Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Better than the Book: Wonder Boys

Michael Chabon is being hailed as a master of the literary form. He moves easily through genres, always keeping a decent style and relying on character and theme more than that pesky necessity called plot. Reading just the first few sentences of his novel about the comics industry, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, reveals his confidence and command of language. Of all his work that I have read, my favorite piece is his introduction to the reprint of D’Aullaire’s Norse Myths. It’s a great book all around, but Chabon’s intro gives an account of his personal relationship with mythology that just made me smile. His characterization of Loki as the god of the eight-year-old boy is simply genius, and I don’t doubt that it will show up in an academic piece I write sooner or later.


That being said, Wonder Boys just didn’t work for me as a book. I saw the movie first, and I loved every minute of it. I think a lot of it has to do with Michael Douglas, who simply dominates the movie without being overbearing. All the actors are great, even that guy who plays Vernon Hardapple, whose introduction is perhaps one of my favorite moments in cinematic storytelling (that means storytelling in a movie, not a movie as a story).


Steve Kloves gained some success writing adaptations for a little franchise you might have heard of called Harry Potter. In Wonder Boys, it seems like he realizes that sometimes, what you don’t see on the screen is as important as what you do see. Normally, phrase like that would be applied to horror films, where the director keeps the gore and monster off-screen until the end. Here, it applies to the wife. You never see the woman to whom the lead character is married, though Douglas tries to track her down, even going to her parents’ house. In the book, she and her whole family is there, and it leads to the characters partaking in a religious dinner that is frankly too long and not at all interesting. In the film, Kloves turns the scene into a brief but important conversation between Tripp and his wife’s father that is a turning point for Tripp’s character. It’s direct, concise, and important--qualities the novel does not muster for this scene. It’s Chabon’s largest excess in the book, and it was probably obvious that it had to go. Little changes in a similar vein make the film as a whole much more enjoyable, much more effective.

One other thing the film has over the book is its soundtrack. It’s as if the book didn’t even try here, while the movie used Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison, and a bunch of other guys whose names I don’t know.

I will give Chabon credit, though. His handling of the tuba is inspired. In the film, it is revealed to be the possession of a transvestite whom Tripp’s literary agent meets on a plane to visit Tripp. In the book, the characters merely think it belongs to the transvestite. It doesn’t, and among the many crimes committed by the characters, tuba theft must be added. It stays with Tripp throughout, and is brought to the foreground at all the right moments. The film, on the other hand, uses it for a joke about trunkspace. A good joke, but the book does so much more with it.

I mention this to make clear that the book--as with most of the books I’ll be writing about--has merit. Wonder Boys is a good book. It’s just not as good as the movie.

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