By Laura Burgoine
Like all Thompson’s works the Rum Diary was inspired by real life experiences.
The writer lived in Puerto Rico in the early ‘60s, where he worked for an ailing English-language newspaper, a bowling magazine and as a stringer for some New York publications. Although written while he was in his 20s, the Rum Diary would remain an unpublished manuscript for decades, until Johnny Depp discovered it in the writer’s basement while filming Fear and loathing in Las Vegas.
If you haven’t read the book you can only expect to gain a superficial understanding of the plot from the film.
Depp, who plays Paul Kemp (based on Thompson) lands in Puerto Rico, where he has sort of lined up as a job as a reporter at, what turns out to be, a failing English-language newspaper. Like many Americans before him he is chasing opportunity in a relatively unknown, untapped paradise. However he soon finds himself surrounded by disillusioned gringos, all wearied by the capitalist values that have followed them there and ruined by the plentiful rum, which they have surrendered to.
In ambitiously trying to incorporate enough of the book into the screenplay, the peripheral characters remain somewhat stereotypical and one-dimensional. Aaron Eckhart plays Sanderson: the archetypal bad guy, a Captain John Smith without his Pocahontas. The chiseled, blonde, all-American golden boy capitalist, representing privilege and affluence in all its grandeur, is set to destroy Puerto Rico by over-developing its pristine beaches for tourism revenue.
As the story unravels, Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault, the blonde bombshell from Connecticut, becomes the object of Kemp’s affection, though their on-screen time together is so fleeting the relationship seems somewhat inorganic.
Other American characters, namely overweight tourists, are portrayed as gluttony personified, visiting the island to spend all day shopping, eating, drinking and playing the slot machines, all the while not even leaving the hotel for fear of bumping into “dangerous” locals or authentic culture.
Visually the film is quite stunning. Filmed on location in Puerto Rico, the movie is dominated by reels of white sand, palm trees and unruly jungle, all peppered with flashy sports cars and attractive, very well-dressed Hollywood heavyweights. The script is pithy in parts and the plot fast moving. It’s probably a good prelude to reading the book and not the other way around.
The most noteworthy aspect of the film is the evident nostalgia it possesses, giving audiences a glimpse of Thompson’s burgeoning talent as he began, in the early ‘60s, embarking on his ongoing exploration of the death of the American dream, a topic that would later dominate his writing.
While the Kentucky-born journalist is most known for his famed novels Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels, his early work shows the birth of his “fear and loathing”, and the death of a collective dream as the writer became more disillusioned by the world surrounding him.
As a commentary on the media industry, the Rum Diary is poignant. The San Juan Star, where Kemp works, is lead by a hopeless editor, who cowers to advertisers and investors, instead of representing a true voice of the people. When Kemp tries to save the day with noble aspirations of unveiling the truth and protecting journalistic integrity, only a handful support him, which is not enough.
It’s in the ending, which is somewhat anti-climatic and in that sense very anti-Hollywood, that the film redeems itself. A disillusioned Kemp realizes he can’t beat the system and literally sails off into the sunset, New York bound, where of course he goes on to be accomplished and successful. However the happy ending is still both literally and metaphorically far off in the distance as Kemp accepts defeat. He leaves Puerto Rico somewhat jaded and vanquished, with the realization: “Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a god and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn’t got one”.