Sunday, May 5, 2013

From Page to Screen - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Literature and cinema have been closely entwined for almost the entirety of the latter’s history. The first public screening of a motion picture took place in 1894; just two years later both Trilby and Little Billee, by Gerald Du Maurier, and Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, bridged the gap between page and screen. By now, of course, it’s impossible to miss signs of the love Hollywood has for transferring the printed word to the silver screen. Whereas in years past one had similar difficulty avoiding novelizations of films based upon original screenplays, the balance has, in recent years, tipped heavily in favor of the page-to-screen adaptation. Whether one looks to fantasies like the long running Harry Potter series, or more reality-based stories such as Water for Elephants; from loose adaptations like Blade Runner, to more faithful representations like Watchmen, there’s no doubting that fans of literature and cinema both enjoy the adaptation process. With the fanfare and hype surrounding this year’s examples of literature-turned-movie, like Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the second Hunger Games movie Catching Fire, post-apocalyptic bestseller World War Z, and the much-awaited cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, a particular interest in more fanciful works is readily apparent. In an age where special effects artists are making, in mere months, technological strides that compare to decades of progress in years past, it’s become increasingly easier to manage believable depictions of otherworldly fictional settings come to life. As such, novels that had previously been considered unfilmable are now apt choices for filmmakers looking to work with proven material, appealing to an extant fanbase. 

But there’s far more—or so one at least hopes—than blockbuster success in mind; a great many filmmakers who endeavor to adapt literature to cinema do so because they are, first and foremost, fans of the works in question. Director Peter Jackson springs to mind, his passion for The Lord of the Rings evident in every scene in each of the novel’s three cinematic installments (not to mention his well-known status as an honorary Hobbit). There’s something truly magical about witnessing what was once relegated to the theatre of the mind’s eye suddenly presented in brilliant anamorphic glory upon the ever-larger screens of the modern movie theater. Of course, there’s also something truly tragic in the case of transitions that miss their mark. There have likely been far more failed adaptations than there have been genuine successes. This is sometimes due to less-than-stellar screenplays or sub-par casting, but most often results from little more than a simple disagreement between the consensus among readers and the vision of the directors at each movie’s helm. One famous example of such disappointment is the big budget 1984 adaptation of Dune, which, while leaving droves of fans crestfallen due to its derivations from the source material, was nevertheless well received by the work’s own creator, Frank Herbert. Treading much more carefully along the narrow pathway to success, one of the single greatest examples of page-to-screen adaptation is Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and the 1998 film adaptation that launched Johnny Depp into the cinematic stratosphere. 

Misunderstood by many at the time of its initial publication, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has long since been heralded as a masterpiece of Thompson’s own unique style of writing, dubbed “Gonzo Journalism” by The Boston Globe editor Bill Cordoso. Purely and intentionally devoid of the objective purview—and sometimes deviating from the factual truth—required by the ethics of journalism, Thompson’s work helped to introduce a postmodern perspective, in which the reporter himself became the story. A twisted, debauched tale of self-destruction and depravity in pursuit of the warped post-‘60s rendition of the American Dream, Thompson’s novel was once considered impossible to film. Famed animator Ralph Bakshi insisted that “a live-action [adaptation] would look like a bad cartoon”, and given the incidents of drug-induced hallucination as a lens through which the garishness of Las Vegas itself was perceived, one might have been hard pressed to disagree. For many years, producer Laila Nabulsi struggled to put together the right combination of director and lead actors. 

Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone, arguably two of the biggest directorial names in Hollywood, each tried, and failed, to bring Fear and Loathing to the big screen. Tinseltown heavyweights like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were considered for the roles of Raoul Duke (a pseudonym of Thompson’s) and Dr. Gonzo (a caricature of the already larger-than-life Oscar Zeta Acosta, lawyer and close friend of Thompson’s). Later, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were considered to play the pair, though Belushi’s untimely death brought an end to such hopes. For a time, John Malkovich and John Cusack were each considered for the role of Raoul Duke, but neither proved satisfactory. It wasn't until Thompson met with Johnny Depp that the role was cast with an air of finality. 

Much can be said for the unparalleled talents of surrealist Terry Gilliam’s Kafkaesque directorial style. One of the truly marvelous virtues of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is its eerily accurate depiction of the various drug-induced states that run thematically through the story. Odd, disorienting “quirks” and visual elements conspire to duplicate the dreamlike—and sometimes nightmarish—quality imbued by Thompson’s delirious prose. A soundtrack comprised of legendary hits from the era complete the backdrop for this unusual tale. However, so much more can be said for what, for all intents and purposes, was a possession of Johnny Depp by the very spirit of the character he was set to portray. In truly method fashion, Depp absorbed as many of Thompson’s characteristics as possible. He spent four months living in Thompson’s basement, learning to accurately mimic the author’s idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns. On set, Depp wore no replicas of Thompson’s clothing but actual items from the author’s own wardrobe. Even Thompson’s male pattern balding, which so stunned audiences accustomed to Depp’s unavoidably good looks, was as authentic as possible: Thompson himself worked the razor across Depp’s scalp. Paired with the incomparable method performance put forth by Benicio del Toro, Depp embodied the very essence of Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical caricature, and projected it into the hearts and minds of countless fans of both novel and film.
"Buy the ticket, take the ride..."

This film is as much a labor of love as it is a truly spectacular work of art, and as close as imaginable to representing the “Gonzo” spirit in which the book was written. For a man of such passion and literary power as Hunter S. Thompson, no lesser film would have sufficed. The dedication of filmmakers and actors alike factored heavily into the production of this cinematic tour de force, as did, undoubtedly, the involvement of the author himself. It cannot be said that such a combination of forces is anything but mythically rare. There have been more than a few novels and stories which have safely made the journey from page to screen, but few quite so accurately, or for that matter satisfyingly, as 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

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