Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s most acclaimed novel, famously begins, “A screaming comes across the sky.” Inherent Vice, one of his most recent works, doesn’t come screaming – it hangs languidly like a haze of cannabis smoke, opaque and ethereal. A sunbaked early-70s noir, accessible by his standards, full of references to Scooby-Doo and Gilligan’s Island, Inherent Vice feels like Pynchon Lite. It’s jarring to read the alt-lit god, whose dense novels are parsed with a fervor usually reserved for Shakespeare, go full-out Big Lebowski on us. The end result is something I liked the idea of more than I actually liked, like Twin Peaks or sweet potatoes.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption, starring Joaquin Phoenix and a colorful supporting cast, is a vibrant improvement over the book. PTA hasn’t made any dramatic changes – in fact, the movie is deferentially true to the book, treating it almost like scripture. He certainly keeps the lovingly-crafted characters, the offbeat humor, and the menace lurking beneath it all. Yet, the film is funnier, weirder, and more immediate – it turns out this kind of irreverent exercise is simply more fun to watch than to read. Frustrated viewers will chastise the haphazard plot and bloated runtime, but, if you thought 148 minutes was a long time to spend in a suspended state of bong-induced paranoia, try 369 pages.
Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is not a page-turning crime thriller in the style of Chandler or Leonard – the labyrinth twists and conspiratorial rumblings are not so much plot devices as expressionistic tools, used to conjure the atmosphere of that dark time in which the idealism of the 60s collapsed into the fascist nihilism of the 70s. Served by Robert Elswit’s lush cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s moody score, PTA’s Inherent Vice simply does a better job evoking the abstract peril of the material. Where the book felt slack, the film is strangely hypnotic.
And, contrary to the popular refrain, this is not uncommon: lots of movies are better than the books on which they are based.
So, why are we so conditioned to like the book better than the movie? Well, books certainly have their advantages. While watching movies is often a shared, sometimes public enterprise, we read alone, in a state more intimate and vulnerable. Literature’s characters and landscapes live in our heads, and readers can become fiercely protective of them, rejecting casting choices or aesthetic decisions that don’t match their own mental configurations.
We spend more time with books, so they have more space to develop their characters and narratives. In this sense, they can be more immersive. I think most people loved Boyhood because it’s one of the few movies that feels as vast and encompassing as a great novel. It was essentially celebrated for transcending cinema, for moving audiences in a way only long-form storytelling usually can.
But those inherent differences still don’t account people’s knee-jerk dismissal of film adaptations. One of the biggest factors is that while movies are constantly made from great books, the reverse is rarely true. Almost every classic novel has been turned into a watered-down film, but there isn’t that same clamor or financial incentive for the novelization of Pulp Fiction or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So we simply haven’t been repeatedly let down by book adaptions the way we have by film adaptations.
But, though it’s rarely recognized, plenty of film adaptations have far overreached the novels from which they originated. In the 70s, young Hollywood “movie brats” Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg took two mass-market paperbacks – The Godfather and Jaws, respectively – and turned them into two of the most influential and beloved films of the century. Yes, these were popular, zeitgeist books, but the films are lasting cultural cornerstones.
There’re plenty of similar examples: Hitchcock’s Psycho trumps Robert Bloch’s novel. I desperately love Philip K. Dick, but his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feels like an underdeveloped first-draft of what became Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
The transition from book to movie is also one that, decades ago, would’ve been considered a move from “high art” to “low art.” We’ve discarded a lot of the distinctions between the two – so few people still care about things like opera and painting that we’ve kind of redefined art-house cinema and HBO mini-series as our new “high art” – but the stigma remains. People assume that movie adaptations are dumbed-down versions of the book, automatically less prestigious. This is obviously reductive and foolish, as per the examples above.
Additionally, two-hour runtimes mean trimming plotlines and character development. However, this isn’t always a bad thing. Inherent Vice, for example, pares Pynchon’s sprawling story to a more manageable size. The Shining, which is probably the best Stephen King book I’ve ever read, keeps the good (essentially, the deeply, deeply terrifying premise) and replaces a lot of the extraneous stuff, as well as the novel’s silly ending. Never mind the upgrade from trading King’s overwrought writing for Kubrick’s masterful direction.
The great white in Jaws chomping a stark raving Robert Shaw in half amidst a sea of blood…The Godfather’s infamous montage juxtaposing a baptism with a series of vicious gangland murders…a staggering, demonic Jack Nicholson batting down a door with an axe so he can chop his family into little bits. These are moments of pure cinema, kinetic and visual and mesmerizing.
Inherent Vice doesn’t have a particular scene that will grab hold of mainstream audiences like the ones above. In fact, lots of people won’t take to the film at all – it’s too weird, too foggy, and, oddly, almost too subdued. But, it’s also the only film of the year where Martin Short plays a maniacal, coked-up dentist with a taste for teenage girls. Even Pynchon’s celebrated prose couldn’t conjure up that kind of living, breathing, wonderful insanity.