Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.
There’s an extra layer of scrutiny that gets applied to literary adaptations. In addition to the things we judge in all films — the script, the acting, the directing, the editing, etc. — we ask what a director did, or failed to do, with the source material.
A film might be great and still be a poor adaptation, which leads to a kind of ancillary disappointment that a wholly original film wouldn’t have to worry about. And directors know this. How much they let it shape or inform their approach is up to them, but they know — and have always known — that fans of the original text will watch an adaptation with certain expectations in mind.
I’m not saying that it is a director’s duty to meet those expectations. (In fact, read on to hear me say the opposite!) But the expectations will be there, and the director will be aware of them.
So we can imagine the absolutely crushing weight that Paul Thomas Anderson must have felt when he directed Inherent Vice. Not only was he adapting a novel, but he was adapting a novel by the notoriously unfilmable (in both senses of the word) Thomas Pynchon. What’s more, the film was likely to be — and is still likely to be — the only authorized adaptation of anything Pynchon will ever write.
No pressure, there, Paul.
Inherent Vice, the novel, is about Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private eye in Southern California who faces the dawn of the 1970s — and the inevitable end of the Summer of Love — only because he has no other choice. As American society takes its first, deliberate steps toward forgetting whatever lessons it might have learned from the hippie movement, Doc’s focus is demanded suddenly by a new case: the reappearance of his ex-lover, and the disappearance of her current lover.
By Pynchon standards, it’s a pretty simple plot, and was something of an exception for the author, who was mainly known for his massive, meandering tangles of historical fiction. Inherent Vice has historical merit, but it’s also a silly detective novel, full of pot jokes and identifiable character types. It was good, but it also felt just a bit different from what we expected of Pynchon.
And the novel wasn’t the only thing he did unexpectedly.
Thomas Pynchon had always been a deliberate enigma. Rarely photographed. Less rarely identified. Never went on book tours. Never accepted awards in person. Never gave interviews. Never said much of anything, really…at least not outside of his novels.
Pynchon was silent. Distant. Content to while his time away behind a typewriter, somewhere, letting his works speak — and rewardingly baffle — for themselves.
Until, all at once, he wasn’t. He made these strange little excursions into the life of…a different author, basically. It’s not that he wasn’t Pynchon anymore…it’s that Pynchon was becoming, incrementally, perhaps temporarily, more comfortable with some other version of himself. One that was more…vocal?
In 2004, with no fanfare to speak of, the man who uniformly refused public communication of any kind appeared on The Simpsons.
He played himself with a bag over his head, the exciting news here being that “Thomas Pynchon” was now a viable Halloween costume. Because nobody had heard his voice before, there were debates about whether or not this really was Pynchon.
But don’t worry; we’d be hearing his voice again. In advance of Inherent Vice, Pynchon lent his own voice (and likely his own script) to a video promoting the novel. He also built a playlist on Amazon spotlighting music from the novel — both real and invented.
Oh, and, he offered up the film rights.
That’s a huge deal. The man who had never officially sanctioned any adaptations of his work of any kind, and had actually squashed numerous unofficial adaptations, was now openly asking somebody to make a movie based on his book.
Is it a coincidence that this surge of un-Pynchonlike behavior surrounds a novel in which characters are rewired, against their wills, to think and behave differently than they naturally would? Yes, of course it very likely is. But it’s an intriguing one.
Whatever the great recluse hoped to accomplish by flitting so quickly through the spotlight, he apparently accomplished it through The Simpsons, Amazon, and however many documents he had to sign in order to let Paul Thomas Anderson make an Inherent Vice of his own.
Pynchon kept writing and publishing, but the next time Penguin needed a promo video, he wasn’t in it. He had retreated back into silence, and left Anderson carrying a torch he was destined to have trouble keeping lit.
That’s not Anderson’s fault, though. The list of Pynchon’s releases cements him easily as one of our best authors, but the list of Anderson’s films cements him just as easily as one of our best directors. It’s not a case of mismatched talent; in fact, it was probably the best pairing we could have hoped for.
