Bright Lights Film Journal

The Mysteries of Adaptation: Michael Chabon’s Novels Onscreen

Wonder Boys is a wonder; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, not so much

In the last paragraphs of Michael Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, on which the 2009 film by Rawson Marshall Thurber is based, the story’s protagonist, Art Bechstein, attempts to wrap his head around the summer that ushered him, with a dizzy, heart-rending momentum, into adulthood. Thinking back on his younger self, he says:

[It] seems in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness — and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments.

Almost on the basis of this passage alone, with its crushing nostalgia and sweeping, filmic metaphors, it’s easy to see why the book was optioned by a Hollywood studio nearly as soon as it was published in 1988. In an earlier chapter, two of the book’s main characters, Arthur and Phlox, are likened to “cinema kings” as they stroll, sun-streaked and impeccably dressed, down a Pittsburgh avenue. It’s as if Chabon knew that his first novel, which he penned as a creative writing student at UC Irvine, was undeniably the stuff of the screen, and was dropping hints.

And yet, despite its critical and commercial success, the book quickly earned a reputation in film circles as being unadaptable. The story — a romantic coming-of-age tale in the vein of Fitzgerald — was too complex, with its focus on the antics and amorous entanglements of four major characters over a span of three months. Chabon’s writing was also a problem. It was too cerebral and expository, and the narrative too dependent on Bechstein’s unique first-person voice. Many tried, and even Chabon’s own adaptive attempt failed. Mysteries would be another on a list of great novels that never make the leap to the movie medium.

Then, sometime before 2006, Thurber sent Chabon a fan letter and asked him to breakfast. He’d admired the book for years, and had some ideas about solving the “Gordian knot” that was keeping Mysteries from the screen. To his surprise, Chabon agreed to meet. Even more shocking, he was into Thurber’s pitch. Thurber forwarded him a treatment, and later a screenplay, and by the second draft the author had given his go-ahead.

Thurber’s approach was one of self-described “amputation.” Among the objects of Art’s affection in the novel is Arthur Lecomte (yes, they have the same first name), a handsome, acerbic friend with whom he has a gay affair. But between Art’s relationships with Arthur, his girlfriend Phlox, and Cleveland, a leather-jacketed wannabe crook who also forms a strong bond with the narrator, Thurber felt there was too much love for one film to support. And he may have been right. His solution was to cut Arthur’s character from the story entirely, and to give his salient traits — namely, his homoeroticism — to Cleveland, whom Art would go to bed with instead. Phlox’s role would be pared down in the film, and Jane, the Southern-belle girlfriend of Cleveland who makes brief cameos in the book, would become a central player in a movie-friendly love triangle between Art, Cleveland, and herself.

The goal was to simplify what Thurber calls the book’s “four-pointed love rhombus,” though one could argue that he only edited its corners in the end, substituting Jane for the now missing Arthur. Either way, the film found a home at Groundswell and went into production. It was shot on location in Pittsburgh with Jon Foster (Art), Sienna Miller (Jane), Peter Sarsgaard (Cleveland), Mena Suvari (Phlox), and Nick Nolte (Art’s gangster father) as its stars.

Chabon was understandably thrilled. It had taken almost twenty years, and too many false starts, for his debut work to get this far. In his words, the “magical alchemy” needed to transform a book into a film had finally occurred. But the problem for many fans was that the spellbinding magic of his novel, somewhere during the process, was left behind.

* * *

Given the troublesome rift between books and movies, it’s interesting how much of Chabon’s work feels decidedly cinematic. For all his razor insight, he’s a strikingly visual writer, and a lot of the snappy dialogue and wacky set-pieces in his fiction seem pre-packaged for the screen. Take this passage, from his best-known novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the World War II comic book odyssey that won him a Pulitzer. In it, Joe Kavalier saves the life of a famous surrealist who’s trapped in a diving suit at a party:

After ascertaining that Salvador Dali was indeed beginning to turn blue, Joe opened the screwdriver blade of the knife. He jammed it into the slot on the bolt head to hold the bolt steady. Then he worked the nut. Through the wire grid of the face plate, his eyes met Dali’s, abulge with terror and asphyxia. . . . Joe bit down hard on his lip and twisted until his fingers felt that they would split at the tips. There was a snap, and the nut began to protest and grow warm. Then, slowly, it gave.

