A Place for Readers Like Us
There is a scene during Alison Maclean's adaptation of Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son in which our hero Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) and his partner Wayne are celebrating a scrap-metal windfall with cheap whiskey shots at The Vine. In the book, the scene occurs at the end of the story "Work" and Fuckhead says they listened "to songs of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce" The description said country and western to me, something era appropriate like Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." In the film, we watch Crudup gamely falsetto along to Joe Tex's lovesick soul classic "The Love You Save." The dissonance between the song I imagined and the one I get to hear exemplifies why I love film and why I'll always be drawn towards cinematic attempts to adapt classic works of fiction.
Around here there has lately been much discussion about films as they compare to novels. Films have not fared well. My colleague Will Donnelly argued on the blog a couple of weeks ago that the canard that "the book is always better" is fundamentally true as books allow a reader limitless possibilities to adapt the work for themselves. My professor Robert Boswell made a similar argument in class last week saying that books were an "implicit" medium while film was "explicit." Film demands less of the imagination and has had a resulting toxic influence on many an aspiring young writer. As both a writer and reader, film has instilled any number of bad habits--from treating scene breaks in a story like commercial breaks on a television show to casting a novel while I'm reading it (actually this is one is not always a bad thing: I don't' care how vivid your imagination might be, you'll never come with a better Eddie Coyle than Robert Mitchum). I concede these points about the problems inherent in adaptation, but still I'll always eagerly consume and almost always appreciate a cinematic attempt to translate a superior work of fiction. (I do stress the almost. I'll never forgive Revolutionary Road.)
The adaptation of Jesus' Son is certainly not the ideal example to defend this appreciation. The film was largely ignored during its 1999 theatrical release has been all-but-forgotten since (it still hasn't been given a Blu-Ray release and the DVD lacks any special features). Johnson's book is letter perfect--a series of extended prose poems about misspent youth and spiritual redemption. The film is certainly less than perfect. It's impossible to translate much of that poetry in a visual manner (and one of the film's flaws is in its attempt to copy/paste the book's narration into an awkward voice over). The book is perfect and there's no need to for the film to exist. That's why I love it. There's no way for Maclean (or any director) to do justice to the reader's vision of the fictional world, but it's fascinating to see someone try.
The cinematography evokes the perpetually frozen mid-western landscape with a visual palate of blues that transform to grays and back again, capturing the permanent winter landscape of Nixon-era Iowa. Billy Crudup's cheap charisma allows him to ease into the role of Johnson's aimless but blessed addict. The casting overall is something of an insane dream team--Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, a young Michael Shannon, Johnson himself as the stabbing victim from "Emergency"--all of them looking appropriately unwashed and rode hard. I could go on, but my purpose here isn't to write a Lost Classic column (it's on Netflix Instant if I've piqued your curiosity). And I hope I don't need to tell anyone to read the book.
That's part of the point of this sort of adaptation. It's hard to imagine an audience for the film that would extend far beyond fans of the work. The film exists, to awkwardly paraphrase the closing line, for readers like us, to savor those things that stay consistent with our imaginations and appreciate nice deviations like "The Love You Save."