasp on the source material, and I’m certainly going to be first in line to see this when it eventually premieres. And as to that premiere, I’ll quote the Doctor’s own words as to its continual delay: “If you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

More on this story once we get an actual release date.

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Text-to-Screen News: HST Returns to Cinema

May 6, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson at a "Free Lisl" rally in Denver, 2001.

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with me knows, I love Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read the great majority of his books, I’ve dressed as him on three Halloweens, I can quote him at will, have a font of trivia at my disposal and do more than a passing impression. The reasons why I love the Good Doctor are long and detailed and far more impassioned than that I simply like yelling about golf shoes in hotel bars, but will have to wait for another time. I mention this now because an interesting bit of Thompson-related news came out on Sunday, and I feel it’s important to cast light on potential bias before discussion.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted on Sunday and which I heard about through The A.V. Club, the Motion Picture Corporation of America has optioned “Prisoner of Denver,” an article Thompson wrote for Vanity Fair in 2004 in collaboration with contributing editor Mark Seal. The article concerns the imprisonment of Lisl Auman, a 21-year-old who was charged with murder despite already being in police custody when the crime occurred – an accomplice who committed suicide did the actual shooting. Thompson became pen pals with Auman and took up the fight for her freedom, rallying several of his celebrity friends to the cause to help earn her release in 2005.

“It is not in my nature to be polite to people who want to hurt me, or to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped right in front of my eyes, especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in the concrete bowels of a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole. That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of those swine. The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon.”
– “Prisoner of Denver,” Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, 2004

I have not read “Prisoner of Denver” myself as it has yet to make it into a Thompson compilation, and a cursory search couldn’t yield a link on Vanity Fair‘s website or any other site (though the first few paragraphs can be read here), so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s an article that deserves filming. What I will say though is that it opens up room to portray an aspect of Thompson many people overlook. Despite making a career chronicling “the death of the American Dream,” Thompson loved America fiercely, and in his later years perceived violations of her principles sent his fighting spirit into overdrive. “Songs of the Doomed” depicts an excellent example of this, chronicling Thompson’s arrest for sexual assault and drug possession which he soon turned into an assault on his Fourth Amendment rights.

As Ralph Steadman put it, “he felt this deep outrage, because someone was fucking with his beloved Constitution,” and that’s an attitude I think would be good to see on screen to clear up the image of drugs and hyperbole that too often colors Thompson’s public image. Plus, the Doctor as aged patriot might make a great excuse for Bill Murray to step back into the role.

That said, I’m not approaching the release with wide eyes. I think The A.V. Club makes a legitimate point about how it has the potential to be somewhat mawkish, considering Thompson has been dead for five years now and not around to make sure the swine keep him in the right light. Plus, according to the Hollywood Reporter, MPCA are looking for screenwriters “with a focus on Thompson and Seal acting as a couple of gonzo Woodward and Bernsteins,” and that phrase just makes the bile rise in my stomach. Few things do more damage to the Doctor’s reputation than shoddy imitators.

Of course, given that the film adaptation of “The Rum Diary” languished in development hell for a decade and Thompson’s third collection of letters “The Mutineer” delays its release date more than its author did turning in articles, I don’t expect to hear too much out of this project for at least a year or two. A close eye will of course be maintained on proceedings, to see if the eventual ride is worth the ticket price.

(As an aside, the article also states that the long-delayed “Rum Diary” film will be seeing release in September, a fact confirmed by IMDB and Wikipedia. I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.)


Back Shelf Review: The Rum Diary

January 4, 2009

The Rum Diary: A Novel

rum-diarypbkBy Hunter S. Thompson

Published November 2, 1998

Simon and Schuster

224 pp.

ISBN 0-684-85647-6

Reviewed January 4, 2009

Originally reviewed at: Helium

Since acclaimed journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, there have been two schools of thought on his legacy. The most prevalent one is the “Uncle Duke” viewpoint of free-wheeling brilliant lunatic, dispensing acidic barbs while snorting cocaine and pausing occasionally to fire a shotgun into the darkness. This view is supported heavily by Thompson’s own “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and never-ending stories from his friends and editors, collected in the recent “Gonzo” book and documentary.

The other viewpoint, fiercely defended by his wife Anita in “The Gonzo Way,” is that Thompson was a writer in the purest sense of the word, a man who chose every word carefully and did so with the fervent belief that he could find truth and understanding in them. To find proof of this, one need look no further than “The Rum Diary,” the novel he began when he was 22 and which was finally published 40 years later. It’s an outlier from his journalistic body of work, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s conceivably his best book after “Vegas.”

“The Rum Diary” tells the story of Paul Kemp, a journalist who heads to San Juan to take a job at the San Juan Daily News, a dying paper being put out by an eclectic group of drunkards and drifters. Kemp, who is coming to a realization of how long he’s been part of that group, finds himself pulled along in their binges and paycheck disputes, trying to find contentment and a sense of connection in a city that cannot figure out how to clean itself up.

Thompson’s early letters, reprinted in the fantastic collections “Fear and Loathing in America” and “The Proud Highway,” show that he approached this novel in much the same way most authors approach their first novels – their ticket to wealth and a place alongside literary icons. Emulation is clearly present here, with Kemp regularly engaging in introspections that match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrically discursive characters. On the other side, several sentences clearly attempt Ernest Hemingway’s gift for grand meaning in a dozen words or less.

However, Fitzgerald would have never called a cocktail party “a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities,” and Hemingway’s streamlined approach would founder in the decadent depravity of a St. Thomas carnival. “The Rum Diary” could never be called derivative, as Thompson’s voice – anarchic, observant and holding an angry sense of humor – is clear in every page. It’s almost purer in a way, free of the hallucinatory rambling that distinguishes his later work but still unafraid to call the swine by name.

Kemp’s reflections are helped along by the group of people he is surrounded with, who could be called eclectic if you wanted to be nice and degenerates if you wanted to be honest. Sanderson, a PR man whose constant wheeling and dealing hide a mask-like persona on par with Jay Gatsby; Sala, the staff photographer and Kemp’s drinking partner who sees himself at war with everyone else; and Yeamon, a prototype of “Vegas’s” Dr. Gonzo, ostensibly good-natured but with a mean spirit at the end of an evening. It’s an excellent cast of journalists, and Thompson fills them with that profession’s typical tension and drunkenness.

And like any good journalist, Thompson puts his thought to trying to understand them and their world. When not focusing on the excellent dialogue, the majority of “The Rum Diary” is given over to Fitzgerald-inspired musings on romance, living with “vagrant addresses” and just how long any one place’s peace can last. Even in the book’s weakest scenes, where Kemp is called to write articles promoting an upcoming resort, have odd and quiet thoughts on selling out.

It’s an elegiac tone in many respects, as Kemp – barely past 30 – looks back on his short life and marvels how quickly he became tired of it: “But it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got rid of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.”

The final product is certainly not pure 1959 Thompson – years of letters speak of constant revision, and William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” reports he stole the manuscript from his publisher for a final edit – but the fact that a young writer conceived of such a book and turned it into what it is speaks worlds of his talent. Anyone who reads this book for gonzo will not find that (at least to Thompson’s typical extremes), but if they continue they will find “The Rum Diary” deserves to be called literature.