Adapting Pynchon


This weekend Abbe and I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice adaptation.  I’d been looking forward to the movie for a while, because I genuinely loved the book and because I thought the trailer captured a lot of the book’s goofy, slapstick spirit.

The movie isn’t good.

Sitting through it — and it feels like something you sit through, at two and a half hours long — I kept thinking about what bothered me.  Usually when someone loves a book and hates the adaptation, it’s because you believe the movie isn’t faithful to the book.  But Anderson’s movie follows the book pretty closely.

Too closely, I think.  That’s one of the real problems. As much as Pynchon likes to reference pop culture and movies especially, he doesn’t write cinematic books.  Vice is probably as movie-friendly as he gets, but the challenge with Pynchon is always going to be trying to capture what makes the story feel like a Pynchon story, without getting bogged down by the hundreds of characters and the spaghetti plot.  It’s the mood the pulls you in, and Pynchon’s way of investing every sentence with something weird and surprising.  One reviewer (I can’t remember now, maybe the NY Times) calls out his “smoke-like melancholy,” and that feels right.  He’s odd and funny and underneath everything you can feel his compassion for something lost.  Something that’s already a ghost, and he’s giving the ghost a voice. But mostly, I remember Vice being fun. The movie isn’t fun.

There are some good bits — mostly coming from Josh Brolin’s character — but mostly it’s a plodding film.  And I think it’s because Anderson kept too much of what makes Pynchon frustrating — the labyrinthine plotting and the vast character list — and left out the lyrical goofiness.  I read an interview with him a few months ago, in which he admitted he didn’t understand a lot of the book, but just tried to keep as much of the original text in the film as possible.  Maybe that’s admirable but it’s not what any book needs.   The endless characters and voiceover narration just reinforce how unsuitable the story is for a film, even a bloated two-and-a-half-hour film.

It doesn’t help that Joaquin Phoenix is a little hard to understand.  There’s so much dialogue — and so much expository dialogue, even worse — that being unable to follow it is incredibly frustrating.  Some of that is Phoenix’s mumbling delivery, and some of it I think is the way it’s filmed, with Anderson refusing to do anything inventive with the exposition to open it up for the viewer.

The best Pynchon adaptation is still a movie that isn’t even a Pynchon adaptation, and it came out a few years before Pynchon even wrote Inherent Vice.  But The Big Lebowski is pure Pynchon in a lot of ways, and Jeff Bridges does a better job capturing Doc’s spirit (and maybe investing Doc’s spirit, since it’s hard to imagine Pynchon hadn’t seen and loved the movie before writing his book) than Joaquin Phoenix.  Lebowski is also weird, trippy, had a lot of characters, and is a comedy despite the undercurrent of paranoia and the loss of 60s-era counterculture idealism.  But it’s a better adaptation because it’s just a better movie, and any adaptation has to become something very different from the source material and play to the medium’s strengths.  I don’t think Vice ever figured out what to be.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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