And yet the film feels…lifeless. Little of Pynchon’s oblique wit and less of Anderson’s many cinematic gifts make it to the screen. Perhaps when Anderson had the chance to work with Pynchon’s voice, he forgot how to speak in his own.
Inherent Vice obviously tries to be a faithful adaptation, and that’s what holds it back. Film and literature are different languages, and Anderson did not provide a translation; he provided a transliteration. What worked on the page no longer works on the screen, and what the screen could have brought to the experience is discarded in favor of fidelity.
He tried to make a direct adaptation, and we’re all poorer for it.
Pynchon was kind to offer up Inherent Vice for adaptation, rather than something genuinely unfilmable — but more recognizable and with a greater built-in audience — such as Gravity’s Rainbow. That book (like his other historical comic epics, V., Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day) sees hundreds of characters weaving in and out of various plot threads, some of whom disappear for long stretches and reappear half the novel later, with the threads themselves often left deliberately unresolved. What’s more, the narration is not always clear about what’s actually happening versus what’s being imagined, dreamed, or hallucinated.
Inherent Vice is much easier, and it’s one of Pynchon’s more concise works. Less exciting as a prospect for adaptation, perhaps, but certainly one more likely to survive the transition.
Even among his other short novels, this one did seem to be the most likely to succeed. The Crying of Lot 49 relies almost completely on its protagonist’s internal journey…an issue that could potentially be resolved through copious voiceover, though that would also rob the story of its affecting (and defining) vagueness. Vineland, I think, could work with a bit of effort, especially since another Anderson used a similar nested-flashbacks approach to great effect in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bleeding Edge came after Inherent Vice, so it wasn’t up for consideration, but it does seem to be pretty filmable, provided you can find some way to make interesting the many scenes of characters staring at computer screens.
Inherent Vice is the only one of Pynchon’s short novels to feature a male lead. The others — Oedipa Maas, Prairie Wheeler, Maxine Tarnow — are all female. Perhaps notable, likely not; I just found it interesting.
Doc’s journey, like that of any good detective figure, gets complicated fast. While investigating the disappearance of hotshot real-estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex, also vanishes. He learns that they both took a trip — some kind of trip, only some degree of willingly — aboard a schooner known as the Golden Fang. Which also turns out to be the name of a drug cartel, a rehab facility, a tax-dodge for shady dentists, or some combination of the above.
Tossed into the mix is surf sax player Coy Harlingen, who ostensibly died of a heroin overdose but seems to keep popping up on television and at rallies as a political agitator. Doc is first hired by Coy’s wife to do some checking into his dubious death…and then hired by Coy to check up on his wife. All the while Doc is pursued — sometimes assisted, usually manipulated — by “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a humorless cop still reeling from the murder of his partner.
Of course, as Doc untangles his caseload he’s also forced — sentimental bastard that he is — to untangle his emotions.
For Shasta, yes, who came back just to stir up feelings in him that he wished he’d already forgotten, but also for Penny, the Deputy D.A. he’s been seeing off and on, and, oddly enough, for Bigfoot.
In fact, it could be argued that the rivalry (one of thematic siblings) between Doc and Bigfoot is the emotional cornerstone of the book in general, each of them trying desperately to connect with the other, to set aside their pride, to bond in some way without losing respect for themselves, to help each other forward through the dawn of a new decade that isn’t going to be especially cordial to either of them.
It’s a great read, and one that had a lot of potential for a strong adaptation.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s vision feels too much like it’s trying to mimic Pynchon’s. The film feels beholden to the original, as though cramming as many of the book’s details and characters and Pynchon’s actual words into it is the only way Anderson can think of to respect it.
