Lost in Adaptation: Less Than Zero by Matthew Guerruckey

“I had this dream, see, where I saw the whole world melt. I was standing on La Cienega and from there I could see the whole world and it was melting and it was just so strong and realistic like. And so I thought, Well, if this dream comes true, how can I stop it, you know?…How can I change things, you know? So I thought if I, like pierced my ear or something, like alter my physical image, dye my hair, the world wouldn’t melt. So I dyed my hair and this pink lasts. I like it. It lasts. I don’t think the world is gonna melt anymore.”
-from Less than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis

The novel Less than Zero is a harrowing coming-of-age story set in the day-glo world of 1980’s Los Angeles. The book follows Clay, a nineteen year old who has returned home for the holidays from his first semester of college back East. During the course of the novel Clay gradually becomes aware of the emptiness of his former life. At the end of the book he rejects Los Angeles, but not before bearing witness to its heart of darkness.

Brett Easton Ellis wrote the book, and sold the film rights, while he was still in college. The novel is written in first-person present tense, a technique which promotes identification with the distant Clay. This style also forces the reader to participate in Clay’s willful hedonism in the first half of the book, and share his disgust toward the acts he witnesses in the second half.

The book is extreme, the work of a young man eager to shock. Ellis seems to revel in the horrors he presents. Ellis’s Clay is soulless and dangerous, snorting cocaine and indulging in unprotected sex with both men and women. Clay only turns away from his decadent world when presented with the most disgusting crimes imaginable. Because his friends gleefully participate in these acts, it is implied that Clay’s time away from Los Angeles has given him the trace amount of empathy that saves him. The Los Angeles that Ellis presents us is a Dante-esque hellscape filled with snuff films, cocaine, and faceless boys lying dead in back alleys. L.A. itself it a character, one that pursues and destroys the young, rich, and beautiful.

The novel was a bestseller and received mostly positive reviews. Newsday’s review noted that, “never has Hollywood’s version of success looked so frightening in a piece of contemporary literature”, and other reviewers praised the novel’s intensity. Sensing a hot literary property, 20th Century Fox bought the rights before the book was officially published and hired Pulitzer winning playwright Michael Cristofer to write the screenplay.

Cristofer reportedly stuck close to the grim tone of the novel, keeping Clay’s frequent drug use intact, but dropping his bisexuality. The studio thought the hard subject matter would keep teens away, so they rejected Cristofer’s draft and gave the project to producer Jon Avnet, who had made Risky Business with Tom Cruise a few years before. Avnet wanted to change the tone of the work dramatically, from “a very extreme situation” to “a sentimental story about warmth, caring and tenderness in an atmosphere hostile to those kinds of emotions”. Fox and Avnet were determined to transform the story from an unflinching portrait of lost youth to a Brat Pack after-school special. The adaptation was in the hands of the wrong guys, people awed by the money the book had made but afraid of its subject matter.

The film at least looks beautiful and the direction is at times inventive. Director Marek Kanievska and cinematographer Edward Lachman do an adequate job providing the right look for the film, the swimming pools and street lights pulse with harsh neon hues. But the script is horrendous, the plot unoriginal, and the acting (aside from Robert Downey, Jr. and James Spader) is wooden.

Lachman would later claim that the film was originally a lot “edgier”, and that the studio had taken away from Kanievska to reshape it to resemble Avnet’s melodramatic vision. But how edgy could that original version have been with Andrew McCarthy still at its center? McCarthy is a complete miscast. His tousled hair and puppy dog eyes note a sensitivity that the novel’s Clay does not possess. McCarthy’s casting alone undermines Ellis’s intention so thoroughly that it’s clear the filmmakers have no intention of telling the story that he wrote.

McCarthy’s performance is terrible. He does not emote, and it’s unclear whether that is an attempt to replicate the blank Clay of Ellis’s novel or if McCarthy is just incapable of it as an actor. At the time he was still a rising star, and this one of his first chances to carry something meatier than Pretty in Pink. This was his big dramatic break, and he blew it. He has little charisma but he’s good looking enough, in a non-threatening way, that teenage girls liked him. But that gets right to the problem with his casting: Clay is supposed to be threatening. Why cast someone who would seem to be his polar opposite? Of course, it’s worth mentioning that we almost got an even worse version of Clay: Keanu Reeves was initially cast in the role.

But in a real sense, the film adaptation doesn’t even center on Clay. It’s really Julian’s, and therefore Robert Downey Jr.’s, movie. Downey gives a dynamic performance. With only Saturday Night Live and Weird Science before this, who could have guessed he would be this good? His performance is twitchy mixture of soulful eyes and restless speech-tools he would perfect in later roles. The scene in which Clay and Blair help Julian as he suffers through heroin withdrawal is genuinely affecting, and that is due to Downey. Of course, Downey would end up living a life very much like the one depicted here for most of the 80s and early 90s. He must have been drawing on some hard life lessons, and it shows. It’s a  phenomenal performance, the film’s one saving grace.

