“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is one of David Foster Wallace’s most famous and trenchant, hilarious essays. The piece — which is long, but worth it if you’ve not yet read it — chronicles Wallace’s seven-night trip aboard a luxury Caribbean cruise. An ostensibly pleasant excursion, the cruise quickly turns dark, as Wallace finds himself developing a “dependency/shame relationship” with the many extravagances available to him, becoming simultaneously blasé toward and existentially panicked by such offerings as 24-hour-a-day Cabin Service, Towel Guys, and Organized Shore Excursions. “After a few days of delight and then adjustment on the Nadir, the Pamper-swaddled part of me that WANTS is now back, and with a vengeance,” he wrote.
Wallace’s piece is about becoming inured to luxury and thus demanding more luxury ad infinitum, about detaching from reality, about the dangers of too many false creature comforts. (That’s also a running theme in this year’s The End of the Tour, which followed Jason Segel as a conflicted Wallace grappling with his own fresh fame.) As Wallace puts it near the end of the piece, it was “good to know that soon I would get off the ship, that I had survived (in a way) being pampered to death (in a way).”
According to The Wrap, this incisive, thoughtful, witty essay has inspired a new film, Empress of Serenity, to be written and directed by Jesse Andrews, the man behind both the novel and the screenplay for the abhorrent Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. As a quick recap, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is everything that David Foster Wallace is not: It’s careless, manipulative, lazy, and self-serving. It’s about an insecure, self-obsessed white guy with an underdeveloped token black best friend whose primary characteristics are saying “dem titties” and being from a cartoonish black neighborhood. Said white guy, who has a similarly underdeveloped token dying female best friend (is that a thing? sure), learns at the end of the film that all he has to do is love himself and everything will be fine, even if his best friend has just died of cancer and his other best friend will continue to exist as a mere stereotype, that’s whatever. And yet, here we are: Andrews has written another film script, and this time, he’s not content to draw on his own source material. He must retroactively besmirch the legacy of David Foster Wallace! Hubris of this magnitude would seemingly only occur in a Jesse Andrews joint.
Here’s where it gets even stranger. Though Andrews claims Wallace’s essay was his “inspiration,” it’s clear that this project is not an adaptation. Here’s how clear it is: “The film is not an adaptation of Wallace’s work,” writes The Wrap. Instead, Andrews’ script sounds as if it has almost nothing in common with Wallace’s essay, save for its setting. Empress of Serenity, Andrews’ project, is an “original” screenplay that “follows a man who embarks on a cruise to bond with his father, who helps his son deal with intimacy issues.” Yes, I’m aware that all we’ve got so far is a logline and some classic Hollywood bloviation, but still — the only apparent commonality is that both take place on cruise ships, much like half of the sexual encounters that take place between 15 to 18-year-old Americans. Andrews’ screenplay seems to have as much in common with Wallace’s essay as that one time you also went on a cruise with your family and got really drunk at the on-ship nightclub and made out with a stranger and puked off the side of your bunkbed.
“Inspiration” is a vague, abstract term, as is “adaptation;” both are thrown around wildly and often, like drunken teenage bodies on the roiling sea. And it makes sense, marketing-wise, to throw back to something that was successful on the printed page; these are the days of Adapting Recognizable Properties, after all, whether they’re comic books, dystopian YA novels, or grumpy cats. But if you can’t be true to the spirit, or even to the plot, of the original material, is it appropriate to mention it at all?
Which is to say that what bugs me the most about this is that it would appear Andrews is using Wallace’s name to give his project an unearned bookish backbone. If you’re not going to actually adapt David Foster Wallace (which Andrews has made very clear he’s not doing), but instead just write a movie about how cruises are terrible, is it fair to invoke the name of David Foster Wallace, who can no longer defend or protect his work, which is based on the actual events of his own life? What if the fevered minds behind Turista or The Hills Have Eyes — which are similarly about vacations going quite poorly — claimed to be inspired by David Foster Wallace? What if Kevin James and Nick Bakay, the writers of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, said the tale of Paul Blart’s divorce and the death of his beloved mother via milk truck was inspired by David Carr’s The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life–His Own? Where is the line, my friends? Where?!
Here’s a silver lining, though: As we reported yesterday, Bill Hader will star in the film. Bill Hader, who can right any number of wrongs with his twisted grin and dramatic side part. Perhaps he’ll even be able to… right this ship (I limited myself to one ship pun; you’re welcome). And, for some reason, John Malkovich is on board (fine, two) as producer, along with a group that previously collaborated on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was a much better film about a troubled teen boy than Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. So, there’s hope on the horizon yet (okay, three).
There’s also hope because — even though this is what I just did! — it’s silly and ultimately pointless to make judgements about a film in advance based solely on its logline and its writer-director saying inane shit. Perhaps Jesse Andrews will, at some point before filming begins, reread some David Foster Wallace and take to heart its inherent criticisms of human arrogance. And perhaps the film will somehow allude to or even capture the spirit of David Foster Wallace’s work, much like End of the Tour did (albeit by recreating an actual encounter that an actual human had with Wallace, which seems difficult to do here, as I am certain Andrews has never gone on a cruise with Wallace). It’s important to remember, too, that worse-sounding projects have turned out better. Like, I don’t know, that time everybody freaked out about Jason Segel playing David Foster Wallace.