By Rex Pickett
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004
Adapting a novel to the screen has to be a daunting task. If you take Spike Jonze’s brilliant, quirky and genuinely bizarre movie Adaptation as a guide, adapting any book to the screen — in this case Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief — is a harrowing, freaky ride.
Screenwriters must condense hundreds of pages into a visual experience that doesn’t exceed the limits of the human bladder. In doing so they risk alienating fans of the book, potentially ruining both book and movie for readers and audiences alike. Screenwriters either follow the book too closely, or they diverge so far from it, they create a new, and sometimes, unrecognizable creature.
At times, however, the adaptation goes so well a work of art gets created, something that equals, or succeeds the original piece. I’m thinking of the marvelous adaptations to the screen of No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain.
Often, though, the adaptation falls short and you exit the theater, or switch off the DVD player, saying, “The book was waaaaaaaay better.” In the case of Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, the movie adaptation doesn’t fall short at all; it turns out waaaaaaaay better than the novel.
Both the book and the movie tell the story of Miles and Jack, two buddies embarking on a madcap, weeklong wine tasting adventure into California’s Santa Ynez Valley — the last bachelor hurrah for Jack getting married at the end of the week. The mismatched pair — Miles, the lonesome loser; Jack, the good-times man everybody loves — fling themselves into wine, women and the emergency room, testing love and friendship along the way.
Essentially the book and movie are similar enough that readers won’t blow out head-scratching “huhs?” with the changes screenwriters adapted to the plot. Jack and Miles are recognizable, the plot itself, though reshaped significantly for better dramatic effect in some spots, is recognizable. What clicks in the movie and not in the book are the changes in plot that make the story itself much more plausible and less contrived than in Pickett’s novel.
The novel starts out well, opening with a frantic Miles trying to pack for the road trip, a scene that establishes Miles’s character and circumstances — he’s broke (a detriment to his oenophilia) and is taking an extravagant trip he can’t afford; and he’s banking on a last-ditch effort to publish a novel. The opening’s also well paced, getting the characters on the road, after a hilarious wine tasting episode not in the film, and establishing the characters’ motives — Miles wants to escape his dreary life, enjoy a lot of wine, and send his friend off with a bang, while Jack wants a bang or two, along with his quaff.
The novel falters, however, with several contrived plot points. There is, for instance, a strange and ludicrous boar hunt with local yokel Brad that seems pointless, other than to provide Jack with broken ribs — one of a series of injuries Jack will have to explain away to his fiancee — and a gun, for a later, overly-violent encounter with Jack’s betrayed girlfriend for the week, Terra.
And Pickett seems to think it’s implausible that Miles’s love interest Maya may actually be attracted to Miles. Disturbingly, Pickett has Jack pimp out Maya for no good reason, other than to alienate Miles, Jack and Maya, a brief alienation that gets tidied up all too well at the end of the novel when Miles and Maya trip merrily off into the sunset. The film, on the other hand, ends with Miles standing in the rain outside of Maya’s apartment — he’s betrayed her by lying about Jack’s marriage — leaving the audience and Miles wondering if Maya will answer the door.
The novel, however, isn’t horrible. There are insightful moments when Miles contemplates the nature of friendships and love. There are clearly well researched scenes about wine and wine tasting. And Pickett certainly depicst a hangover well. But, in the end, the movie cleans up the novel’s loose ends, and makes for a more satisfying experience, a good quaff, slightly fruity, with no bitter residue.