Withnail and I writer-director Bruce Robinson channels a kindred spirit, the legendary Hunter S. Thompson, to script his rendition of the gonzo journalist’s first novel, The Rum Diary.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
As an inchoate writer of only 22, Hunter S. Thompson penned a novel called The Rum Diary about a boozy American journalist who signs onto a failing newspaper in 1950s Puerto Rico. It possesses only flashes of Thompson’s shamanistically resonant future voice and seems, in 2011, apropos of little.
Enter weird Zelig Johnny Depp, a Thompson disciple whose uncanny ability to parlay blockbuster bounty into indie subversion is, arguably, unprecedented.
While staying with Dr. Thompson at his Woody Creek compound in preparation for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he stumbled on a manuscript for Rum in a dusty basement box. Because of Depp, The Rum Diary was finally published in 1998, four decades after being rejected by every publisher that had read it. Shortly after Thompson’s 2005 suicide, the actor set out to get Rum made into a film by the only man he thought could pull it off: Bruce Robinson.
Robinson is a veteran British writer-director and a rare bird in today’s Hollywood: deeply literate and fundamentally rebellious. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his script for The Killing Fields. More famously, he is a legend in the UK for the 1987 cult classic Withnail and I, a shambling alcoholic holiday that follows two starving actors in 1969 London as they quixotically fight dragons both existential and artistic.
Withnail’s tragicomic iconoclasm rang so familiar to Thompson, upon seeing it, he knew he’d found a kindred voice. He wanted Robinson to adapt The Rum Diary into a film. After he was gone, his nimble-minded actor pal made sure it happened.
Photo: © 2011 FilmDistrict and GK Films
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary.
The result, which stars Depp, Aaron Eckhart and relative newcomer Amber Heard, is more an inspired re-imagination than it is an adaptation. It takes the skeletal framework of the novel and infuses it with Robinson’s own voice and a brotherly understanding of the writer Thompson would become. It brims with themes Thompson had not yet fully conjured – the rotten betrayal of the American dream, the creeping cancer of greed.
Apropos of, it turns out, much today.
Robinson spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his relationship to Thompson, his honest opinion of the late writer’s early novel, and why the truest way to the heart of an adaptation is through the spirit, rather than the letter of the original text.
You have long been a fan of Hunter S. Thompson apparently since a roommate tossed a copy of Fear and Loathing in your lap many years back.
That goes back to [when] I’d written Withnail and I as a little novel that was kind of like samizdat amongst my friends, who liked it and were laughing at it. Then one day, my flatmate threw a paperback at me. I was in bed with a considerable hangover, and he said, “Read this. It’s like you.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard the name Hunter S. Thompson. It was exciting and interesting to me that we were working in the same kind of vernacular, this man I didn’t know – and he certainly didn’t know me, because I’d never been published or done anything. I think that’s why Johnny asked me to have a go at the film because we were both kind of dealing with that rageful comedy, if you like.
That outsider rage.
Yeah. When it comes to The Rum Diary, I literally read the book twice, threw it away, and then wrote my own version of his story. You know, with the deepest respect to him, but writing it like me, not like him.
Almost an “Inspired by” adaptation?
Exactly. Hopefully. There are a lot of die-hard Hunter fans who my son has looked up on the Internet saying it’s not like the book. Of course, it’s not like the book. It’s a movie. My analogy for that is Tchaikovsky seeing Romeo and Juliet on stage and then writing his version of it in music.
That’s a really apt comparison.
Not that I’m comparing myself with this giant Tchaikovsky. I’m just saying it’s the same thing; you read a book, you become inspired by it, you try and stay totally respectful to the story [but]…
You know my favorite writer in the world is Charles Dickens. If Dickens were alive now and sat down to do David Copperfield, it wouldn’t be 800 pages long, it would be 105 pages.
To what extent, when adapting a novel for film, is going on the spirit rather than the letter of the work one of the most effective ways to actually represent the work?
