Have pity on any poor soul who is tasked with converting a literary work to the big screen. It’s generally a thankless task and, with a few rare exceptions, with good reason. Fans of the original book or comic invariably get upset over the most trivial of changes and sticking too close to the source material risks alienating those coming to the film anew. Even ‘The Shining’, which as a film outclasses most of it’s peers in the horror genre and is truly an excellent movie, is actually fairly shoddy as an adaptation.
“Pretty much how Stephen King felt about Kubrick’s film”
The fact that ‘The Rum Diary’ is based on a novel is unavoidable, given the cult status of the book. It was Hunter S. Thompson’s only true work of fiction, albeit semi-autobiographical, depicting young American journalist and Thompson surrogate Paul Kemp’s time in Puerto Rico during the late 50s. Its gestation to the big screen has taken over a decade, finally coming to fruition at the behest of Thompson’s friend, Johnny Depp. On paper the whole idea sounds marvellous. Director Bruce ‘Withnail & I’ Robinson is seemingly a perfect match for the material and Depp’s involvement is beneficial for two reasons. As a friend and fan of the late Thompson, you would expect a certain amount of love and reverence for the source material. Also, Depp previously portrayed a gloriously amplified cariciture of Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, one of those rare films that succesfully transforms literature into cinema without compromising the source material.
Or so you would think.
The presumably well-intentioned film-makers obviously wanted ‘The Rum Diary’ to serve as an all-round tribute to Thompson, which explains, but doesn’t justify, the addition of an unnecessary LSD scene and Kemp’s ranting about Thompson’s old enemy Richard Nixon. These scenes are clumsy and bring nothing to the film, jarringly shoved into a plot that pays little heed to Thompson’s novel anyway. An entire central character, Yeamon, has been chopped out and merged with another, key scenes from the novel are missing and generally the film shows little respect to the source material. The film has a typical Hollywood sheen to it, at odds with the grimy, humid atmosphere the novel depicts and the banality doesn’t end there. The book’s most memorable, and shocking, scene implies the horrific gang rape of principal female character Chenault. The same scene in the film is ambiguous in the extreme, avoiding the novel’s blunt but neccesary comment on America’s cultural and economical rape of Puerto Rico and, as evidenced by the film’s imdb boards, leaving those who had not read the book either unsure or even completely unaware that a rape had even occured.
To exacerbate matters, Amber Heard’s portrayal of Chenault is woefully inadequate. In the novel she is a contrary mix of ingenue and vixen, her hedonistic lifestyle fascinating and alluring Kemp before ultimately leading to her tragic rape. She is not a typical love interest and a happy ending for her and Kemp is never on the cards, their eventual union made bittersweet by the events that forgoe it. Heard serves only to make Chenault an irritating, charmless, vacuous shell of a woman, her wooden delivery constantly pulling this viewer out of the movie to think “gosh, what a bad actress”. Seemingly content to just coast by on her looks, Heard’s not even endearingly bad, like Jessica Alba, who you at least sense is making a jolly good effort to act. In addition, as needless as the acid and Nixon scenes before it, a crude epilogue serves to inform us that Kemp and Chenault later marry in New York, the typical, cliched Hollywood ending tacked onto a story that should be anything but Hollywood.
Depp’s stock is now perilously low in this reviewers eyes. I winced my way through the awful bilge that was ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thinking “Hey, it’s for kids!”, as if that was an excuse for being shit. Whilst his performance in ‘The Rum Diary’ reigns in the goonery that has been so typical of him in recent years, his involvment behind the scenes and position as a friend of Thompson’s make him accountable for this sorry excuse of a “tribute”.
All this would maybe, just maybe, be forgiveable had the film been able to stand on it’s own, from an objective point of view, but sadly, this is not the case. The plot is barely there and it plays more as a mish-mash of disjointed scenes featuring the same characters. There are a few comic moments that hit the mark but they are too few to offer any real redemption for this glossy attrocity. The only person I feel any sympathy for is Giovanni Ribisi who is clearly having a whale of a time hamming it up as alcoholic hack Moburg. He is far too good for this nonsense. Yet, he was in ‘Avatar’, so his standards clearly aren’t what they once were.