Sometimes the fidelity leads to nice little Easter eggs for fans of the novel. Early in the film Doc and his friend Denis head out for pizza, and without comment we can see — more or less faithfully recreated — the nightmarish combination of toppings Denis orders in the novel. Also presented without comment: Doc’s Princess phone, writing a wish on a rolling paper before smoking it, Bigfoot’s addiction to frozen bananas, and lots more. Freeze-frame viewers can even read a document summarizing the death of Bigfoot’s partner, using Pynchon’s original language.
These are all great, and unobtrusive, ways to provide winking resonance between the two versions of the story.
Other times, though, that crippling fidelity leads to characters that appear, provide some fragment of exposition, and disappear forever. Tariq Khalil. Petunia Leeway. Buddy Tubeside. Sloane Wolfmann. Riggs Warbling. Luz. Aunt Reet. Clancy Charlock. That’s just a partial list of characters who play a much larger role in the book than they do on the screen, where they turn in little more than cameos.
They each served some function of their own in the book, but don’t serve much of one here, and they just seem to pop up because Anderson thinks they have to. The movie clocks in at around two and a half hours, and it still feels like the characters are fighting for time.
In order to accommodate so many one-off faces, we cut much of Doc’s actual detective work. His entire fact-finding trip to Vegas is gone. His visit to Coy’s dealer is gone. His followups with Mickey Wolfmann’s hired hands is gone. In the film, then, we don’t see Doc doing much of anything; we simply cut to the next time a character connects two hanging threads for him, essentially doing the detective work themselves.
This makes Doc seem a lot less competent. Here he really does come across like the lazy, zoned-out, worthless hippie scum that, in the book, characters like Bigfoot liked to pretend he was. Anderson, knowingly or not, ends up coming down on Bigfoot’s side, seeing Doc as something like a lucky idiot at best, and losing much of what made the character who he actually was.
Joaquin Phoenix, a good enough casting choice on the whole, doesn’t always seem to know who Doc is, either. He shifts between playing him as a cartoon character and as a tormented soul. It’s as though he wasn’t told if the film would be a knockabout period comedy in the Austin Powers vein or a dryly comic meditation on aging and loss, so he figured he’d treat it as both.
“Comic boob” is definitely the wrong place to take the character, but every so often that’s exactly what Phoenix gives us, with his exaggerated reactions to pretty girls, his lunging after drugs, his Three Stooges reaction to being hit with a sap.
When Phoenix is more restrained he’s much better, and so is the film. We see this when Doc is at his lowest — flirting with a post-betrayal Penny on the phone, for instance — it’s just that Phoenix seems to believe that when Doc isn’t at his lowest he must be at his silliest, and, tonally, that just doesn’t work.
Anderson must have been aware that there was a limit to the level of cartoonishness he could get away with, as he sometimes rewrites Pynchon’s scenes to be more subtle. Compare the scene in which Doc is interrogated by the FBI.
In the novel:
“Tell Penny how groovy it was of her to set up this little get-together, oh, and hey–can I be frank for a minute?”
“Of course,” said Agents Flatweed and Borderline.
Snapping his fingers, Doc sang himself out the door with four bars of “Fly Me to the Moon,” more or less on pitch.
In the film:
DOC: Can I be frank a minute?
FLATWEED: Why stop now?
DOC: Alright, you be Dean-o, you be the other guy, and tell Penny Davis Jr. what a lovely day we had. Thank you.
Same joke in each version, executed differently, each of which best suits its respective format. Doc crooning clownishly is something funnier to imagine than it would be to actually see, so Anderson, wisely, reworks the punchline just enough to avoid breaking the reality of his film.
That’s an impulse he could have heeded more often.
Speaking of reworking, one character finds herself with a much different role in the film than she had in the book: Sortilège, an ex-employee and sometime spiritual advisor of Doc’s, acts here as the narrator.
I do wonder what Anderson’s motivation was for promoting this character to central storyteller. Sortilège is only physically present for a handful of scenes, none of them especially important, and I’m not entirely sure what her motivation would be for telling this story at a later time. Or to whom. Or what it even means to her. It’s a nice thought, and Anderson adds a cute little flourish of having Sortilège’s astrological interests color her interpretations of what’s happening, but it also feels a bit clunky.