It begs to be filmed! We can imagine the author storyboarding the scene in his mind, then letting it roll out in high-def prose. Chabon has a gift for weird drama, for thrilling turns, for phrases that somersault on the page. “I read for entertainment,” he has said, “and I write to entertain. Period.” That philosophy, along with a boyish love of pulp and Marvel lore, helps to account for his own screenwriting projects in past years: he co-wrote Spider-Man 2, and pitched ideas for the Fantastic Four and X-Men films, which were turned down. Recently he took on script revisions for Disney’s John Carter of Mars, a space fantasy based on the Barsoom series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Chabon’s interest in genre fiction meshes comfortably enough with the general current of box office tastes. Along with his more traditional stories and essays, he’s published horror, sci-fi, a swashbuckling serial, and a pair of detective novels that evoke Sherlock Holmes and a Jewish Sam Spade, respectively. But he’s also a literary writer, which means serious and ambitious, and it’s safe to say that any fun he’s having is in the service of grander things. In his hands, swordplay is rooted in real history, superheroes plunge to Freudian depths, and comic book artists are barometers of geopolitical thought. Chabon can give what many consider low a highbrow sheen.

Even so, it’s his more realistic narratives that have won the most genuine studio consideration. The rights to Kavalier & Clay were purchased by Paramount even before the novel was published, though in spite of multiple screenplay drafts by Chabon and some casting gossip (Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman), the project has been stuck in development hell for a decade. His novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, one of the aforementioned detective stories that straddles the line between literary and crime fiction, was also snatched up prior to its pub date, by Columbia, and is set to be scripted and directed by the Coen brothers.

The two books of Chabon’s already adapted, maybe not coincidentally, are shorter and less sprawling, and the resultant movies are marked by an offbeat, indie flavor that puts them more in the realm of Sundance contenders than popular favorites. Where one film fails, though, the other succeeds. Long before Mysteries flopped into theaters last year, Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys, was produced by Scott Rudin in 2000 to relative acclaim.

All along, Rudin has been Chabon’s foremost Hollywood champion. In the mid-nineties, the author pitched a romantic comedy idea to Rudin, about old Jews on a cruise ship, which the two developed for several years until the project was finally axed. It was Rudin who secured the rights to Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. When Wonder Boys was published back in 1995, Rudin showed signs of what’s become a side trend in his career: going after movies with explicit literary roots like The Hours (2002), Freedomland (2006), and No Country for Old Men (2008). He pounced on the book, getting Curtis Hanson to direct and, when Chabon himself opted out, Steve Kloves to write the screenplay.

Wonder Boys’ story follows Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a pot-smoking author and creative writing prof who in the course of one weekend loses his wife, his job, and the 2,000-page doorstop of a follow-up novel he’s been working on, with no end in sight, for seven years. As the annual writers’ festival at his Pittsburgh college kicks off, we find out he’s been on the ropes for a while. He’s sleeping with the head of the English department’s wife, Sarah (Frances McDormand), whom he soon learns is pregnant with his child. He has chronic fainting “spells.” And his impish editor, Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.), has just blown into town to stir up trouble and sniff around for the long-awaited manuscript.

There’s also Hannah Green (Katie Holmes), a lithe, talented student of Grady’s who rents a room in his house and seems intent on seducing him. And James Leer (Tobey Maguire), an even more gifted student who, when he’s not drafting dismal stories or watching old movies, spends his time fondling a derringer and flirting with suicide. The film is most concerned with Grady’s relationship with James, to whom he becomes a kind of surrogate father. Grady lets James crash on his couch and tag along as he visits his estranged wife’s childhood home. Before that, though, he sneaks him into Sarah’s bedroom to show him her husband’s trove of movie memorabilia, including the fur-lined wedding jacket of Marilyn Monroe, which James steals.

