Fear and Loathing in Adaptation: A Film Review of 2011's "The Rum Diary"

       Last month, the tabloid that is the Edmonton Sun newspaper ran an article by local radio morning show personality Yukon Jack, denouncing Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit to the Alberta’s oil sands which was for, like a number of celebrities before him, environmental awareness:

       “James Cameron needs to stick to making movies about sinking ships and liquid metal cyborgs and leave the tailings ponds to us. Hey hey, my my...maybe Neil Young should shut his stupid face. . . . It would be easy to dismiss celebrities and their harsh criticisms of our bread and butter as most of Hollywood does indeed have their heads up their asses . . . [but] it hurts when someone you like takes a shot at you or your home. T2 and Aliens were awesome. Neil Young has written some of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the history of rock. And Leo DiCaprio was so good in the Wolf of Wall Street he made me want to start doing hard drugs"(i).

       I’ve written before about how a film’s message can be easily misinterpreted, using The Wolf of Wall Street as an example of a film that inspired a generation of frat boys to dream of Quaalude highs rather than contemplate the merits of personal gain at the loss of others’. But what do you expect? If, by the end of the film, you’re too busy trying to remember Jonah Hill quotes that lose their luster out of context (“If anyone’s gonna fuck my cousin it’s gonna be me, out of respect”) or Googling the chick who played Leo's supermodel wife (Margot Robbie), you probably won’t be viewing the film’s last scene as an intentional mirroring of you, the viewer – sitting in a theatre, more focused on Leo’s pen and the lifestyle it represents than any deeper theme.

       I can think of no other artist whose legacy has been warped by interpretations that place too much emphasis on drugs, than Hunter S. Thompson’s. But for a number of reasons, I'm hesitant to write about him. First, since his character is defined by the lack of objectivity, it invites neither criticism nor adoration: “Even when we have ostensibly outside sources, the truth around Thompson seems to warp like light distorted in space around an object with immense gravitational pull”(ii). Secondly, because his writing style reads powerfully and uniquely enough even today, there is an innate temptation that needs to be suppressed, for fear of the sheer tackiness that defines those film reviews of 2011’s The Rum Diary that are written as a first hand accounts of a mickey-and-a-movie night with one’s attorney and the wild and crazy shenanigans that ensued. Some try so hard to imitate his Gonzo prose that they’re blatantly insulting: “Now, six years after he sucked the metallic popsicle at his Colorado ranch, that ‘very strange movie’ has been filmed . . ."(iii).

       Actually it wasn’t until three years after it’s initial release that the film adaptation of The Rum Diary spurred my interest in the famed counter-culture writer of the 20th century and whatever he is remembered as today. When I first saw the film in theatres three years ago, like most others, I disliked it. The marketing campaign had created expectations of a spiritual prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and so burnouts and whoo-boys alike lined up for a nonsensical, drug-induced

 romp – what we got was an aimlessly drawn out story with one hallucinogenic drug scene, seemingly shoed in to satisfy the targeted demographic who by then had all walked out, turned off by the lack of narcotics and the kind of overtly strong political themes that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. For us, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remained the definitive Hunter S. Thompson film.
        But therein lies the problem: those were our expectations, and they ran very counter to what the film is about, and what Hunter S. Thompson himself was about. Providing sick and twisted stories for people to love because of their ambiguity was never Thompson’s intention: “I want to be careful of this. In the past two weeks I’ve received two different books that used ‘selections’ from ‘Hell’s Angels,’ and in both cases I was shocked at what happens to my stuff when its printed out of context. All it takes is a few cuts on the Humor to make the rest seem like the ravings of a dangerous lunatic “(iv).
Facetious though he may have been, Thompson’s larger-than-life tales of drug trips are meant to get his readers hooked so that he can start talking about politics, which was arguably the sole purpose for his persona to even exist. Richard Nixon was the Joker to his Batman. Take that purpose out of the picture and all you have is comedy about a grown man running around in his underwear. Even in Bat Country that's just plain stupid.

