After the critical acclaim of my blogging debut I have returned. As very little has occurred in my day and as Kartia feels that my earlier post read a little too much like a personal journal, which in case you are wondering, is problematic; I have decided to adopt a theme. Kartia recommends that it comments on whatever I am reading, or more simply the books that are in my life. This is a great weight off my chest as most of the books that enter my life never get read. Its not that I don’t want to read them, its just that there’s so much time and I can probably do it tomorrow.
Nonetheless, the acceptance of such a theme will not limit the scope of coverage that I will write about. So, always the rebel, I have chosen begin my lack of adherence to the theme by writing about a film. The film is Wonder Boys (2000) with a star studded cast that includes Michael Douglas, Toby Maquire, Robert Downey jr. and that lady from Fargo with an accent that I can only describe as very annoying. However, to me the most important part is is that it is based upon a novel by Michael Chabon which bears the same name.
God I love Chabon, so much so that yesterday, when the barista-next-door asked me who my favourite author was, I produced his name and proceeded to read aloud from the Wikipedia article on him. This gave me immense nachas (for the goyim out there that is a Jewish form of joy that can only be achieved through the success of your children, preferably when they become doctors and lawyers). He is described as one of the “most celebrated writers of his generation” and his writing as “characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity”. So I guess there is no surprise that I like him, mostly I feel he is writing solely for a reader like me and that anybody lacking in my particular experiences would not understand him.
Despite this, I still got a surprise when I saw an entire chapter on Wikipedia about his lack of success in Hollywood. It seems that he has pitched a fair bit of writing for comic book movies such as X-men and the Fantastic Four as well as partial credits for Spider Man 2. His attempts at having his original work published has also been knocked back for one reason or another and then one screenplay that was eventually made into a film, was a critical acclaim but a commercial failure. With this in mind I committed myself to watch and review Wonder Boys and decide for myself how the masses could have forsaken such a man. For those of you who may wish to read the novel or watch the film I should include a spoiler alert and advise you not to read any further as well as a statement that I do not really intend to comment much on the acting or actors for while they act wonderfully, to me they are only peripheral to the screenplay and plot.
In Wonder Boys, Chabon’s main character and narrator is an professor of writing, plagued by vice, a broken marriage and an unfinished mammoth of a second novel that would put Herman Melville to shame. For me that sort of comparison is not a positive one, as I found reading Moby Dick was torturous at best, but as I am not reviewing his writing we won’t delve into that subject. The movie begins with a sort of stream of consciousness narration in which he is reading the work of a talented and eccentric student of his to an unimpressed class. The story progresses and the two become entangled in a series of crises, which includes the shooting of his lover’s husband’s dog and the revelation that she is pregnant with his unborn child.The pair are drawn to each other in a charming play on the popular trope of a relationship between the old veteran and promising novice and meanwhile try to resolve their respective misfortunes, or at the very least run away from them.
As a writer, it seems that Chabon is one who writes for a distinct literary class, much like Marcel Duchamp produced art for a similar artistic class. However, it pains me to say that I do not feel like the medium of a feature film allows for the same degree of artistic expressionism as Duchamp’s Fountain or the written word. That is not to say that it cannot contain depth, allegory or a meaningful message but that as a form, the success of the screenplay for feature film is governed by the plot and more specifically a simplicity of plot. It is the plot of the story which I find problematic, to me there is possibly too much, at least for a film. If I was to compare it to other anything else I would say it is a mix up of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the Dead Poets Society and the Breakfast Club with a little romance mixed in. There is the romance, dark comedy, and the dramatic interplay of jaded master and soaring apprentice. They each learn so much about each other which until then had been too entangled in lies and deceit for themselves to even realise and it all culminates in an all too cliche ending, where the two of them both publish their respective books and the guy gets the girl (and the other guy gets the guy, or something like that) but not without retracting their confidence-shattering statements about how shit they thought the other was.
Then there is the way it was told. It was a narration, which I must say is almost always the only way in which I can ever conceive a novel becoming a film. As Michael Douglas says in the film, “being a writer is about finding your own voice and following it”. Chabon has his voice and I love it, and it would seem that everybody else does too, maybe thats why it was so difficult to cut it out. To me the narrator in a novel turned film is a little bit stale, it is the sign of the inability to allow the film to show rather than tell it’s story and emerge as a truly separate text with the ability to shine on its own. By cutting out such a feature it would radically alter the audiences experience of the story and its characters, but this is a bold step that I feel writers and filmmakers need to take (while readers are often disappointed about it they need to accept this too!) but frequently do not. There is a necessity to embrace the difference that the change in medium forces upon them, and this is one that I feel Wonder Boys fails to do.
So I am sorry, Mr Chabon, while I will continue to hold your novels in very high regard, I was not as enthralled by the film adaptation. It may seem like I’m being a bit harsh (especially since I am no expert on writing screenplays, novels or creating films) and so I should say that it was ‘not bad’ as a film and I would have certainly enjoyed it more as a novel. It’s setting in a literary environment was refreshing and certainly had me personally more interested than a more conventional veteran spec-ops commander and his sniper recruit, but I am not entirely surprised that it did not break the bank with mainstream audiences. Maybe it was the director, I can only hope that it was as I certainly don’t think it was the actors and I know and believe that your writing skills can produce an amazing film. But until then, I think I will take the safe bet and read the novels first.
P.S. Michael Chabon recently made an appearance by publishing his commentary on Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged record ‘Blacker the Berry’ on the website Genius. It just goes to show how broad and hip the guy is.
P.P.S. While I took to bashing the film adaptation of Wonder Boys I cannot more highly recommend his novel ‘The Yiddish Policemen Union’ which I often force upon friends until they learn to love him. Also, I really wanted to use the word debonair in this article, mainly because it really evokes the casual style and eloquence of his work, but I was too busy being all grumpy and then subsequently lazy I have failed to incorporate it in the blog but substitute it in somewhere or at the very least acknowledge that the word is both wonderful and in my vocabulary.