When Grady is attacked by Sarah’s dog, Poe, and James shoots it, things get even nuttier. With the canine corpse in the trunk, they spend the next two days smoking dope, knocking around campus and other Pittsburgh haunts, dodging the police, and engaging in moments of student-mentor bonding that Grady eventually realizes are mostly a fraud. James’s taste for fiction, it turns out, doesn’t end on the page. He’s also a bullshit artist, and he’s been snowing Grady from the start. The trick, then, is to cut through the layers of far-fetched bunk and get to the truth of James’s story and his talent, which is something close to Grady’s own. It takes one wonder boy to spot another. At the same time, Grady must sort out his feelings for his wife, his mistress, and his unborn child, while trying to keep Terry and Hannah at arm’s length.

If this sounds like a lot for one film to contain, it is. But Wonder Boys is fluent and funny, and it never seems overrun with its own details and subplots. If anything, the action at times feels a little slow, but in a refreshing way, like a Golden Age drama or the gradual unspooling of the novel itself. As Roger Ebert suggested in his review,1 Hanson takes an ambling French sensibility and applies it to what is essentially a screwball comedy, albeit a sentimental one. With that approach, the movie is able to both revel in and downplay its own odd content, so that dog murder, a gangly transvestite who offers free advice, and a hood-jumping James Brown lookalike don’t seem all that strange in the context of Grady’s universe. Like Chabon’s book, the film makes us believe these things are par for the course.

Beyond its charmingly weird plot, the movie holds our attention thanks largely to Douglas, who plays Grady with a quiet exasperation that’s a far cry from the cutthroat zeal he perfected in the eighties with Wall Street (1987) and The War of the Roses (1989). Like all his roles, it’s Michael Douglas portraying a version of Michael Douglas, but it’s him at his most quirky and vulnerable, and we have to like him for it. Maguire, too, gives a skillful turn as James, balancing the young writer’s shifty reticence with moments of genuine pain and panic. And with Downey and McDormand in the wings, no supporting scene is wasted. It’s a small movie with big star power that, impressively, never overwhelms itself. After Poe is bumped off, there’s a scene where Grady and James load the body into the back of a Ford Galaxie 500. Just before washing down a Codeine tablet with a swig of whiskey, James marvels at the car. “That’s a big trunk,” he says. “It holds a tuba, a suitcase, a dead dog, and a garment bag almost perfectly.” The film is like that too. Somehow, it all fits.

In adapting Wonder Boys, Steve Kloves stuck incredibly close to the original text. The weekend trajectory is more or less the same, and swaths of dialogue are lifted, almost verbatim, from the book. And though at least one prominent critic would beg to differ on this point,2 it translates wonderfully. While a movie can’t make room for Chabon’s riffs on architecture or his pulp-writer alter ego August Van Zorn, whom Grady talks about at length in the book, the most important and least explicable element of any novel — its tone — is preserved. At times, the resemblance between the two mediums is uncanny. In the book, there’s a moment when Crabtree first meets James Leer at a party, and he looks at the pale, potentially gay young man “with a wild surmise.” It’s a phrase that Chabon comically borrows from a Keats sonnet, and which, by some magic, puts its stamp on the film too. When Downey is introduced to Maguire onscreen, the glint in his eye is exactly as Chabon, via Keats, describes it: the mad look of a conquistador.

Grady’s task in film, as in the novel, is to strike a balance between saving others and saving himself. Most of the time, he’s missed the mark. He’s let down his (third) wife, his editor, and his students who think he’s crippled by writer’s block. He has no clue what to do about Sarah, or the troubled James, whom he sends home with his high-society parents, only to smuggle him out of his basement room a few hours later, with Crabtree in tow and under the cover of a winter’s night. His work, and his health, are failing. It’s just the kind of behavior you’d expect from a writer whose last big success arrived like a cosmic gift out of a pot-fuelled haze. He’s a talented man who doesn’t quite understand his talent, let alone his heart.