        But that’s the process of adaptation for you. In the past I’ve written about literary scholar Linda Hutcheon’s theories of adaptation and her term “interpretive doubling” as the flipping back and forth between an adaptation we are experiencing and the original that we are familiar with. However, “the process of ‘interpretive doubling’ only includes that which has occupied a pivotal place in the cultural imaginary” (v). Today, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without a doubt occupies that place for Thompson, and as such, we compare all adaptations of Thompson’s work to this “original.” Although Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does contain aspects of politics and the social themes prevalent in Thompson’s work, they are few and far between, and certainly not what the cult classic, and consequently Hunter S. Thompson, is remembered for today.

       The Rum Diary 2011 then, is best viewed as an attempt to correct this course, steering the Thompson persona back to something of more substance than just substance abuse. Re-watching the film with a clean pallet of expectations, even tossing one’s perception of Hunter S. Thompson right out the window, makes the film far more enjoyable. Where three years ago I found the scenes that accentuate San Juan’s economic disparity as either unmemorable or annoying in their disturbing of the flow, I now applaud as jarring reminders that the film is more than just a comedic

booze cruise. Also noteworthy is Depp’s performance as Kemp, whose character arc can be seen in his introduction as an aimless and unfocused writer out to make a few quick bucks in paradise. In the first two-thirds of the film Depp portrays him as unsure of himself, rarely removing his sunglasses long enough to make eye contact, that is until he identifies his anti-thesis in the greed personified by investor Sanderson and company. By the end the timid, unsure boy becomes a General, eyes focused and intense as he barks orders at his troop of journalists: “We gotta strike back. We'll nail this bastard to the front door...by printing a paper.” The changes made from the source material (which include major character cuts and a climax overhaul) nearly all drive home the political points and build a better origin story for the legend who ostensibly sails off into the sunset to become the Thompson that we have since forgotten.

       Thompson told the truth, but told it slant – so slant that it would appear upside down, reversed, and all too often unrecognizable. “The problems of such a literary smokescreen stem from the fact that the authors can only be taken as seriously as their least serious moment. Gonzo writing is like crying wolf at eardrum-splitting level”(vi). It lays to us then, the consumers of pop-culture, to decide what to take from an artist’s piece of work. And if all you feel after watching The Wolf of Wall Street is compelled to make jokes about doing drugs, I don’t think it’s the people of Hollywood who have their heads up their asses.

(v) Bortolotti, Gary R, and Linda Hutcheon. "On The Origin Of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse And 'Success'—Biologically." New Literary History 3 (2007): 443-458. Web. 2014.

(i) Jack, Yukon. “Yukon Jack: Hollywood should stay out of our oilsands.” Edmonton Sun. 29 August, 2014. Web. 2014. www.edmontonsun.com/2014/08/29/yukon-jack-hollywood-should-stay-out-of-our-oilsands

(iii) McKeen, William. “Inside The Rum Diary.” The Daily Beast. November 11, 2011. Web. 2014. www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/11/04/the-rum-diary-hunter-s-thompson-s-time-in-puerto-rico.html

The Rum Diary. By Bruce Robinson. Dir. Bruce Robinson. Perf. Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart et al. Prods. Johnny Depp, Graham King et al. Film District. 2011. Neflix. Web. 2014.

(iv) Thompson, Hunter S., and Jann Wenner. Fear And Loathing At Rolling Stone : The Essential Writing Of Hunter S. Thompson / Edited And With A Foreword By Jann S. Wenner ; And With An Introduction By Paul Scanlon. n.p.: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Thompson, Hunter S. The Rum Diary. n.p.: New York: Simon and Schuster. 1998.

(ii), (vi) Wright, Greg. “The Literary, Political, and Legal Strategies of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Hunter S. Thompson: Intertextuality, Ambiguity, and (Naturally) Fear and Loathing.” Journal Of Popular Culture 43.4 (2010): 622-643. Web. 2014.


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