I review plenty of film adaptations of beloved books, and when I do, I generally try to ignore the book altogether and consider the film on its own merits — it just seems the best and fairest way to do it. However, that’s impossible for me here. The Rum Diary is just too alive in my mind for it not to color my entire viewing experience. (Just so you know where we stand).
The first thing you have to know about The Rum Diary is that it’s a much different book than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In Fear and Loathing, Hunter S. Thompson was writing a stylized account of himself as an established journalist on a clear mission (to find the American Dream). The Rum Diary is a novel Thompson wrote when he was 22 (though not published until much later) and still trying to figure out his path in life. Where Fear and Loathing was specific, Rum Diary is crafted from broad strokes. It isn’t particularly plot-driven, and succeeds largely on the strength of the themes and on Hunter’s prose. In fact, despite it being one of my favorite books, I don’t think I could’ve told you much about the plot or any of the characters going in. What had stayed with me was that it was about a 20-something year-old writer terrified of getting old and selling out, written by that same 20-something-year old writer, and read by me, when I was– well, I think you can fill in the rest. An equally scary prospect was selling out’s alternative, sticking to your principles only to have them make you nothing but poor and embittered.
“No matter how much I wanted all those things that I needed money to buy, there was some devilish current pushing me off in another direction – toward anarchy and poverty and craziness. That maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas Goat.”
That was the crux of the book for me, and I was happy to find that same spirit driving the movie. Seeing it was kind of like meeting an old friend.
On film, one of the things that stuck out (other than the gorgeous drunken romanticism of the setting – 1960 Puerto Rico, where Thompson himself worked at a failing newspaper) were the limitations of the story. Hot off the plane from New York, Johnny Depp’s Paul Kemp shows up in San Juan to work at the newspaper, where he meets fellow journalists Sala and Moberg (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi — the “Good” and “The Ugly” of the story, if you will), along with the always great Richard Jenkins as Lotterman, the editor in chief of the failing San Juan Star. Kemp, a failed novelist, wants to write about the truth of the world as he sees it, and Lotterman wants him to keep selling a bogus, sanitized idea of Puerto Rico (an analogy for the American Dream, basically), to keep the paper in business. Kemp soon meets Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), “The Bad” of the story, a rich guy who seems to have it all, and can share it with Kemp, if only Kemp will write something horrible that he doesn’t believe in. Does Kemp sell out to get what Sanderson’s got — girls, fast cars, fancy clothes, and fine houses — or be true to himself at the risk of turning out like Sala or Moberg, burnt out shells of men who stink of booze and piss and regret?
“What passed for society was a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities.”
I say limitations, because when you break it down, Sanderson is essentially the proverbial greedy developer, mean to the natives and almost cartoonishly callous. Naturally, Kemp gets caught up in his world and falls in love with his girl (Chenault, played by the beautiful but limited Amber Heard) — a basic plot structure it shares with roughly eight trillion movies. (A line from Gangs of New York comes to mind, about it’s surprisingly cozy under the wing of a dragon).