“You know . . . how you’re always telling us that writers make choices,” Hannah says to him, after falling asleep amidst piles of his monster opus, “Well . . . your book . . . reads in places as if you didn’t make any.” Douglas’s huffy reaction is dead-on, and tells us Hannah is exactly right. Grady has been drifting on smoke for years, and it’s only now, at fifty, that he’s beginning to take the reins of his life. Hanson and Kloves realize this, and they had enough sense and skill to allow their film to move erratically but surely toward its crisis moment, letting us stumble and laugh with Grady as he gets there. It’s a shame that Thurber, with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, couldn’t follow their example.

* * *

I won’t delve into the critical response to Mysteries. Suffice it to say it was poor, and that Dodgeball (2000), the sophomoric sports farce that put Thurber on the map, was often cited as the better of his two films. The movie premiered at Sundance in 2008 to a tepid reception, and spent the next year looking for a distributor, until Peace Arch Entertainment finally stepped up.

The major failure of the film, ironically, is also a literary one. Instead of showing, it tells. To keep things moving, Thurber relies almost exclusively on voiceover by Foster, but apart from an opening scene that mirrors the first paragraphs of the novel, with Art walking past “an endless red row of monkey attendants” in a hotel lobby, his narration comes off as humorless and dull. Just because Art is uninspired about working at the dreary Book Barn and having empty sex with his supervisor, Phlox, doesn’t mean his commentary should be too. But the trouble isn’t limited to the voiceover. In Wonder Boys, it’s worth pointing out, Douglas’s voiceover is used often and to wry effect. In Mysteries, though, the onscreen actors also seem to be narrating, rather than speaking, to each other. “Tell me something you’ve never told anyone,” Jane asks Art on the first night they meet, over a slice of pie in a diner. Art responds: “I have this thing that happens to me. An experience. I vanish.” His “experience” of feeling like a ghost is then dramatized in a dream sequence, but at that point it’s too late to shake our sense of being clubbed over the head. These characters are bonding right now. Did you catch that?

In another brief exchange, Art and Jane mention their love for each other five times, which, any writer will tell you, is at least four times too many. “He loves you,” Jane says to Art, referring to his father, whose mob involvement accidentally got his mother killed. “I love you. I love you. Do you love me?” A lot of movies (and books) contain dialogue that’s bland and stilted, though the sin is especially egregious to anyone familiar with the voice of the novel — Chabon’s voice — which is laced with so many wheeling flourishes and sharp asides. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a movie to approximate, or even glance the orbit of, Chabon’s expressive powers. Even so, Mysteries doesn’t come close.

In some ways, it’s easy to sympathize with Thurber. When he recounts discovering the book as an aimless twentysomething and gushes, “I was smitten,” I have to believe him. I had the same reaction to Mysteries as an undergrad. Aside from his sly perceptions about friendship and desire, what Chabon expresses so beautifully in the novel is the feeling, common among young adults, of having lost a part of your life before that part is actually lost. Call it preemptive nostalgia. Art and his friends exist in a summer limbo between youth and the “real world,” but they’re too smart not to have sized up that summer in the larger narrative of their lives, or to overlook the dangers of their yearnings and recklessness. In spite of the fun they’re having, tragedy crackles around them like static before a thunderstorm. And when that tragedy finally hits, and Cleveland falls headlong from the top of a Steel City smokestack, the impact is more shocking for all the languid nonsense that’s come before. In the film, we get some of the nonsense — a punk rock club, a night swimming scene, Cleveland picking off beer cans with an air rifle — and we get the dire climax, but without the author’s tone and foreshadowing to connect them.

For Thurber, it’s the case of a botched affair, a labor of love gone awry. He landed his dream job, he tried his best, and as a second-time director wasn’t up to the task. His fanboy ardor, for whatever reason, didn’t translate.

But it’s still hard to forgive his revisions. Not because they’re wholly illogical — Chabon, remember, signed off on the script — but because in his effort to streamline an admirably messy plot to meet some industry-storytelling standard, Thurber manages to leach so much of the passion and humor from the material. Many of the best scenes just aren’t there, and the ones that are fall flat. In Wonder Boys, there’s a moment where Terry Crabtree finds a paragraph that James Leer has punched out on his typewriter, and which is an obvious description of Grady. He reads it aloud: “His heart, once capable of inspiring others so completely, could no longer inspire so much as itself. . . . It beat now only because it could.” Thurber’s Mysteries is something like that sad, latter-day Grady Tripp, a shell of lost potential.

