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The perils of putting David Foster Wallace on film

10 October 2009

Timing both good and bad is usually out of our hands. As such, you can only feel for the young American actor John Krasinski – star of the US version of The Office and Sam Mendes's Away We Go, and now a first-time writer-director. After all, back in 2006 when he began assembling an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the project would surely have been taken as bold and perhaps slightly hubristic – but nothing more than a harmless curio either way. Then, last September, Foster Wallace killed himself, a continued cause of sorrow that means Krasinski's film (just released in the US) now can't help but seem a little like cinema's eulogy to one of the greatest literary talents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a crushing weight upon its shoulders.

The boldness and/or hubris were always factors for two reasons. First, as any reader of Foster Wallace will know, his writing was a beautifully singular thing, a madly expansive, footnote-laden beast in which brilliant acrobatics of prose were a given and any central idea could flip in the space of a sub-clause into another from a wholly different corner of existence. And all of it, however frantic the physical events taking place, was deeply located in the headspace of its characters. In an era in which the novel has morphed ever more into the screenplay treatment, Foster Wallace often felt (for all his keenness on David Lynch and the filmic conceit at the heart of his masterpiece Infinite Jest) definitively unfilmable.

But just to make Krasinski's task more hopeless, there was his choice of material. Foster Wallace's body of work was never the string of taut, grabby narratives produced by Cormac McCarthy; his was a sprawling plethora of short pieces and non-fiction essays set against the epic backdrop of Infinite Jest, more than a thousand pages of indelible riffs on addiction, technology and the nature of entertainment that has always resisted film-makers even as it keeps hoovering up readers. As such, Brief Interviews must, on some level, have seemed the most straightforward Foster Wallace to grapple with, a series of monologues delivered by diverse but reliably toxic male voices about their dealings with women that Krasinski patches together over 80, mostly verbatim, minutes.

And yet the impression that choice would give a punter new to Foster Wallace is troubling. Taken alongside the rest of his writing, the scabrous addresses fall into place as part of a career-long obsession with isolation and miscommunication; lifted out of that context and boiled down into a "battle of the sexes," the movie risks presenting this most fiercely empathetic writer as somehow akin to the smug, tin-eared misanthropy of Neil LaBute. The bottom line here is simple: while I'm sure the film was borne out of sincere passion for the author, I can't think of anyone I know who also loves him who would ever recommend Brief Interviews as the right Foster Wallace for a new reader – but that's what the movie ends up doing to the new readers it was, presumably, at least partly made for.

In the US (a British release seems remote), the reviews have been dreadful: "A disaster," said the Village Voice; "repellent" opined the New York Times. And the pity is that in other hands, a different choice of material could have achieved the impossible and alchemised Foster Wallace's writing into a piece of cinema that mirrored his scope and adventure. After all, for all his hyper-loquacious style there was never a word throughout his career that wasn't informed by the same basic ingredients of character and circumstance that a movie depends on.

So while a straight adaptation would always be asking for trouble, if Foster Wallace's writing was used as a starting point and not a sacred cow, an imaginative launchpad rather than a blueprint, then all manner of shards and strands could provide the springboard: the Incandenza family saga of Infinite Jest, or the deadpan short story Mr Squishy with its multi-layered ad industry intrigues, or even the title essay of the non-fiction collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, an account of a stay on a vast Caribbean cruise ship that reads like light comedy while packing more gravity and insight into its hundred pages than most writers deliver in a lifetime.

The trick would surely be to pay far less attention than Krasinski has to what's on the page: for once, in the case of Foster Wallace, the less faithful a movie would be to the actual words, the truer it could be to their spirit. That way may lie cracking his unfilmability while inspiring a fresh act of genuine creativity – which would, perhaps, be a more fitting tribute than what Brief Interviews has accidentally become.

Source: Guardian Online