To be honest, I had to watch the film twice to realize that the narrator even was Sortilège. I originally thought it had been Shasta.
Joanna Newsom (Sortilège) and Katherine Waterston (Shasta) don’t look or sound exactly alike, but they’re close enough to cause confusion. This is compounded by the fact that Sortilège doesn’t even get named until most of the film is already over, making the characters even more difficult to differentiate.
That’s a quirk that authors don’t have to worry about, while film-makers do. It’s nearly impossible to confuse two characters for the entire duration of a novel (unless that confusion is artfully intended). In a novel, our imaginations do the differentiating for us. In a film, it’s up to the film-maker, and if that film-maker happens to cast two actors with similar characteristics, confusion sets in.
Of course, Inherent Vice, the novel, wasn’t really about Doc’s investigations, or about Doc at all; it was about the end of an era, which is illustrated both by the unfolding of the Manson family trials in the background and by the forcible rewiring of Mickey Wolfmann’s brain to keep him from turning philanthropic. The first clues us in to the fact that the hippie lifestyle will no longer be welcome in the new decade, and the second that hippie ideals won’t be, either.
Anderson’s Inherent Vice, however, loses the greater narrative about the era to focus only on Doc’s actual detective work…which is what makes it especially frustrating that his version of the character does so little of it.
In fact, in Eric Roberts’ only scene as Mickey Wolfmann, he explains the entire conspiracy for Doc, both because our detective hasn’t done much detecting and our director hasn’t filmed enough of the story for us to fit the puzzle together on our own. This may make Inherent Vice the first whodunit in history to be solved by its victim.
One mark on the positive side of the ledger is the casting, which is uniformly quite great. Phoenix may have made some choices I emphatically disagree with, but he could have made a great Doc. Josh Brolin as Bigfoot is fantastic, finding a much better balance of humor and pathos than Phoenix does, and managing to feel — if not look — every bit as large as Pynchon initially described him. He’s massively imposing, as opposed to being simply massive.
Katherine Waterston is easily the best casting choice, though; she is thoroughly perfect as Shasta Fay Hepworth, telling us everything we need to know about what she means to Doc — and why he’d still miss her after all this time — before she even opens her mouth.
She appears in her first frame fully formed. Waterston understands Shasta perhaps even better than Pynchon did, giving herself over entirely to a role that could have been so easily mishandled, and genuinely making it her own.
Shasta contains multitudes, even if Doc sees few of them and understands fewer.
Of the minor characters, the highlight is Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. While many of the characters from the novel get significantly less time on the screen than they had on the page, just about all of Blatnoyd’s antics make it to the screen, and I’m glad they do.
Short plays Blatnoyd the way Pynchon’s characters often seem to readers. Broad. Manic. Impossibly animated. Pynchon’s characters are all spinning eyeballs and flailing limbs and funny faces. Sometimes they will literally shoot steam out of their ears, or run away leaving a dust-cloud in their image behind. They operate on a different kind of logic, and the worst possible idea would be to bring this to the screen untempered, without concern for tone.
Martin Short brings it to the screen untempered, without concern for tone, and it works. But he’s a zany character in an otherwise (for the most part) sedate film, and that’s why it works.
His performance achieves something by fixing Blatnoyd as an exception to the movie’s larger tonal rule. When another character has him killed, it makes sense; we’ve already seen that he didn’t fit.
Short brings a Pynchon character note for note, detail for detail, word for word to the screen, and in doing so makes it clear why no other characters should behave that way. The zaniness needs to be regulated.
Blatnoyd can behave that way, because we need to understand that he’s a nuisance, and an unwelcome presence to the other occupants of that universe. Doc, however, can’t behave that way, because we shouldn’t be able to side with those who find him pesky.
