I could probably write a hundred page essay on the terrible disservice that cinema has done to Bret Easton Ellis and why I feel his novels should be off limits to filmmakers without discernible gravitas, but I don’t have the patience or the time to put everything down in writing. Come over, let’s have a glass of wine and I’ll unload for a couple hours.
As the next entry in the ‘Adaptations’ series I decided to attack the one film I usually go to when discussing how NOT to adapt a feature film; ‘Less Than Zero’. A lot of people that I’ve talked to about this film have not read the novel, and so I feel like their perception of the film is skewed. It’s like when I critique Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ and people tell me I’m being a dick. I’m sorry, I’ve read the novel and NO Hitchcock did not get it right. That is the problem at times with reading, you get spoiled. Now I am not opposed to having a director exhibit some creative freedom in interpreting an author’s work for the big screen. If a director merely took words and transferred them verbatim then he’d lose himself and thus be nothing but the tailor of cinema, not the designer (yes, I watch too much ‘Project Runway’). But, there has to be some respect shown to the source material and when you veer so far from the originally intended impact you create something with no resemblance to the author’s work and thus shouldn’t bother trying to capitalize on the success or prestige awarded the novel but just pass it all off as an original work.
Let’s see if you can swim now.
That is the problem I have with ‘Less Than Zero’; it isn’t ‘Less Than Zero’.
One thing to remember about Bret Easton Ellis is that he is a really trashy guy. Even now, later on in years and further removed from the fame he experienced in his heyday, he’s TRASHY. Just check out his Twitter feed if you need more proof of that. I’m not saying this as a bad thing at all. I love this guy. I find his work compelling and while he lost his footing with his last two novels and while he really needs to find a way to leave to 80’s behind for further projects, there are very few people who can make smut feel so profound, and I’ll always feel indebted to Bret for penning ‘Less Than Zero’ because it is that one novel that convinced me of my burning desire to become an author. You could say that maybe that is why I’m so hard on the film, but I think that even if I didn’t have this special place in my heart for ‘Less Than Zero’ I would still be jealous for its integrity, and there is no integrity kept in this watered down adaptation.
The biggest issue with the film adaptation is that it completely disregards the emotional core of the novel. You can change situations and add circumstances and alter endings all you want, but if you change the core gist of the film then you’ve basically killed the idea that spawned your film, and why would anyone want to do that? Bret Easton Ellis dwells in the land of apathy, and he conveys that marvelously. He paints this sea of teenage debauchery where everyone and their mothers and their sisters (pre-pubescent at that) snort cocaine and have sex with multiple partners, male and female. These characters waif through their days thinking about the money someone else owes them and their next score and how and when and with whom they are going to get off with. ‘Less Than Zero’, in Ellis’s hands, became this debased tale of the decline of society in the 80’s. In the hands of Marek Kanievska it becomes an anti-drug campaign where friends desperately try to stop someone from diving off the edge of the cliffs of drug abuse. Yeah, nice concept but NOT what Ellis had in mind when writing his novel. In the novel, Clay could care less about Julian’s dependency issues because he depends on drugs himself. Sure, he has an odd moral compass that allows him to see the lengths others will go for their vices with a judgmental eye; but when Clay sees Julian whoring himself out to a man for cash he merely locks himself in the bathroom, he doesn’t go apeshit and drag his ass out of that hotel room.
The names are the same but the actions couldn’t be further from those intended and so ‘Less Than Zero’ the film becomes something else altogether. If they had simply renamed this film something, anything else then I may possibly actually like this movie a bit. As far as cautionary tales go, it’s not like Kanievska’s film is bad. It packs a punch and has some great performances. Robert Downey Jr. should have been up for an Oscar, and I say that having disliked the film. He is powerful and draws from such a deep well that his substance abuse and subsequent deterioration as an individual is a marvel to witness. Still, this film is not called something else, and it clearly markets itself as an adaptation of Ellis’s debut novel. As that, it fails miserably.