Still, it’s not that bad. While Foster’s Art is mostly a straight-faced dud, he certainly looks the part, and there are a couple of scenes — like a dinner at the LeMont, when his disapproving father reduces him to tears — where his performance is close to moving. Sarsgaard plays Cleveland with an eerie nonchalance that is fitting for a character on the brink, though he never feels as credible, or as doomed, as the person Chabon describes. And Nolte steals the occasional scene as the Jewish gangster dad, even if his gruff persona is closer to a cinema stereotype than the man in the novel, whose voice is likened to Winnie the Pooh’s. The women in Art’s life, Jane and Phlox, tug at his heart constantly, if not too convincingly. “You go home and you laugh at me,” Suvari’s Phlox insists, as she and Art are breaking up. Along with the tumultuous bond between Cleveland and Jane, Phlox is a token of the supercharged absurdity that can seep into post-graduate relationships. In that sense, Thurber does capture something about how the book feels.

And like Wonder Boys, Mysteries gets Pittsburgh right. The confluence of the three rivers, the gothic Cathedral of Learning on Pitt’s campus, and “The Cloud Factory,” which is the book’s most pregnant symbol, are present and accounted for. With shots of blurry blue bridges and steep, amber-lit streets, the movie gives us stirring impressions of a city that, in its throwback beauty, seems to be poised between stillness and flux. Like in so many of Chabon’s stories, Pittsburgh emerges as a character. Of course, there are some figurative gems in the book — “In Pittsburgh, even the cicadas are industrial” — that simply can’t be put across onscreen. And in the end, the look of the film is as much a credit to Michael Barrett’s dreamy cinematography as anything else. Aesthetics can only go so far. In the movie, after Jane and Cleveland have a drunken fight and are thrown out of a restaurant, there’s a scene where Cleveland is stitching a tear in his girlfriend’s dress. “Love can only do so much in this life,” he says to Art. “It’s beautiful but it’s not real.” The same might be said about the film.

Many fans and critics were upset that the movie seems to treat the book’s gay themes with kid gloves. As Thurber himself has pointed out, his take on Mysteries is no Brokeback Mountain (2008). In an interview, he fleshed out his feelings on the film’s sexual content: “Honestly, the ‘gayness’ of the story is the least interesting thing about it to me  —  I mean, aren’t we past that as a culture?” An optimist might say yes, and any realist will say no, but all of that is beside the point. What matters is that, in the book, Art is certainly not past his misgivings about his sexuality. He’s only twenty-two, after all, and his exploits are set in the summer of 1983 rather than our “enlightened” postmillennial age. The gay question is not Art’s most pressing one in the context of the story, but it’s nonetheless critical and immensely troubling to him. Not because he’s repressed or homophobic, but because it has real implications for how he will live his life from here on out. We get the sense that he never expected to find himself in love, and in bed, with a man. His affair with Arthur is a mind-fuck, a wild-eyed wakeup call to the pathetic limits of categories and the fluidity of human attraction. Whether or not he will continue to lead a bisexual lifestyle, his understanding of himself has been overhauled.

And that’s why it’s so disappointing to see the agent of that change — Arthur — not only missing from the film, and his role taken on by a modified Cleveland, but also shouldered aside for a more conventional romance between Art and Jane. Needless to say, that relationship is nowhere to be found in the book. And yet Thurber makes it the driving force of his movie.

