Last week I went and saw The Rum Diary, on opening night, of course. I buffered my low expectations with several sangrias at happy hour, a bottle of white wine on the Metro into the city, and a bagful of 24-ounce beer cans procured from a newly discovered Rite-Aid in Grand Central Terminal. I didn’t know what to expect, standing there in the check-out line in front of a drunken commuter who was shouting that they were out of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I figured it important to see the film in the city, as the core of the novel surrounds a writer who despises the city and in turn flees to a place he assumes would be a tropical paradise. I could see what Thompson was getting at, because in the few unsteady blocks between the station and the theater I saw a man almost run down by a bus, a rickshaw equipped with JBL speakers glide past 42nd street, and that horrible abortion of color that is Times Square. I got caught up conversing with a street preacher and almost missed the previews, but I just had to ask her if she thought New York was Sodom.
She thought it over for a second, then said, “Well, it’s a modern-day Sodom, yes,” as if that made the news any easier to take. I laughed and after a brief conversation about whether or not I had been drinking, I told her I had to go.
The theater had peacocks painted on its ceiling, which I hoped was a good sign, but as the lights faded out I became unsettled by distinct distaste in my mouth left by the trailer for the new Twilight film. That and I could not seem to get over the couple sitting next to me. They seemed more interested with opening soy sauce packets to put on the sushi they had smuggled into the theater than they were with the film itself.
I went in to that first viewing with low expectations, and what I came out with was a weird vibe that it was better than I expected. Yet underneath that veneer, I was left with an uneasy feeling.
At one point in Bruce Robinson’s adaptation, Johnny Depp/Paul Kemp quotes Oscar Wilde, saying of the developers stripping away the secluded beauty of Puerto Rico, “they know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” The oddest thing about Kemp’s choice words is that The Rum Diary is the perfect example of that ethos: there is inherent value in Thompson’s novel, but the price of getting it made in Hollywood seems to be that said value had to be stripped away.
The source material, written by a young Hunter Thompson aspiring to the lofty heights of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a semi-autobiographical tale about a fledgling novelist trying to find a foothold in a foreign world. The more he attempts to acclimate, the more he finds the old island world changing into something grotesque, perhaps a modern day Sodom.
Hollywood’s warped translation is more of a poor attempt at a prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than it is even a half-hearted attempt at a faithful adaptation. The first half struggles to stay somewhat close to the source material, but as the movie goes on, it strays into the craze of Thompson’s later work – Paul Kemp becomes Raoul Duke. By the end, it becomes nothing more than a cheap knock-off of Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, right down to the crazed point-of-no-return. FLLV starts its descent with ether. The Rum Diary has stolen filters from rum distillation that contain “more ethanol than rocket fuel… 470 proof (Even Kemp questions the validity of that assessment).” Vegas reaches its peak with adrenochrome, while Diary has a magic drug that one character warns, “All I can tell you is, this stuff is so powerful, they give it to communists… you take it like eye drops…it makes the eyes see things; you see a different reality.” It then delves into CGI lizard tongues and the usual craziness of Thompson’s Rolling Stone era. And because the film is set in 1960, Robinson even finds a way for Kemp to sneak in a jab at Raoul Duke’s future nemesis, Richard Nixon, then a Presidential candidate.
The conclusion of the film is also hastily scraped together. A rallying cry of “Let’s get the bastards” is followed by a frantic attempt to amass capital for a final edition of the paper. But alas, there is no victory for Kemp, whose glory is abruptly cut short by the removal of the newspaper’s printing presses. Yet in a vain attempt to connect the story back to Raoul Duke, as Kemp sails off into the sunset, a series of title cards assures the viewer that Kemp did indeed eventually get the bastards. It undercuts the final 15 minutes of the film, the main protagonist’s failure to succeed and the final shots of the film, where he departs into an uncertain world. It is reminiscent of the final showdown between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. Instead of leaving it open-ended for interpretation, a few sentences at the end ruin what might have been a salvageable ending.
After my first viewing of the film this was my definite conclusion – the movie was bad. It failed to live up to the book and any attempt to bridge the gap between Kemp and Duke was likewise a failure.
But at that point in the night, it was only 10 p.m., and I still had two tall-boys of Budweiser in my satchel. So I snuck into the 9:45 showing, arriving just late enough to avoid the painful noises of the Twilight trailer, but early enough to find a seat in a secluded handicapped seat at the front of the theater. No sushi this time around.
I enjoyed my second viewing of the night more than the first, because I had a better understanding of what it is – The Rum Diary is more Fear and Loathing in Puerto Rico ’60 than it is a faithful adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s first novel. Viewed from that lens, one of a young Raoul Duke rather than that of a stagnant Paul Kemp, the film is more enjoyable (shoddy ending aside).