Seeing Phoenix have such difficulty moderating his performance — or at least finding a groove he can stay in — is made all the more disappointing by performances like Short’s, and especially by performances like Waterston’s.
Waterston provides the perfect face of regret. Both Shasta’s, and Doc’s. Her presence is meaningful. We learn everything about their relationship not from the flashbacks that show them happy together, but from the times that they cross paths now, in the present day, unable to connect the way they know they need to, unable to be themselves, to just be there for each other.
They’re defensive. They’re damaged. They’re in pain. I don’t know that she and Phoenix have chemistry, exactly, but they have an affecting misalignment. The kind of love that doesn’t work, never worked, can never work, and yet won’t die. They’ll spin into each other’s orbits every so often. They’ll kick up all the old feelings. And then they’ll spin apart again. Older, sure, but certainly no wiser.
Anderson’s opening scene is the same as Pynchon’s, at least superficially. Shasta visits Doc out of the blue to ask for his help with the Mickey Wolfmann situation. Their dialogue is largely intact. The same expositional beats are hit. And then she leaves him to his investigation, and disappears into the next branch of her own fate.
But that’s where the similarities end, as Anderson’s Shasta is nakedly emotional. She’s hurting. She’s only just delaying the breakdown Doc must also know is coming. In the book she comes across as a bit reserved…perhaps strategically so. Is she hiding something? Is she trying to ignore whatever feelings still exist between them? Is she…lying?
In the film, though, she genuinely can’t contain her emotions, which means that Mickey really does mean something to her, and that she’s actually worried for his safety. Perhaps also her own. In Anderson’s version, it’s not an act. It’s not a manipulation. It’s not a game in any way.
It’s a plea, and a sincere one, for help, which she delivers to somebody who she knows has every right to deny her. It says something that in Pynchon’s version, Shasta is a struggling actress. Anderson excises that. His Shasta isn’t acting.
And neither is his Doc. There’s a great moment when she drives away, and he holds on to the side of her car as long as he can. It’s evocative both of their relationship, and of a much better adaptation than the one we actually got.
Their best scene together comes toward the end of the movie. If you’ve seen it, you know the one I mean. If you haven’t, there’s little I can do to describe it that wouldn’t cheapen what really happens here.
But she comes to Doc’s apartment. She undresses. She sits beside him on the couch. Places her bare foot on his thigh. And she talks.
Alone. Without interruption.
About Mickey. About herself. About what’s happened.
She only talks. No…not only. She does something else, too: she shows us what this relationship is really like. The scene fills us with the kind of emotions Doc feels as well. It’s painful, sexy, awful, awkward, scary, damaging, real. She seduces him by preying on his anger. She raises the heat of his jealousy so that they can use it as lust. She hurts him for the sake of bringing them closer together, however briefly, however few smacks or thrusts it takes.
And then, when they’re finished, she turns to him. And she says, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.”
It may be the longest scene in the film. It’s certainly the longest monologue. And it’s a smart, insightful way of presenting Pynchon’s material in a way that entirely belongs to Anderson. And, in fairness, to Waterston.
It’s the one time the film feels like a truly artistic vision. The film may fail to comment on the changing of the era, but what does this scene say about us? Our relationships? How we act, react, and get what we want?
And I’m not just talking about Shasta. Doc gets what he wants, too. He gets hurt. He gets to keep playing this game, and that’s necessary…because the moment one of them stops, for good…
Well…then she’s gone. For real this time.
But for every instance of a scene or moment being handled exactly right, there’s at least one scene or moment being handled exactly wrong.
The biggest misfire, I think, is the scene in which Doc meets Hope Harlingen, Coy’s widow who has reason to believe she isn’t one. Jena Malone is great in this scene, but then she hands a photo to Doc, and Joaquin Phoenix suddenly isn’t.
It’s a photo of her infant daughter, ravaged by the effects of Hope’s chronic heroin usage. The heroin came through Hope’s breast milk, and their daughter, Amethyst, was sickly to the point of being near death. Not exactly the best place for a comedy scream, but that, for whatever reason, is what Phoenix gives us.
