If Unbroken and In The Heart Of The Sea have proved anything, it’s that adapting narrative non-fiction adventure stories is really hard. The good news is that The Lost City of Z, in which James Gray directs his own adaptation of David Grann’s book, is a far better adaptation than Unbroken. It’s just good enough that you can imagine what a better adaptation might look like, and that’s the bad news; that City of Z can’t quite maneuver through the genre’s usual pitfalls. The main one being that books are far too information dense and didactic to simply present the material. Unless you want the film version to feel like a dull Cliff’s Notes of the book, you need to have a take on the material.
While it can’t contextualize and explain like a book, one thing film has that books don’t is the ability to put human faces on the characters, to give us clues as to what they’re thinking and feeling even when they’re not saying anything. But that requires a certain amount of invention, or at least, interpretation, and most movie adaptations just aren’t bold enough to give their characters motivations beyond the “he did this and said that and went there” of the book. James Gray’s The Lost City of Z gets about halfway there.
Charlie Hunnam (hunnam hunnam hunnam…) plays Percy Fawcett, a young British army major stationed in Ireland when we meet him, desperate to distinguish himself and finally get some shiny medals to pimp his fancy jacket. He kills the stag during an organized stag hunt in the first scene, beating out an entire platoon (because he’s so bold!). But when Posh Fancy Bearded Dude 1 proposes inviting the stag killer to dine at the big boy table during the waltz, Posh Fancy Bearded Dude 2 nixes the idea, saying “Major Fawcett was rather, ah, unfortunate in his choice of ancestors.”
The fact that he says “unfortunate” while making a joke about “choosing” ancestors kind of negates the whole thrust of the line, which is fairly typical of Lost City‘s clumsy writing. But the larger point the scene accomplishes adequately is to characterize Fawcett as a man who craves distinction to redeem his family name. This partly explains why in the following scene, Fawcett accepts a dangerous commission from the Royal Geographic Society to spend two or three years away from his wife (Sienna Miller) and infant son surveying the unexplored border region between Brazil and Peru, deep in the Amazon jungle.
A drunk named Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) becomes Fawcett’s right-hand man as they paddle into the heart of darkness searching for the source of an Amazon tributary. Hostile natives announce themselves at arrow point, Apocalypse Now style, just one of the jungle’s many dangers, which also include parasites, piranhas, and a paradoxical lack of food — a phenomenon nicknamed “the green desert,” much discussed in the book. The movie introduces it through a side character on Fawcett’s raft, who says to Fawcett, perplexed over yet another empty net in an obviously fish-laden river, “Jungle? Mate, this is a green desert.”
Upon Fawcett’s return, he gives a rousing speech to the grey beards at the Royal Geographic Society, in which he says “I have discovered evidence that Amazonia is more than just a ‘green desert!'” to loud jeers and scoffs and ascots waved dismissively in the English manner.
Wait, what? He’s essentially railing against a concept he himself discovered five minutes of screen time prior, which is suddenly being presented as conventional wisdom. It’s a more egregious example, but fairly typical of Gray’s treatment — great at shooting a mysterious, mist-shrouded jungle and communicating broader concepts, but clumsy with exposition and downright terrible at dialogue. During his first journey, Fawcett discovers a few pottery shards in the deep jungle and becomes instantly convinced that the rumors about a lost city of gold and a civilization older than Europe buried deep in the jungle are true. There’s a lot to get through in Lost City of Z if you don’t choose a take, and as a result, even in an 150-minute movie a lot of it feels like it’s on fast forward, rushing to hit bullet points without entirely knowing why.
While Fawcett shouts at the foppish beard brigade that some of their colonial assumptions about aboriginal people may be wrong, one shouts back, “What’s next, savages in Westminster Abbey?”
Jesus, really? That line would be hokey in a History Channel reenactment aimed at 8-year-olds. Pattinson fares best as an actor, mainly because he’s the only one who doesn’t deliver all his lines with the feigned conviction of a high school mock trial student.
Lost City makes a big show of depicting Fawcett’s righteous goals of challenging colonial attitudes about indigenous peoples (“natives not savages,” Fawcett corrects, maybe 90 seconds after himself using the word “savage”), but in so doing, it largely reinforces the just-as-incomplete, and damn near as old understanding of native peoples as noble savages. Which is pretty rich considering the film’s hero may have gotten killed by them. The whole point of Heart of Darkness is that no one corner of humanity has a monopoly on barbarism. Did you even read the fables you’re referencing?
Lost City is so dead set on depicting Percy Fawcett as a blandly righteous hero of post-colonial wokeness that it misses points that are right in front of its face. Like that Fawcett’s drive for glory and personal advancement at the expense of his family (and ultimately his life) is based on some of the same false ideas of hierarchy that lead one culture to declare itself “higher” than another. Or that some of the conflicts of WWI — in which Fawcett leads a “heroic” charge with no acknowledgement of the ultimate pointlessness of the war itself — are caused by the same feelings that occur when a white man and a native confront each other across a river. That intercultural contact is usually characterized by misunderstanding leading to fear, and fear leading to violence, enslavement, barbarity.
Those themes are present in Lost City, albeit in sort of clumsy and unedited form. I can’t give it credit for this being a specific choice, though, because it’d be hard to reconcile lines like “Savages?! In Westminster Abbey?!” with supposedly subtle storytelling. In this case, the lure of the mysterious jungle, uncontacted tribes, and the Age of Discovery are strong enough that they make up for a lot of the clumsy storytelling and bad dialogue, such that sitting through 150 minutes of Lost City didn’t feel like a chore. But we can do so much better with these movies. All it requires is a clear vision of the story you’re trying to tell.