Rum is the right ingredient for film
Posted October 14, 2010 at 10:57 pm in Lifestyle
Itâs not even the end of October, but I feel as if itâs time to start closing the book on 2010 and looking ahead to 2011. Yes, weâve yet to see Darren Aronofskyâs Black Swan or the Coen brothersâ True Grit, but still, itâs never too early to look ahead.
In that vein, one of the most anticipated films for 2011 is The Rum Diary starring Johnny Depp. Shot in 2009, the release date has perpetually shifted many times, but 2011 seems to be the year. Based on Hunter S. Thompsonâs first novel by the same title, it could surpass the fun-yet-overzealous drug-fueled romp that was Terry Gilliamâs Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. One can only hope.
However, few people have heard of, much less read, Thompsonâs debut novel, which was not published until 1998, almost 40 years after it was originally written. Regardless, The Rum Diary is one of those few pieces of literature that holds a special place in my heart.
Thompson is a paragon of late-20th century literature, and his works Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail â72, and Hellâs Angels are standards for anyone aspiring to delve into the manic, crazed, combative and drug-fueled current that cut through the 1970s like the Gulf Stream.
He accomplished this by imprinting his views and quirks on his work. Thompson didnât write stories so much as he lived them. He was the focus of his writing; the sole protagonist. He even coined a term for this style: Gonzo.
All writers are products of their own times, but Thompson was more so. He offered insight without perspective and tore down lies without building truth. He was a man who stood against much, yet stood for little.
His life was a quest for the American Dream, a quest that proved quixotic. He was a pessimist and a nihilist wrapped in the alluring, romantic cocoon of drugs, lust and violence. The force of his personality, and lifestyle â that is his legacy. But what is too often lost, not without justification, is Thompsonâs innate brilliance as a wordsmith.
In no other work of Thompsonâs is this talent more clearly evident than The Rum Diary. Thompson started writing it in 1959 at the tender age of 22. The book documents a year in the life of Paul Kemp, a Â middle-aged reporter working for the Daily News, an English language newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Kemp is both protagonist and narrator, easily recognizable as a toned-down Thompson prototype. He is manic and cynical, teetering on the brink of irrelevance; his world is closing in on him, but his vices are rum and women, not drugs.
Kemp is no Thompsonian hophead; rather, he is an introspective alcoholic struggling to find his place in life. In San Juan, he is happy. The money is good, the work is little and the times are fast in this 1950s boomtown.
But Kempâs growing unease with his station in life and his desire to create news rather than report it leads him to the seedy underbelly of capitalism â where respectable businessmen are little more than crooks.
In The Rum Diary, modern critics see the origins of Thompsonâs later genius and, thus, define the book in terms of his later excess. I disagree. The Rum Diary is not defined by excess but by restraint, and this is where Thompsonâs true genius is found â a genius all too quickly snuffed by a mountain of drugs and alcohol.
We remember him as a vagrant, a social outcast who embodied the militant individualism of the â70s, whose works allowed many to live vicariously through him, to bask in his reflected glory and dip their toes into the stormy waters of social unrest.
We do not remember him as a man who could capture the beauty of a tropical paradise and the ugliness of a slum, the eager anticipation of a young secretary poised for an adventure; and the obsessive lust of a desperate reporter.
Yes, a shot of Gonzo runs through the veins of The Rum Diary, but unlike his later work, it does not overwhelm the beauty of the prose. Too often when analyzing Thompson, we marvel at the grandiosity of his faults and ignore the ugly disillusionment from which they sprung.
The film adaptation might just be a faithful one. Director Bruce Robinson â the man behind the tragic comedy Withnail & I â is the perfect man for the job of adapting the story. He can bring the insanity, drama and humor of Thompsonâs text to the screen without getting lost in delirium like Gilliam.
Depp has already brought Thompsonâs protagonist to the silver screen, so there is no need to worry there. With the source material and Robinsonâs less-surrealist direction, it should give Depp a chance to really show off his range.
The Rum Diary reveals a young writer perched on the precipice of greatness, ready to join the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Walt Whitman. He never found his story, however, and the small, burgeoning flame of talent was obscured by a drug-fueled fireball.
But his legacy lives on â in print and, once again, on film.
Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column, ââO Lucky Critic,â runs Fridays.