Monday, January 22, 2007

Mysteries Of Pittsburgh Script Review

I got my hands on a copy of the Mysteries of Pittsburgh script, adapted by Dodgeball's Rawson Marshall Thurber from Michael Chabon's extraordinary novel. Instead of reviewing it myself - too much like hard work, eh? - I called on friend to film ick and 'proper' Chabon lover Mark Cardwell to give it a good going over.

His response? "If by good going over, you mean kick it to death, okay." Guess it wasn't all he wanted it to be.

Here's his reaction, big boots first.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh script review.

Fans of Michael Chabon know this novel as the one that was his Creative Writing thesis piece, famously written on a decrepit PC precariously balanced on a carpentry bench in the crawl space of his mother’s home. It signalled his arrival as the rising star of American letters. It debuted many of the themes that would recur in his consequent novels and short fiction, most significantly with the ambiguous, delicately handled bisexual love triangle at its core. However, anyone following the production of this adaptation of the book will know it as the one where Sienna Miller single-handedly pissed off the entire populace of “Sh*ttsburgh” with one stray pun. The novel has been adapted by, and the movie directed by, Rawson Marshall Thurber, a man whose entire output so far, has been one gross-out comedy, albeit a superior one. So how faithful can we expect the adaptation to be? Can we expect to see the required sensitivity from the man who penned the line “you’re as useful as a c*ck flavoured l*llip*p”?

Well, for a start, Thurber does add something of a bawdy comedic edge to the material (such as the early sex scene between Art and Phlox being over heard by colleagues on a set of baby monitors), changing a key location from a library to a down-market bookstore to compound the humour of this sequence. The script also infers a kineticism to a few sequences and set pieces that suggest he’s pitching it at a similar tone and style as Roger Avery’s The Rules of Attraction [EDIT: Oh my lord]. Flash backs, freeze frames, fast forwards. These aren’t necessarily the filmic techniques suggested by Chabon’s mannered prose.

There is the odd superficial similarity or two between the two source novels, though Thurber has enough sense to realize Chabon’s text is essentially missing the nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’. There are certainly scenes that suggest Thurber intends to occasionally reference the book’s elegiac, vaguely magical realist, tone (such as Art's missing reflection). But only reference, and only occasionally. Thurber is definitely setting his sights on an earthier tone for his piece. A piece, it turns out, fans of the novel may have trouble recognizing.

The key of adapting any book into a screenplay is to know what to leave out, as much as what to leave in. Steven Kloves’ adaptation of Chabon’s Wonder Boys is a great example of this – by excising the sub-plot of Grady Tripp’s missing wife and the Thanksgiving spent with her adoptive family, the script maintained a bouncy pace and tone the lengthier novel form could afford to deviate from for an extended period. Unfortunately, the less experienced Thurber removes wholesale the character of Arthur Lecomte ­- in the novel, the original source of the protagonist Art's, sexual confusion. The original largely concerned the love triangle between Art, Arthur, and Phlox, Arthur’s co-worker at the library (now Art’s supervisor at the bookstore).

Most of Arthur’s cues are then largely given to the female roles, Jane and Phlox, thereby making the movie instantly more acceptable to the morals of The Great American Public. Many of Phlox’s character beats are also handed over to Jane, transferring all of Phlox’s more beguiling traits, leaving her merely annoying.

Subsequently, with the rites of passage sections thoroughly gutted, the crime/caper aspects of the source material, which were pretty much later sub-plots of the novel, become central, and the charismatic (but , in the novel, comparatively minor) character of Cleveland is introduced earlier, and to centre stage. In the novel, Cleveland is something of a MacGuffin, there to raise questions about the relationships between Art and Arthur, and then Art and his gangster father. Here in the script, he, too, is given some of the missing Lecomte’s character traits, replacing Art’s longing for the aristocratic Arthur with some rougher trade – again, representing that earthier tone Thurber seems to be striving for. The central love triangle now becomes Art, Jane, Cleveland. Fair enough, but is it really Mysteries of Pittsburgh any longer?

Basically, this script may well end up as a decent enough movie. At this point, with my ire up, I’m having problems telling. But that movie will only really take Chabon’s novel as a point of departure. As an exercise in adaptation, it strikes me as similarly irritating, baffling, as adapting The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by slashing out all the comic book stuff, and choosing to make it a war movie set in the Antarctic, or choosing to adapt Summerland by removing all the mythological references and making it into a movie about baseball.

As a bigger fan of Chabon’s prose than Thurber’s screenplay, I’m not sure I can admit to particularly looking forward to ever seeing the finished product.

[EDIT: Well, thanks very much, Mark. That's pretty clear, vivid and honest stuff and not anything I could have trusted myself to write. For my part, I also think the film might be ho-hum enough to entertain or lightly engage, whereas the book was definitely something special]

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