The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson

I don’t like to write negative reviews… in that I don’t like to write bad things about bad things. Why waste your time and mine being snarky about crap that doesn’t cut it? Life is too short – my keys are wearing out – there’s plenty of whining snarky criticism shooting around this interweb thing already.

Sometimes I make an exception. There is stuff that is good, there is stuff that is bad… and there is stuff that is… let’s say, a glorious failure. Now that I think about it, glorious failure is a special thing – you can’t make it on purpose, it takes guts and effort, and when it happens you can wallow in it and enjoy yourself a bit… or a lot.

I am always looking out for interesting new stuff coming out on film or video and trying to hit the literature version first. The book is always better. You never want to read the book after seeing the film.

So it was that about a year ago, I saw that a film version of Hunter S. Thompson’s first book, The Rum Diary, was being made – starring Johnny Depp as Thompson – the second time he has tackled such a roll, after the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie proved that that book was unfilmable.

The Rum Diary was Hunter S. Thompson’s second novel, though his first (Prince Jellyfish) has never been published. It was written in the early 1960’s but wasn’t published for almost forty years. I was immediately attracted by the novel and its setting. A tropical location, the late nineteen fifties, a picaresque tale of drunken lost souls careening around an exotic backwater – all themes I find irresistible.

So I read it. It was short, it didn’t take long. I can’t say the book was good overall, or even well-written, but I enjoyed it. The characters were interesting, the setting attractive, the story engaging – but it was a mess. It had no arc. It was a glorious failure.

So I looked forward to the film. The tropical setting looks nice on screen. Depp is talented, of course, and has the Thompson shtick down pat. The rest of the cast is impressive and, in turns, each co-star (Aaron Eckhart can do the slimy businessman in his sleep, Michael Rispoli as the fallen photographer was a revelation, Giovanni Ribisi was almost unrecognizable as a walking corpse of a man, Amber Heard was more beautiful more sexy that the world should allow) did a star turn.

But, on the whole, they took the mess of a story and, trying to fix it, fucked it up completely. I understand that they had to add an overlying structure, add heroes and villains, try to give the thing a point… but it all fell flat. The most enjoyable aspect of the book was the fact that nobody fit a stereotype and in shoehorning everybody into their closest Hollywood stock character the film killed the joy of the book.

For example, really the central character of the book isn’t the narrator, but the woman, Chenault (what a great name – makes me think of the Flying Tigers). In the book she was the fiancée of Yeoman – a slight newspaperman who is adrift in Puerto Rico. Her character is mysterious and confused – a real person. In the book she is the drop-dead gorgeous trophy engaged to the evil businessman – reduced to the object of competition between the greedy developer and the moral-yet-flawed Depp. Nice to look at, but easy to forget.

The climactic dance scene at the Carnival in St. Thomas… so unexpected and horrifying in the book – becomes a mere plot device in the film.

Check out the differences here:

I have never been a fan of text cards during the end credits of a film explaining what happens to the characters in the future (except, of course, for Animal House) – but in The Rum Diary the execrable explanation completely spoils any good will generated up to that point. It ruins everything; if you see the movie, look away.

The biggest problem is that the film wanted to make itself about Hunter S. Thompson. In the book, the young Thompson is more an observer that anything else. It is a proto-Thompson – you can see the future echoes of Gonzo stirring, but he is not there yet.

They shovel a lot of later Thompson into The Rum Diary – culminating in a totally ridiculous scene, straight out of Fear and Loathing, where Depp and the photographer put LSD drops into their eyes and then watch a giant tongue unroll. It doesn’t fit.

So, after this bad review, I do have to contradict myself and say I enjoyed watching The Rum Diary – though I am glad I saw it on Netflix instead of in a twelve-dollar movie house munching ten dollar stale popcorn with “golden topping” on it. It still had the tropical setting, and Depp, and picaresque characters, and a beautiful woman… and what more can we ask for?

We can ask for a lot more… but we don’t usually get it.

The Rum Diary backstory, Episode 1

Oh, this is, as far as I’m concerned, the Real Rum Diary: