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?”