I felt better the second time around, but as I snuck into the second half of the 11 p.m. showing, I was troubled by a nagging feeling.
The most agonizing thing about the film is that there are not only hints of the novel’s greatness, but at times it successfully bridges the gap between the young Thompson (Paul Kemp), and the old Thompson (Raoul Duke), hinting that it is not simply a schizophrenic tale swaying between one or the other, but that it is an evolution of one character into the other.
A nighttime conversation between Kemp and his editor all at once sums up the novel while suggesting that its undertones will help shape the future works of the journalist.
Kemp’s article about more money going to parking meters than feeding children is rebuffed by his withering editor who suggest, “ten years ago…five years ago I might have said go after it. Now I say go with it.” His placating attitude toward the desires of the wealthy interlopers who are developing the island for American tourists digs to the heart of the novel. From there the conversation seamlessly transitions into a back-and-forth about the nature of the American Dream, something that plays heavily in Thompson’s later work:
“Look at me Kemp. You’re not sleeping – you’re wide awake. And this is the American Dream.”
“So many hotels you can’t see the sea.”
“You can see the sea by checking into the hotels.”
“Pay to see the sea?”
“What’s the matter with that? You’re paying to be in the Dream. There’s a thin veneer, Kemp, between the dream and the reality. You wake them up, and the people might start asking for their money back.”
At its core, The Rum Diary fails because it doesn’t know which way to go, and by vacillating between the two, with only a tantalizing taste of what might have been, it fails on all fronts.
And yet Hollywood’s attempt at The Rum Diary is indicative of Hunter Thompson’s work as a whole. At the heart of the novel, as with much of Thompson’s work, is a vain struggle to find meaning in a world where the protagonist doesn’t fit. In his more popular works, this discontent with the world at large is conveyed through Raoul Duke’s abuse of drugs, and as a result, the underlying intent of the work is often lost or misread. It’s why so many people who try to write like Thompson fail, because the only thing they get out of Gonzo is the drugs and the balls-to-the-wall attitude while completely missing the point of it all. In that sense, The Rum Diary is Thompson’s most accessible work, because the message isn’t buried under layers of paranoid psychosis. Yes there is a copious amount of booze involved, but it is more an homage to the Lost Generation than it is a precursor to the age of Ken Kesey.
Bruce Robinson’s film, like so many writers who try to imitate Thompson’s style, completely misses the mark in picking up the craziness and not the message. As a result, the strands of the story fail to come together. Chenault has no real place in the film other than as a sex symbol, and when Kemp finally beds her, it seems more of a Hollywood-added love tryst than the symbolically all-too-late triumph for Kemp that it is in the novel. In the novel, Chenault provides a mirror to Kemp’s struggle to find a foothold in Puerto Rico; he sees her go from a stuck-up, Smith College/New York type to a tanned island goddess to finally an over-the-edge sex symbol.
Likewise, Kemp’s only triumph over Sanderson (aside from the assurances of the end titles), is that he steals his boat at the end. Sala’s character too loses his strength, going from the physical embodiment of what Kemp may become if he lingers in Puerto Rico too long to a mere partner-in-crime (and a cheap imitation of Benico Del Toro’s interpretation of Dr. Gonzo).
In many ways, the Chenault of the novel is closer to the later incarnations of the Raoul Duke persona than Johnny Depp’s vain second attempt. Chenault never realizes that she has reached the edge until she is already over it.
An even closer representation of Duke is Giovanni Ribisi’s brilliant portrayal of Moberg, all at once shunned by established journalists for his eccentricities and yet the author of the biggest stories, operating outside the realm of convention, cavorting with witch doctors and listening to old records of Adolf Hitler. His most hilarious diatribe sounds distinctly Duke:
“This country was built on genocide and slavery. We killed all the black guys that were here, and then we shipped in new black guys of our own, then we brought in Jesus like a bar of soap. You know it – I am the religious correspondent. Fuck off with your Jesus beliefs. If the Bible is God’s book, why didn’t he give it to everyone?”
At best, The Rum Diary is a second-rate precursor to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, but still ranks last among the Hollywood cannon of HST adaptations. At least Where the Buffalo Roam was intentionally made without a single work in mind. The end result in that film is that the mish-mash of storylines are oddly cohesive because the intent from the beginning is to be disjointed. With The Rum Diary, the original material gets lost in a poor attempt to duplicate Depp’s earlier success with a Thompson novel.
It makes me worry that the next attempt will be an adaptation of Hell’s Angels, another distinctly HST work that is vastly different than the later, drug-fueled essays of the outlaw journalist. Hollywood is full of vultures that won’t stop until the bones have been picked clean, and the success of Sons of Anarchy may very well outweigh Johnny Depp’s failure in The Rum Diary. Hollywood loves a winner, and two out of three ain’t bad.