I totally think that’s the correct way for writers to work. The worst adaptations of Dickens, for example, are on BBC TV, where they simply lift the lines straight out of the book... It makes it so pedantic and tedious.
I just figured that everything that Hunter did, in my understanding, was kind of pushed and extreme and mad. His obsession was the great deceit and disappointment of the American dream. Nearly everything he wrote was about that. I wanted to introduce that as a theme into this story. That’s staying true to Hunter, although it isn’t necessarily in The Rum Diary. He hadn’t got there yet as a writer.
So you went forward in his thematic development and transposed that on The Rum Diary?
I think that’s true and I hope that’s true. Here’s the thing: the reality is, I, as a writer, am 45 years older than Hunter was when he wrote the novel. I’ve been through a lot of life myself. I’m 65, so I read this young man’s book with deepest respect, but I see a lot of faults in it – no, I’ll correct that – structures that don’t play for movies.
I have to ask, Hunter S. Thompson is sort of sacrosanct, certainly to fans. I am a huge fan…
Well, we all are, you know?
But at the same time narrative structure, it seems to me, is not his strength. So when adapting this book, was that an issue?
It isn’t his strength. He’s got that Swiftian thing, but you look at Swift and his narratives waddle all over the place, most famously, of course, in Gulliver’s Travels. It’s also very true to say about Hunter. His story gave me a lot of grief once I realized it. I’m looking at this thing – Johnny has asked me to do this. Johnny is a massive film star, and I’ve got two leads in the book. I’ve got this guy Yeamon, and I got Kemp.
I know it sounds obvious in retrospect, but when I realized that Hunter had split himself into two people – Yeamon being one and Kemp the other – I suddenly got a hook to hang my hat on. Yeamon’s gotta go and anything he brought to the story will have to be invested in Kemp because this is a vehicle for Johnny Depp.
So I threw [Yeamon] overboard. But then I lost the sexual tension between Yeamon and Kemp over the girl, Chenault [Heard], so I made her Sanderson’s [Eckhart] girl. That way she’s in the enemy camp, and he’s madly in love with her, which gives me some subplots to keep the narrative going…
Having read so much of Hunter’s work, what was your opinion of the The Rum Diary?
Well curiously, it’s now becoming one of his more famous things, but it’s really one of his weakest in many ways. I was astonished at the insouciance of the editing of that book. Probably eight times in the book a chapter starts with ‘I woke up.’ I couldn’t believe that an editor would allow that to keep reoccurring. [But] there are [hints] of what he would become in that book.
You really channeled his voice. There are myriad lines that totally ring true to him that aren’t in the book. How difficult for you was it to ape or channel that voice?
This whole movie was made because of Johnny and, obviously, Hunter. I don’t mean this in any way facetiously, but they both, perhaps because of Withnail and I, could hear that, “Okay, [with me as the screenwriter] the voice is going to be different, but this guy is in Hunter’s vernacular.”
I just wrote like me, bearing him in mind. He was sitting on my writing desk all the time. He was always there in my mind. Sometimes I would try to talk like him, you know, with his rhythms. But I didn’t think, how would Hunter write this? The struggle for all writers is how the fuck am I gonna write this?
You wrote this line that’s crucial because in this script you’ve infused the story of the early real-life Hunter S. Thompson. At one point the Thompson character, Kemp says, “I don’t know how to write like me.”
That’s right. It’s a crucial line in the movie, isn’t it?
Absolutely. So that whole biographical sub-structure is something that you wanted to add that’s nonexistent in the book.
Yeah, that was nonexistent in the book. You’re a writer obviously, right?
I mean, that’s what you do, that’s what I do and I have to say that the toughest thing for me in my life, because I was obsessed with Dylan Thomas and Dickens in my young career, was figuring out how to write like me. The curious thing is, it was Withnail and I where I suddenly thought: God, that’s my voice! I am writing like me. That’s why I wrote that line for Johnny in the film.
It sounds like a lunatic thing to anybody who isn’t a writer because we all write and write and write. But when do you hit it, you’re writing like you.