Inherent Vice and the Act of Adaptation

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A trip to the cinema to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice compels me to record some thoughts about the film, and the issue of cinematic adaptations of books. 

Inherent Vice weaves a complex, and increasingly redundant, narrative that is part film noir pastiche, part stoner comedy, and part paean to 1960s counterculture. Joaquin Phoenix plays a perpetually intoxicated PI named Larry “Doc” Sportello, trying to make sense of kidnappings, drug cartels, and real estate corruption. The film is an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel.

Inherent Vice's Last Supper

Inherent Vice’s Last Supper

 The film has received mostly positive reviews. However, some critics and significantly more members of the public (the film has gained some infamy for provoking walkouts at screenings) have criticised the film as being incomprehensible. Having read Pynchon’s book I had no trouble with the multitude of half baked plotlines. This is not because I am able to make absolute coherent sense of the film, but because the book had prepared me to expect confusion and incomplete narrative threads.

The novel pays homage to the torturous plots turned out by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and their ilk. Chandler wrote about moving away from classic English detective novels where Sherlock Holmes (or whomever) turns up in the final chapter to neatly tie everything together in logical fashion. Pynchon pushes Chandler to point of absurdity, where nothing is resolved, only half-remembered. Pynchon uses the arbitrary nature of the detective narrative  to cram in as many jokes, popular culture references, songs, and sex scenes as he can. It isn’t his best book (1966’s The Crying of Lot 49 covers similar ground and is stronger), but it is his funniest. Once you stop caring about the narrative that is.

The Novel

The Novel

In order for Anderson’s film to be a good adaptation of Pynchon’s book, it must at least be funny. It is. The main joke of the novel is how insignificant the narrative is. Thus in order to be a good adaptation Anderson’s film must be frustrating and semi coherent. It certainly is. I am not proposing that adaptations should only make sense to readers of the book. I am proposing that part of the appeal of writers like Pynchon is unravelling the complexities of their style. That pleasurable bewilderment should not be lost in transition.

The film is not an exact copy of the book. It doesn’t go to the fully absurdist lengths that Pynchon does, and thus isn’t quite as laugh out loud as the book. This sadly accounts for the exclusion of an acid trip soundtracked by Tiny Tim on a constant loop. Anderson sacrifices this comedy to include a melancholy sense of the end of an era (the film is set in 1970 Los Angeles). These moments of reflection are there in the novel, but cannot penetrate the triteness of the style. The film occasionally takes the time to dial back the comedy and look at a wider cultural picture. There are two moments in the film, both set to Neil Young songs (Harvest and Journey Through the Past) that are surprisingly tear-jerking. The film’s main sex scene (a long take lasting at least 5 minutes) feels quite poignant.

Another move further towards realism and drama is the look of the film. This does not evoke a realistic depiction of California in 1970, but a realistic depiction of what films made in California in 1970 look like. The sets, costumes, and film stock are so true to history that this film looks more like the 1970s than a film from that period. This evokes films fairly serious in tone such as  Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), and William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). Doc, a ludicrous character, is shot similarly to Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1972). If we are supposed to associate this hippy detective with the classic fascist cop, then Anderson isn’t being nearly as light-hearted as Pynchon.

Doc Sportello

Doc Sportello

“Dirty” Harry Callahan

Overall Anderson has made a good film, and a very good adaptation. To achieve this he has to alienate certain sections of his audience (the inherent vice of the film), just as some readers feel alienated by Pynchon. Ultimately It doesn’t quite hit the heights of Robert Altman’s 70s set adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.

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2 thoughts on “Inherent Vice and the Act of Adaptation

  1. I’ve shamefully never read any Pynchon and had no idea what the film was going to be about. But the idea of a PI tackling a case that never remotely becomes coherent, in a way that leads to various sorts of dark comedy, is actually pretty straightforward. It no doubt sometimes happens in real life. It becomes evident very quickly that the more Doc discovers, the less sense everything makes; each new clue adds questions rather than answers them. While you’re absolutely correct that the surface narrative–who did what–is insignificant, the meta-narrative–Doc’s befuddlement among unclear and probably shifting allegiances–is potent.

    It kind of saddens me that there are viewers who have such a restricted view of narrative that they have a problem seeing that the incoherence of the film’s surface story is intentional, and the entertaining point of the movie, or, if they do get that the movie is deconstructing detective story conventions, don’t enjoy the deconstruction. I saw it with a small crowd at the local arthouse cinema, and we laughed our asses off (and got choked up at the points you mention).

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed Inherent Vice despite not having read the book. Films should be able to exist independent of their source material. It is depressing that audiences seem to be demanding very didactic structures and total narrative closure. I think David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis suffered even more than Inherent Vice. Its actually a really good DeLillo adaptation but his tone can be quite alienating at first exposure.

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