It’s a far cry — and a massive trade downward — from Doc’s painfully sober reaction in the book. This couple of junkies not only ruined their lives, but the life of their infant child. It hurts him. If he does scream, he does it inwardly, and with a lot of pain.
In the book when Amethyst appears, asking her mother for juice, Doc is overcome with relief.
The child made it. She’s healthy now. She’s okay after all. Whatever she’d been through, there was hope (ahem…) for the future.
And Doc needs that. He needs to see that with all the substance abuse, the murder, the lying, the stealing, the conniving that he faces every day, he needs to see that there’s a chance for someone, some innocent little girl, to make it out okay. To believe in a better day he finds it increasingly difficult to convince himself is coming.
He needs that. And Amethyst gives him that. That’s enough.
In the film we do see a now-healthy Amethyst, but Doc doesn’t seem to clock this, which makes sense, because he didn’t feel any kind of concern for her in the first place. He was just callously, comically horrified.
It’s a tone-deaf moment that cripples our ability to see Doc as what he really is — or, at least, was. Anderson and Phoenix lose what made that character real, and relatable, and sympathetic, for the sake of a quick (and objectively cheap) laugh.
Other issues with the film are less about how they’re handled and more about the fact that they aren’t handled. Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s marine lawyer, is played by a perfectly cast Benicio del Toro, who gets to do almost nothing.
There’s little of the sad friendship that developed between the two otherwise lonely men in the book, and none of Sauncho’s delightful, stoned meditation on pop culture. An entire subplot about his own interest in the Golden Fang (schooner edition) is also missing, though a barely glimpsed scene at the very end of the film is meant to, I assume, suggest that all the stuff we remember from the novel did happen; Anderson just didn’t bother showing it to us.
Sauncho’s function in the finished film is massively unclear. He serves as comic relief, but then so does Dr. Blatnoyd. And Doc’s friend Denis. And apparently Hope Harlingen’s dying heroin baby. A-and Doc himself!
There was no need for another character just to deliver a few funny lines, and for my money, Sauncho should have absorbed Denis and become a composite character, accompanying Doc on a few errands and actually getting the chance to do something meaningful.
The strangest thing about Sauncho’s presence in the film is his failure to deliver one very specific line: the definition of “inherent vice.”
Being a marine lawyer, and all, and inherent vice being a consideration for marine insurance policies, you’d think he’d be the one Doc would hear it from. And, indeed, that’s exactly what happens in the book. Here, though, it’s defined by Sortilège, which is odd, as she has no reason to understand — or to care about — something so specialized, and so far out of her own field of expertise.
Then again, Anderson made her the narrator and promoted her to periodic omniscience, so that’s probably just an unintentionally silly symptom of her upgrade.
Sauncho isn’t even the most significant character who fails to fulfill his own function on screen. No, that honor goes to Adrian Prussia, a loan shark whose name recurs in Doc’s investigations throughout the novel. By the time we get to meet him we know all about his tendency toward violence, his history with the LAPD as contract killer, and the fact that he iced Bigfoot’s partner.
Adrian Prussia is bad news, and Pynchon makes sure we know it. We feel him coming like a gathering storm, so that by the time Doc arrives in his office we don’t just have an idea of the danger he’s in; we understand that this could well be where the detective’s story ends.
In the film, however, Prussia essentially appears out of nowhere. A name overheard once or twice, sure, but when Doc is sitting across a desk from a senior citizen with a baseball bat, we’re more liable to be confused than worried for anyone’s safety.
Peter McRobbie does his best to sell the menace, but he has very little to work with, and aging Prussia up so significantly from the book makes him feel like an immediate non-threat. Surely if Doc could handle beatings from the much younger and more virile Bigfoot he wouldn’t have trouble surviving an encounter with a man in his 70s.
