Introduction to The Rum Diary (2011)
This is the text of a talk I gave about Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary at Derby Quad on Wednesday, 14th December. I read it out off a piece a paper – not very gonzo, I admit, but I did have a bottle of beer with me.
Here’s a question: which writer has had the most films made about them? Shakespeare, of course. Dickens, certainly. But amongst more recent writers, the answer is probably Hunter S. Thompson, the subject of three fiction films and two documentaries in the past three decades.
That’s only a surprise if you know nothing about Thompson. If, however, you’re ever read one of his books, or simply heard the stories about his life, it makes perfect sense. Thompson, the pioneer of gonzo journalism, wrote about his own life as an energetic, exciting tumble of sex, drugs, rock and roll, not to mention biker gangs, counter-cultural politics and lots of guns. He didn’t give a damn what anybody thought, and barrelled through life picking up trouble. The perfect anti-hero for a movie, in other words.
In real-life, Thompson made his name in the mid 1960s after spending a year riding with the Hell’s Angels and then writing a book about the experience. The result was as much about Thompson as it was about the bikers, and made him famous as a new kind of journalist who refused to stand discreetly at the side of the story but plunged straight in – an autobiographical, undisciplined style of writing which became known as gonzo. So when he was asked to cover a desert road race in Las Vegas and instead wrote a warts-and-all, fiercely funny story of all the drugs he took while he was there, his editor decided, what the hell, and published the result – regardless of how truthful it actually was.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas established Thompson as the craziest writer in an era defined by craziness. He captured the post-Altamont, pre-Watergate come-down of Nixon’s America, and in fact wrote a gonzo-style exploration of Nixon’s re-election, Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72 which was a great expose of American politics. But people didn’t necessarily want exceptional journalism; by now, they wanted Hunter’s wild-man routines, and that’s when Hollywood came knocking.
The first Thompson film, 1980’s Where The Buffalo Roam, starred Bill Murray as Thompson and loosely wove some of the episodes in Thompson’s life together in a vague narrative shape. One some level, the chaotic style suited the subject, and Murray was an excellent choice, but it didn’t really work as a film and in fact it wasn’t nearly outrageous enough to mimic Thompson’s life.
That might have been that, except that pretty much everybody in Hollywood wanted to make Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, whose legend as the defining cult novel of the early 1970s continued to grow. Various stars campaigned to play Thompson’s alter-ego Raoul Duke, including Jack Nicholson and John Cusack, until Hunter S. Thompson met Johnny Depp and decided nobody else could play him. Depp wanted Withnail And I director Bruce Robinson to make the film, but Robinson had retired from the business. Alex Cox, British cult filmmaker and presenter of BBC2’s Moviedrome series, was hired…but then had the project taken off him when Terry Gilliam became available.
That level of behind-the-scenes chaos suited Thompson, and in the hands of a maverick like Gilliam, the book’s tone and substance (or, if you like, substances) arrived fully-formed on-screen: wildly funny and hallucinatory in visual style. And Thompson was right: Depp was the right man for the job.
The film became a cult hit, and reignited Thompson’s career to the point where his unpublished 1961 novel, The Rum Diary, was finally released in 1998. He enjoyed belated status as an elder statesman of the counter-culture and guru to younger artists like Depp. When he died in 2005, it made the headlines, not least because of Hunter’s wish that his ashes be fired into the sky from a cannon. Either side of his death, two documentaries were made – Breakfast With Hunter, in 2003, and Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Hunter S. Thompson, in 2008.
Meanwhile, efforts to get The Rum Diary filmed came to nothing, until Depp became a producer and cast himself, once again, as Thompson’s alter-ego, and Bruce Robinson was finally persuaded to returning to filmmaking. Which brings up to tonight’s film.
The Rum Diary, written when the author was only 22, is based on Thompson’s experiences of living and working in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. After soaking up the boozy atmosphere amongst the American journalists there, Thompson imagined the story of Paul Kemp, an alcoholic journalist who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman, played here by Amber Heard.
The rambling, itinerant Kemp is an obvious avatar for Thompson himself, and a perfect study for Robinson’s comeback. Once upon a time Bruce Robinson was the brightest hope in British cinema, winning an Oscar nomination for writing The Killing Fields and finding cult success with Withnail And I, another story about drinking to excess. But his experiences in Hollywood, especially with the critically derided thriller Jennifer 8, left him disenchanted with the filmmaking process. But like Thompson himself, he’s a real personality in the movie business, and proof that there’s no harm in growing old disgracefully. Which, if we’re honest, is what The Rum Diary – and pretty much everything Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote – is about.