Novels into Film, Wonder Boys

Wednesday night I finished reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. It’s the third time I’ve read the novel, and I decided to reread it this time as both part of my 100-novel reading project and because I watched the DVD of the film a few weekends ago and wanted to see how the novel and film matched up.

From previous viewings and readings I think the Scott Rudin/Curtis Hanson produced film did great justice to translating the novel on screen. Casting Michael Douglas in the lead role of protagonist Grady Tripp is perfect. Actually, as far as casting goes–the cast includes Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr.–I think it’s one of the better casting jobs done in a film drawn from a secondary source.

Set at a small liberal arts college in Pittsburgh, the novel and film concern themselves with a group of writers and editors over a three-day weekend. The leader of the student writers, Professor Grady Tripp, is a novelist suffering not from writer’s block but writer’s diarrhea, as he’s seeking an ending to his 2000-plus page novel "Wonder Boys."  Tripp is a stoned-out, closing in on washed-up, philanderer as well, involved with the school’s chancellor, Sara Gaskell.  When Tripp’s editor, the sometimes gay Terry Crabtree, comes to town for the school’s Wordfest and to have a looksee at Tripp’s uncompleted novel, the story becomes a comic romp that unveils not only Tripp’s problem–essentially an inability to make choices–but also unveils several of the student writers’ true selves. 

While both film and novel offer a comic tale, on my recent viewing and rereading, I think the novel is stronger in its characterizations of chief characters. Of course, this may be true for any novel translated to film– the characterizations have to be condensed in the film for the film to work and maintain audience interest.

After reading the novel this time, one character of note in the film is weak on characterization– James Leer–in the film played by Maguire. Leer, as Chabon (or more accurately Tripp) characterizes him, is "a goddamn spook." Leers spookiness comes out in the film; he’s a phantom in the beginning, lurking in the shadows, always on the outside, leering (if you will) in windows, watching his fellow student writers live life. He becomes Tripp’s problem. He may be a talented, though not yet fully developed writer, who is ridiculed by his classmates, but as Tripp discovers, Leer also has what seems to be a problem with discerning fact and fiction.

Leer has invented a life, several different versions of himself, in order, at least as the film seems to direct us, to hide from being gay. He is outed eventually by Crabtree.  I think this is where the film seems to weaken, since it focuses more on Leer’s budding homosexuality. (Chabon revisits the theme of young men discovering their homosexuality in his Pulitzer prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.)

While Leer’s homosexuality is a pivotal concern in Chabon’s novel, what makes Leer capitvating not only for the reader, but for Tripp himself, who serves as the novel’s narrator, is trying to discover who Leer really is behind the fictive mask he’s created for himself. The mystery of his character is never really fully revealed, but that seems to be one of Chabon’s points: We can never really get to know a person fully, and as Tripp discovers, he (Tripp) has only in middle age come to start seeing himself clearly as his own literary persona dissolves, while his third marriage is dissolving and while his lover reveals that she is pregnant by him.

In the film, Tripp is the lead character, so it’s him that the film wants the audience to focus on. So that’s probably why such an interesting character as James Leer gets somewhat filed away in a film.

Still, both the film and novel have again captivated me. And the soundtrack to the film isn’t bad either. It features Bob Dylan’s Oscar winning song "Things have Changed," as well as various other artists including Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.


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