There’s simply no tension in what’s meant to be the big scene in which Doc directly confronts the villain. Pynchon handled it well, but Anderson, oddly, doesn’t even seem interested in trying.
In both the book and the film we learn a bit about Prussia’s trusty baseball bat, and the difference is telling.
From the narration in the film:
[…] Adrian Prussia, who had not only shot at him once but threatened him with a Carl Yastrzemski special baseball bat.
Here’s what is said to Doc, by Prussia, in the book:
“I lent you my special edition Carl Yastrzemski bat once, to collect from that child-support deadbeat you chased down the Greyhound and pulled him off of, and then you wouldn’t use it. […] No place for that shit in this business.”
Anderson’s version says that Prussia once attacked Doc. Fine. Evil vs. good and all that.
But Pynchon’s says much more, specifically that Prussia and Doc have a shared history. They were, strictly speaking, on the same side, differentiated only by their methods. Prussia went one way — embracing the violence — and Doc went the other, seeking peaceful resolution. One became muscle for the capitalists, and the other protection for the hippies. Started in the same place, and circled around to be at loggerheads.
Of course, it’s unfair to focus only on Prussia’s introduction. Certainly the next time we see him he’ll…
…oh. The next time we see him he’s dead.
So, that was odd. Little buildup and no payoff for the main villain of the entire film.
He comes out of nowhere, is meant to register as a big threat, and then is instantly killed. Anderson took a lot of time to weave his tale, and seemed to get to the end before he realized he hadn’t said anything important. It’s as though he’s trying to cram in as much as he can, as quickly as possible.
The shootout that kills Prussia is reduced here to a single volley of gunfire, whereas in the novel it’s comically protracted, spanning much of Prussia’s house and then the surrounding neighborhood as well. Doc can never be sure Prussia’s been, as his henchman Puck would put it, “neutralized as a threat,” and the novel’s shootout is a masterpiece of tense comic narrative. Anderson seems to have no interest in it, and skips it entirely…and I have to admit that a climactic shootout is a strange thing to take no interest in.
And, hey, speaking of Puck, we also run into the same issue with his character. In the book, much of Doc’s investigation involved neo-Nazi thug Puck Beaverton. Doc even trails him to Vegas for an extended secondary investigation, and unwittingly helps him reconnect with an old lover, who Puck then marries. If Anderson dodges Doc’s shared history with Prussia, he outright ignores his shared history with Puck.
In the novel, Puck enters Prussia’s office and Doc greets him. Puck replies, “I know you? I don’t think I do.” And, of course, this is chilling, because we understand exactly what this denial implies.
In the film Puck says the same thing, and it’s not chilling at all, because…well…he and Doc haven’t interacted. It’s less icy foreshadowing than it is a man wondering why he’s being addressed by a stranger.
Anderson does improve on Pynchon’s original in one detail, however. In the book Doc frees himself from a set of handcuffs with a fairly cheap resolution: a never-before-mentioned sliver of credit card he keeps on his person for just such an occasion. It’s clumsy writing, which Anderson redeems, at least thematically, by showing us that the credit card was Shasta’s…and Doc’s reason for having it is sentimental as well as practical.
But that’s about the only area in which the ending is improved. Doc savagely beating Puck registers here only as self-preservation, whereas in the book it’s retribution for all of the awful things Doc has seen Puck do.
Puck had been a force of destruction in many lives, and Doc is doing more than neutralizing a threat; he’s venting a lifetime’s worth of seething frustration against the powerful — any kind of power — crushing the powerless. In the book Doc later checks up on Puck’s wife — who it’s implied he wasted no time in abusing terribly — to make sure she’s alive.
And she is. Like Amethyst, she made it out. Another small bit of reassurance that somebody, somewhere, might be okay.
Also like Amethyst, Doc in the film isn’t even paying attention to her.
