Rewriting a Man If He Would Allow It, Jamming, 03/06/2014

A few days ago, we watched The Rum Diary, because my girlfriend and I had always individually intended to see it, but never did. I had read the novel already, around this time last year. I quite enjoyed it, as I always enjoyed Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. He sometimes strikes me as a politicized heir to Henry Miller, although the political edge was largely absent from The Rum Diary, the novel. 

That same sense of pessimism that I’m well familiar with from Thompson was there, though. The Rum Diary novel was a catalogue of the slow descent of a group of men who were already circling the drain. It was largely plotless, as are most of Thompson’s works. The progress of its narrative was marked by increases in the pathetic nature of its protagonists. Its ending was a slide into continued desperation, just where the novel began, but without even the joy of looking forward to cheap booze and hot weather. 

The film was completely different. Before I say how, I suppose I should offer my usual 


warning, but for a film several years old and a book decades older, I’m not even sure that I really need it. There was a clear plot, involving the corruption of Johnny Depp’s Thompson stand-in, Paul Kemp, by Sanderson the corrupt and obscenely wealthy real estate developer. Meanwhile, Kemp and Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault fall in love. This plot (the sheer existence of such a thing in this narrative is anathema to the Thompson style) sees a protagonist facing a clear ethical choice. Kemp is outraged by the pathetic poverty he sees around him in Puerto Rico. But he is tempted to become a PR man for Sanderson and his partners in a hotel development plan, who are all exactly the kind of sexist warmongering money-grubbing pigs that Thompson would spend his life denouncing and mocking. 

Johnny Depp's Rum Diary is a far more glamorous world
than Hunter S. Thompson's Rum Diary.
Kemp finds himself ejected from the plan not by any determined protest of his growing political conscience, but as the fallout of an incident where he enabled Chenault’s gang rape in a packed Puerto Rican bar. Sanderson blames him for encouraging a drunk Chenault to dance to make him jealous, but she’s stripped and assaulted on the dance floor while the men are kicked out of the bar. This incident proceeds pretty much the same as in the novel, and Chenault similarly shacks up with Kemp for a while, after Sanderson kicks her out of his house as damaged goods. In the novel, she eventually drifts away from Kemp, and having grown tired of his layabout existence, returns to her family home in New England. When his newspaper, The San Juan News, is closed, Kemp slinks onto a plane to drift around Europe, just as aimless now as he when he arrived.

The Rum Diary novel is a drifting shambles, a beautiful collision of words and imagery, but little more. The film, meanwhile, puts politics at the forefront, trapping Kemp in a moral dilemma of whether he’ll sell out his values about publicizing the terrible social inequities of Puerto Rico in 1960 to shill a posh hotel that will cater to the American ignorati. There is a sequence where Kemp and his co-worker/roommate Bob Sala watch the Kennedy-Nixon debate, one where Kemp discusses how he doesn’t know how to write in his own voice, and one where Kemp and Sala do acid together. Even more remarkable is a sequence where Kemp, Sala, and the catastrophically alcoholic Moburg try to print one last issue of their newspaper publicizing Sanderson’s corrupt development plan, and distribute it guerrilla-style around the city. None of these are in the book.

In the novel, Sanderson is not nearly so rich and well-connected, simply a developer who made a few lucky deals and is just as much a bum as the protagonists. The novel’s Chenault is a drifter, a grifter, and actually a little dim and exploitive. In the film, Sanderson is a villain in an epic register, living a Miami Vice lifestyle on a poverty-stricken island. Chenault is a romantic light that illuminates Kemp.* The film leaves behind the grit and ambiguity of the novel’s plotlessness.

* Yes, she is essentially a woman whose main role in the story is either being subjected to a man or playing a role in a man’s development. I never said this movie was perfect, after all.

Depp essentially remade The Rum Diary as a story of
Hunter S. Thompson becoming himself.
The novel is the creation of a 22 year old Hunter Thompson, at the time just as adrift as his characters. The film is a posthumous salute to one of America’s angriest political consciences, essentially a bildungsroman for Thompson himself. This dimension was impossible to include in the original novel. After all, Thompson had no idea what he would become when he wrote it. Yet the film was a creation with the man’s full history in view of the creators. Depp, who was one of Thompson’s best friends late in life and who paid for his theatrically insane funeral, was a producer. 

