The Rum Diary would not exist to the public today had it not been for Johnny Depp rummaging through Hunter S. Thompson’s belongings in his basement and then encouraging Thompson to publish the novel. It’s from that moment until today that Depp has been working on making The Rum Diary a film. The film went through many ups and downs. There was rumor that Benicio Del Toro would direct, and that Josh Harnett would appear. Then there were stories about Scarlett Johansson and Kiera Knightley turning down the role of Chenault because they were not okay with the amount of nudity the film had. None of this seems to matter today as the film is out and the results are in: Hunter S. Thompson fans need not apply.
I read the book a while ago and stopping short of it changing my life, the novel was inspiring, courageous, funny and original. Hearing that it was being made into a film, excitement consumed me. Knowing that Depp was making this his passion project warmed my heart even more. The man can do no wrong portraying HST and therefore the film would be a true portrayal of the novel and the man’s life as we never saw it. I fear the film was actually the opposite.
Writer/Director Bruce Robinson decided to make the focus of the story about evil white people on an island ripe with opportunity for money-making. This was a small asset in the book, but it never took over the plot of Kemp (a character loosely based on Thompson) and his higher aspirations of making something of himself in journalism all whilst consuming large quantities of rum.
The villainous Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) was the most confusing character as he was actually portraying two characters from the book. Sanderson was a wealthy white man that asked Kemp to write some travel brochures for him, but he was also taking over the role of Yeamon (omitted from the film) who was a good friend of Kemp’s and the two got into a lot of trouble having fun together.
The editing and direction were atrocious. Scenes were cut together so quickly, even The Rum Diary virgins knew something had been left out. The information I mentioned earlier about the nudity was null and void in the finished version because not even a side boob was detected in this film. Amber Heard was apparently picked for the role because she was willing to shoot the nude sun-bathing scenes and sex on the beach and the shower and so on and so on. None of that made it into the final cut. I’m not saying that it’s needed to enjoy the film, but being that this story takes place in the early 60’s in a place where rules are barely enforced; it was hard to see it that way in the film. There was barely a moment in the film where I felt placed in the 60’s in a time all but forgotten.
The film opens with Kemp (Depp) waking with a hangover in a hotel room in Puerto Rico receiving his breakfast from the staff. There is a quick jump from that moment to Kemp in a taxi arriving for his first day of work. This was the first moment I knew this film was in trouble.
He arrives at what is the only English-speaking newspaper on the island. I know this from the book, but it never specifies in the film. His editor, Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) is always freaking out that the paper will fail and spends a large amount of time proclaiming that Kemp is the paper’s savior. From there we meet two other major roles in the story, Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi). Sala becomes Kemp’s closest friend and roommate in the film and Moburg is apparently into Hitler now and experiments with drugs.
I appreciated the humor that the script tried to interject in the film, but what I couldn’t wrap my head around was how far-flung these characters had come from the book. I had always understood all of these characters to be extensions of Thompson’s real-life personality, yes, even Sanderson. The problem is that the characters never really have a moment to breathe and explain themselves to us. Chenault (Amber Heard), the only female character in the book, is painted as nothing more than an exotic white girl that likes to party. Her climactic scene in the film is all but deflated because we haven’t gotten to know her like we should have.
The scenery was gorgeous and the casting was perfect, there just wasn’t enough focus on those two in order to build the atmosphere and camaraderie like in the book. I still can’t wrap my head around the jeweled turtle in the film either. There was a comment in the film about the turtle being named Harry and that Sanderson got the idea from a book. Nothing more is said on the subject, but I couldn’t quite get it. The only connection I could gather was a JK Rowling quote from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “A gigantic tortoise with a jewel-encrusted shell was glittering near the window.” Perhaps Robinson was poking fun at the level of reading our plump Americans partake in now as compared to that of the sixties.
There is an extraordinary amount of cock-fighting in the film which has nothing to do with the book. There are witch doctors and drug experimentation that never had anything to do with the original story. I could go on and on with an exuberant amount of bull shit added to this sinking ship, but there was one addition to the story that really pissed me off. The fact that they would paint Thompson’s character (Kemp) as a man that would ever do business with the likes of these slimy, sneaky corporate investors just floored me. Robinson’s intention was to pay homage to the legend and give this epic telling of how the man found his roots and inspired millions with his take no prisoner’s voice. The Kemp shown in the film is fragile, weak and vulnerable in most of the film. He is shown as a man that whimpers over the site of a pretty girl when in reality, Kemp was a man that knew he liked a girl but because she was taken, he got his rocks off with other ladies in the meantime and on the beach.
In conclusion, this film was an utter mess. Writer/Director Bruce Robinson decided to write his own version of The Rum Diary never paying homage to the late writer besides a slide in the end showing his picture and a quote from the man himself. The casting and film location were perfect. There were even two scenes in the film that showed exactly as I remember reading them in the book! It’s safe to say that Thompson would hate this film if he were alive today and to avoid talking about it with other journalist he would get his guns out and start loading. However, the spirit of Thompson lives on in his books and to quote the legend from The Rum Diary, “I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.”
That’s all we can do now.
I give The Rum Diary 1 “Gonzo Fist” out of 5
by Angela Davis