Film — 24 November 2011

By Laura Burgoine

The beauty of every Hunter Thompson story is the author’s overpowering presence within the narrative. The American journalist was a master of the subjective, first-person writing style that would later become world renowned as ‘gonzo’ journalism.Thompson’s simultaneous brilliance and madness could never really be recreated on film; this is a given. It would be ambitious to think the film, the Rum Diary, could live up to Thompson’s semi-autobiographical first novel of the same name. Predominantly it falls short in that there’s not enough rum and not nearly enough Hunter.The larger-than-life Kentucky-born writer is a character impossible to explain or adequately explore in 120 minutes. This is a man who would enter editorial meetings carrying a live snake, a man who once evacuated a whole restaurant after setting off the fire extinguishers on unsuspecting patrons. In his late teens / early twenties, while speeding down a narrow lane-way in his employer’s truck, Thompson scraped the whole side of the vehicle, and -in a moment of panic- parked it, walked across the road to the Air force office, enlisted and left town the next day. He had a penchant for explosives, which was immortalized in his dying wish to have his ashes shot into the air by a canon, which his close friend and collaborator Johnny Depp fulfilled in a $200,000 funeral service in 2005, after the author committed suicide.Thompson was always a reckless force, yet when he wrote the Rum Diary, his first novel, at age 23, he still possessed a youthful idealism, which is evoked throughout the movie.

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 Although written while he was in his 20s, the Rum Diary would remain an unpublished manuscript for decades, until Johnny Depp discovered it in the writer’s basement while filming Fear and loathing in Las Vegas.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”.


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(3) Readers Comments

  1. Well written and incisive. I read Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing on the campaign trail’ on the US presidential election and was amazed at his ability to condemn most of the contenders.

  2. It’s so lucky for me to find your blog! So great! Just one suggestion: It will be better and easier to follow if your blog can offer rrs subscription service.

  3. Definitivamente no estoy de acuerdo con el comentario, la pélícula es más de lo que esperaba – a pesar que estoy en absoluto desacuerdo con las escenas de peleas de gallos- muestra una clara opinión de lo que piensa el norteamericano promedio, no sólo de Puerto Rico, si no también de Sudamérica.

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