One of the major questions that is often asked when a novel, especially one with a dedicated cult following like The Rum Diary, is adapted to film, is how important fidelity to the original text is. I used to think fidelity was quite important, but as I learned more of the differences of film and literature as media (beginning to write professionally was a major part of this self-education), I’ve forgotten its significance. If anything, the differences between a film and its novel are more intriguing than any faithful reproductions.

Thompson was, without doubt, a pessimistic man. He raged against the injustice of the world, but accepted that the world would never allow justice. The Rum Diary film essentially gives Kemp a happy ending. He has become Hunter Thompson, and the final title card shows that he found and happily married Chenault, embarking on a career in journalism that would strike fear into the corrupt and violent of his country. He even steals Sanderson’s boat to do it. Some would say that the film betrays Thompson in giving Kemp this hopeful, optimistic ending.

But there is something more here. Depp’s movie has done something far more radical than simply salute his friend with an adaptation of his early novel. He gave Thompson, through this avatar, the happy ending that he never found in real life. This film posthumously gives Thompson love and victory, and inspires its viewers with the notion, almost the faith, that something like victory can still be possible, that no matter how bitter the world becomes, our actions can be worth more than a scream in a lonely night. 


  1. I thoroughly disagree. Having read the book and watched the film, too, I thought it was rather reflective of the book. I suspect you should re-read The Rum Diary. It certainly presents a plot, oddly enough, one that the movie portrays on-screen, even if it is in condensed form. That's pretty typical when making a film from a book. You can't say it all in 90 minutes. And, you somehow think Thompson didn't put politics at the forefront of his writing? Good luck with that analysis.

    1. It wasn't at the forefront of the Rum Diary, and I looked back through the novel as I was planning this post. The film clearly tags those real estate bigwigs as politically despicable — Depp's Kemp reacts much more uncomfortably than the novel's Kemp when he meets ex-general Zimburger and hears about the Vieques hotel plans. The visuals of the film linger much longer on the opulence of Sanderson's lifestyle and the poverty of average Puerto Ricans. Kemp's internal conflict is pushed to the foreground, where the book doesn't really emphasize this. The novel's Kemp just goes along with the ride.

      As well, that acid trip and the attempt to publish one last copy of the San Juan News guerrilla-style aren't in the book at all. Kemp's comments about not having truly found his voice are much more prominent in the film. And the happy end title, where Kemp steals Sanderson's boat, he and Chenault get married and it's implied that he becomes a Greenwald-level successful journalist isn't in the book at all. The book peters out in a haze of alcoholism.

      The novel has its political content, but it isn't foregrounded — not much is foregrounded at all. And it's not a bildungsroman at all, which is pretty much what Depp made the film.

      I think The Rum Diary novel is read retroactively as a much more explicitly political novel than it is because of what Thompson became. He wrote that novel when he was 22. His work on Hell's Angels came when he was almost 30, and his landmark political works came throughout his 30s. I know, in my case, how much I've changed from my early 20s until now — my own thinking is much more nuanced and focused, and my politics have grown more radical, and are at the forefront of my own thinking. I think Thompson's priorities as a writer definitely changed over those ten years. He already had the amorphous narrative form down in The Rum Diary, which was a sign of his incredible talent even at that age. But it was only by his 30s that he could imbue that form with the fire he became famous for.

  2. True enough. I concede your points. Thanks for the thoughtful response, too! I'm just being lenient with the Hollywoodization of the film. My reading of the novel's rather favourable, as well. Can't help a bit of fandom. My take away from the novel was HST felt a little forced, like he was a young writer trying to play a bit too much by someone else's rules, but you could still hear his voice there, ya know? I think that's your point about reading it retroactively. Anyways, that's just my take; it's just speculation. Thanks for providing your further thoughts.

    1. It's no problem for me. Thanks for taking an interest and having a talk about it. To be honest, I actually rather liked how the Hollywoodization cut down on the number of chapters that could essentially be summarized as "Kemp and friends get drunk and wax poetic about Puerto Rico and failure," which do tend to obscure its political perspective. Foregrounding the book's politics with the new narrative element of the HST bildungsroman made it a better narrative in a lot of ways. That's the difference between a straight adaptation of the novel HST wrote in 1959 and the immense cultural meaning of HST in 2011. The movie rewrites Thompson's actual book, and the narrative of his own life to create a cultural figure that feeds into the inspiration of new generations of artists and writers. Much more important than fidelity of adaptation if you ask me.

  3. Well said. I enjoyed the discussion, too! Cheers, man!