Will ‘Inherent Vice’ be another flawed film adaptation?

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin star in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film version of Inherent Vice.
Chuck Twardy

This would make a pretty good list meme: film adaptations book lovers long for. A little long for a hashtag, sorry, but feel free to devise your own.

I started yearning for a Thomas Pynchon novel not long after reading the consciously film-like Gravity’s Rainbow not long after it was published in 1973. The narration often seems to describe the unspooling of astonishing scenes in a movie only the author can see.

So keenly I await Inherent Vice. I’ve been boring social media acquaintances for weeks with Tumblr reblogs, including one sharing a Spotify playlist of the yet-unreleased soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, a third outing with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Its heavy ’60s vibe suits stoner detective Doc Sportello’s stumble through a sequence of baffling intrigues. The playlist’s source, thefilmstage.com, also reviews the film, noting that Anderson tries cinematically to analogize Pynchon’s writing, and I’m not sure what I think of that. I’ll find out when the movie hits theaters next month.

It’s not the Pynchon novel I’d have picked, though. The book that preceded it, Against the Day, a Tolstoyan ramble through the turn of the 20th century, might have yielded a golden Coen brothers epic. Or last year’s Bleeding Edge, another muddled detective story, about the early Web before and after 9/11, could have tempted anyone from Sofia Coppola to Spike Jonze. (Play the Pynchon cross-fertilization game: Kathryn Bigelow? Alejandro González Iñárritu?) The masterwork itself, Gravity’s Rainbow, would suit the trend toward series that home-viewing has brought to films. It’s way too long to condense into two hours, but its progressive unraveling might be hard to sustain in either a TV or a movie series.

The best movie adaptations have used film’s illusion-making machinery to tell a book’s story while sustaining something of the author’s voice, whether literally in voiced narration or in fidelity to the spirit of the text. Apparently Anderson chose both for Inherent Vice, and thefilmstage.com’s critic found Pynchon’s sometimes dense prose layered haphazardly on a never-quite-gelling plot.

There’s always a sense that the film should be considered sui generis, a unique creation beyond and not beholden to the original—think of Charlie Kaufman morphing Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into Adaptation. How about this: if Inherent Vice tanks, it’s a flawed experiment, to be considered entirely apart from the flawless source. #failureisanorphan? #dontblametom? But I hope I’m wrong about that.

Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com

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