As for the rest of the principal cast, James Spader shows the cool, collected demeanor that has served him well in the years since in his role Rip, the drug dealer. He’s menacing and good. Jamie Gertz, however,  is a complete non-entity as Blair.

It’s an odd experience watching the film after reading the novel to see characters with the same names inhabiting a completely different framework. The movie begins with Clay, Julian, and Blair graduating from high school. It’s a cliche moment, sure, but more importantly it frames these kids as young go-getters full of promise rather than the D.O.A burnouts Ellis presented.

The world that these kids inhabit doesn’t seem dangerous, it just seems boring. Certainly the novel begins that way, with purposefully banal dialogue, but did the filmmakers stop reading after those first 100 pages and not get to the snuff films and pedophelia? The film’s Clay doesn’t even use drugs! Blair snorts cocaine, but she walks away from her dependency with remarkable ease.

Public sex is the only remotely dangerous behavior we ever see from Clay and Blair: once in his car on the road as bikers swarm around them, and once when they sneak out of a party at Blair’s parents’ home. Is this what scary behavior looks like to the filmmakers? This is supposed to be edgy?

The party sex scene is especially ridiculous because there is genuine passion between the two of them. So much so that the filmmakers show a deliberate contrast between the steamy encounter and the stale, white world inside the party. This is a complete change from the book. Sure, Blair’s parents would have been just as disinterested and self-absorbed in the novel-but so were Clay and Blair themselves. Clay in the novel is ambivalent about Blair, and never displays any passion or emotion toward her.

Julian does sell himself for drugs in the film, as in the novel, but we are spared the gory details. In the novel Clay did not look away, so that we as readers were forced to watch along with him. In the film not only can we can ignore these things, we’re also told that no matter how bad it gets your friends will always be there to try to save your from yourself. For a movie that centers on drug-fueled prostitution, that’s a pretty Hallmark sentiment.

The film presents the hunt for Julian as a silly race against time, compressed in typical Hollywood fashion. Having constant malice hanging over the characters heads undermines Ellis’s intent as well. The entire thesis of the novel is that no one in the scene realizes that they are in such danger.

Furthermore, what the filmmakers do decide to keep from the novel is completely random. Trent, one of the central characters of the novel, is reduced to a non-speaking role in the film. While walking into the party at the beginning of the movie Clay says “Hi, Trent” to someone standing by the door, and that’s literally the only time we see him. In the novel, it is Trent who makes the critical choice to participate in the gang rape that Clay walks away from. Trent and Clay’s opposing choices illustrate how depraved Los Angeles is, and triggers Clay’s decision to leave.

The film also keeps, but distorts, one of the novel’s most famous scenes. While Clay and Blair are driving through the hills they run over a coyote. In the novel the coyote is not completely dead, and Clay must beat it to death with a tire iron. In the film the coyote has disappeared when they get out to check on it. What possible reason is there for this change? It strips one of the novel’s most symbolic scenes of all meaning. Why even elude to a moment only to change its meaning entirely?

But the strangest change is that the film’s Clay admonishes Julian “you did it to yourself”, which are Rip’s words in the novel. Why quote the novel, distort the meaning, and give a line from the novel’s villain to the film’s hero?

The film is so different from the source material that we must ask: does it work on its own terms? The answer is no. The characters are cliche and the story ridiculous. The movie plays at times like a cautionary tale and at other times as a farce about a group of plucky rich kids trying to outwit a gangster. We learn nothing about these people over the course of the movie. Julian is saved and then dies in a scene cribbed from Midnight Cowboy. The scene is so flat and the events leading up to it so far-fetched that by the time we get to it we’ve lost connection even with Julian, in spite of Downey’s performance. Then Clay and Blair fly off back east, as if Julian were nothing but a complication in their love triangle that, once removed, they can live a happy life without.

What does the film’s Clay want? He has no arc to speak of. He comes into town sad, tries to save his friend, then that friend dies and he leaves town with his girlfriend. I guess film Clay wants Blair back, which he does get, but he’s not undergone the same kind of transformation that the Clay in the book does, so that victory feels unearned.

The film seems more directed at the Baby Boomer parents of Clay’s generation than the generation itself. One of the primary themes of Ellis’s novel is selfish Boomer parents fucking up their kids. The parents of the film seem concerned for their children-Julian’s father even gives him an ultimatum to get sober. The film turns the responsibility to stay clean back on Julian, and therefore his generation.

The adaptation bears only a passing resemblance to its literary roots, and is not a strong enough film to succeed on its own merits. In a way, that does link it to the central character it fails to accurately portray. Like the novel’s Clay, the film has a gorgeous surface but a hollow core.