When Art and Cleveland finally hit the sheets onscreen, it’s almost an afterthought. It comes on the heels of another, longer sex scene, featuring Art and Jane, in which the two slowly disrobe in a room suffused with gold light. The result is that when Art and Cleveland end up in bed, just a few scenes later, it feels gratuitous. The film’s erotic capital has been used up. What’s handled with a mix of grace and violence in the book is, in the movie, hardly handled at all. It’s not a matter of showcasing Art’s first gay experience, or dwelling on the act itself. The novel, in fact, isn’t especially graphic when it comes to sex. In typical form, Chabon seizes on peripheral details — a bottle of corn oil, a bloody nose — to draw the reader in. Rather, it’s about doing justice to an event that is as psychological for Art as it is sexual, a carnal expression of new risks and fears and possibilities, a new way of seeing the world.

At one point in the book, Art and Arthur spend an afternoon at the pool, and Art can’t stop staring at his friend. The movie includes a similar scene — the characters are sunbathing in lawn chairs, with a cooler of beer, as smoke billows from the Cloud Factory above them. But in the film it’s not Arthur who Art is concerned with, of course, or even Cleveland, who’s asleep at the edge of the frame. It’s Jane, looking like Grace Kelly in a bikini and white retro shades, her body tanned and taut. She lifts her sunglasses and smiles at him. She’s stunning, but she’s not a man, and in that way she represents something powerful but orthodox in literature and film: an object of heterosexual lust. The conflict, in Thurber’s context, is that Art is ogling his friend’s girlfriend, which is a problem, but has more to do with sex in general than with any kind of sexual crisis or awakening. His friendships are at stake, but not his identity. Chabon, on the other hand, gives us Arthur sunning himself on the chaise lounge, and as he describes Art’s appraisal of his friend’s body and the revelation it brings, the writing is perfect:

But his skin was the most strange, and the most difficult to keep my eyes from; it was dappled all over with tiny shadows, which gave it a look both soft and rough, as of suede or fine sand; and it seemed, stretched so tightly across his bones and muscle, as though it would never give, like a woman’s, to the pressure of my hand. . . . I was startled into thinking the sentence that I had all summer forbidden myself to think: I was in love with Arthur Lecomte. I longed for him.

I think that anyone who’s read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and loved it, after seeing Thurber’s adaptation and registering its absences, must find it hard to think of Arthur Lecomte without some sense of that longing.

At least we have the novels themselves, though, and Hanson’s Wonder Boys. That is, until the next of Chabon’s works finds its own convoluted path to the screen, for better or worse.

Sources

Scott, A.O. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Stockbroker in Training Has Turns in His Journey.”The New York Times, April 10, 2009.Ebert, Roger. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” Chicago Sun-Times, April 9, 2009.

Morris, Wesley. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” The Boston Globe, April 10, 2009.

Vancheri, Barbara. “Movie Review: ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh’.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 17, 2009.

Vancheri, Barbara. “No mystery: Writer-director knew he was the one to bring Chabon novel to the screen.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 2006.

“Magnum P.I. Without a ‘Stache?! A Pajiba Exclusive Interview with Rawson Marshal Thurber.”Pajiba, July 5, 2006.

Tobias, Scott. “An Interview with Michael Chabon.” The Onion, November 22, 2000, Volume 36 Issue 42. (Republished in McSweeney’s).

Hodler, Timothy. “Michael Chabon Q&A.” Details Magazine, 2007.

Fleming, Michael. “Coens speak ‘Yiddish” for Columbia.” Variety, February 11, 2008.

The Amazing Website of Kavalier & Clay.

Wikipedia. “Michael Chabon.”

Chabon, Michael. “An Account of a Brief Bout of Mutant Madness.”, March 2005.

———. “Maybe Not So Much with the Fantastic.”, July 2005.

———. “Introduction.” The Best American Short Stories 2005. Ed. Michael Chabon. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2005.

———. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Perennial, 1989.

———. Wonder Boys. Picador USA, 1995.

———. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Random House, New York, 2000.

———. “My Back Pages.” Maps and Legends. McSweeney’s Books, San Francisco, 2008.

———. The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2004.

  1. Ebert, Roger. “Wonder Boys.” Chicago Sun-Times, May 12, 2000.
    []
  2. Scott, A. O. “Wonder Boys: Marijuana, Manuscript and Marriage Equal a Mess.” The New York Times, February 23, 2000. []