And Bigfoot’s ending? Uh, Bigfoot’s ending…
If you have any idea what Anderson was going for with that — having Bigfoot come into Doc’s apartment and eat all of his pot — you’re a better man than I am, though I suspect it was just Anderson’s temptation to have a big laugh toward the end of his film. Which is a shame, because Bigfoot’s ending in the novel is both lovely and sad.
Pynchon’s version of the character is last glimpsed driving off into the night, tailing yet another vehicle which he hopes will bring him yet another opportunity to avenge his murdered partner. Whatever form that might take. Whatever it might mean.
The Bigfoot of the novel has a heart, and a tormented one. He may not be a great human being — or even, necessarily, a good one — but he’s loyal to his partner, even in death. And Pynchon lets us imagine that that’s exactly where this obsession might take him.
Josh Brolin, by contrast, eats some drugs.
You know, I really do want to like this movie…
Coy’s story, at least, has both an effective and artful resolution. Doc pulls some strings to guarantee the man’s safety, and then returns the legally resurrected saxophonist to his wife and daughter.
Jonny Greenwood’s score for the entire film is great, but it’s especially beautiful here (in a song called, it has to be noted, “Amethyst”), and it perfectly captures the pulsing emotion Coy must be feeling, on the verge of seeing his family again, as he tries so hard to find the words to thank Doc for doing the impossible.
Doc shrugs it off, as he does in the book. It was nothing. It’s Coy’s life, and now Coy gets to live it.
Then Anderson lets us watch Coy get out of the car. Walk over to his house. Return to his wife, who stands speechless in the doorway.
We don’t hear what gets said, but we feel what gets felt. We see them embrace. We see a life — several lives — restored. Redeemed. Bought back from the darkness, and given the chance to face another day, to choose a little more wisely, to be now what they wished they could have been before.
But the camera lets them work through this in the distance. In the foreground, Doc is all alone.
It’s one of the film’s better moments. It’s well-acted. It’s subtle. It has meaning. And it feels like an evolution of one of the novel’s ideas, reimagined for the screen in a way that perfectly suits the viewing experience.
At the very end of the book, Doc drives along a highway through thick fog, with other motorists crowding together, sharing their headlights to make it easier for everyone to see, each isolated, alone in their vehicles, but experiencing a vague (literally hazy) sort of connection through the shared experience.
Which is really all Doc has to hope for. A general connection. A sense of belonging, in some way, to a greater whole. Helping, and being helped by, anonymous strangers whose faces he may never see again.
There’s too much sadness in the day to day. Too much danger and misery. But if you pull back far enough from the details, and focus on people in a general sense, without worrying about who they are, what they look like, what they are doing, their sad histories or the people they’ve hurt, you can find something beautiful in the larger pattern. Something reassuring. Some reason to believe that no matter how thick the fog gets or how dark the night…that it’s worth pushing through.
Doc sitting alone in the car here, facilitating a reconciliation but not having one of his own, is powerful. The film, for one of only a handful of times, achieves perfection.
And that’s what makes Inherent Vice so inherently frustrating. It had every potential to be great. Stellar cast. Masterful director. Source material ripe for interpretation.
But Anderson buckled under the challenge. He tried to give us something true to the original and, in the process, forgot to give us something true to himself.
As much as I wish the film turned out better, I really can’t blame him for stumbling.
It can’t have been easy knowing that this would be the only time anyone would use the words “Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.”
(2009, Thomas Pynchon; 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson)
Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not the best introduction to Thomas Pynchon, but it’s a great (and very funny) read in its own right.
Worth watching the film? Yes, if you’re willing to sit through the disappointing scenes to get to the great ones.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Anderson hits many of the notes, but largely misses the power, the charm, and the heart of the novel.
Is it of merit in its own right? To some degree. Inherent Vice might be a good film, but if it is, it’s just barely one. If the film existed on its own, without Pynchon’s source material, I can’t imagine I would have gotten much out of it at all. I think I would have still glimpsed the ghost of a great film beneath all the clutter, though. As one amateur philosopher once put it: “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”