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The Rum Diary: First sparks of genius

The Rum Diary

Reviewed by: Patrick Guntensperger


Running time:            120 minutes
Director:                     Bruce Robinson
Writers:                      Bruce Robinson (screenplay)
                                   Hunter S. Thompson (novel)
Starring:                     Johnny Depp

MANADO, NORTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA-Every young writer or person who wants to be a writer seems instinctively to gravitate to fiction writing. There are armies of young people out there who are taken, if not obsessed with the idea of putting words together that other people will read. Virtually every one of them starts by trying to tell a story, and most try to write short stories. Most fail. That the short story is the single most difficult form of fiction to pull off successfully daunts some, but hones the skills and serves as a training ground for others. Others, more ambitious or more confident try to do the marathon of fiction writing first and go straight to an attempt at a novel. Once again, most fail. There are far more unfinished novels gathering dust in the back of unused drawers than there are completed ones, let alone published ones.

During this internship some profoundly talented writers find that their real talent lies not in fiction writing but in the field of non-fiction. Hunter S. Thompson was one of those young writers. He had a burning desire to string words together from his teen years where he wrote sports articles for his school paper and contributed to the yearbook. Still interested in fiction, he studied creative writing at Columbia University School of General Studies and then in his early twenties, he supported his writing habit by hiring himself out to a series of publications of varying quality, primarily as a sports writer. It was during this period that he wrote his novel, The Rum Diary.

As a novel, it’s pretty meagre stuff. It is the thinly veiled biographical and fictionalised first person account of a young aspiring writer who wangles himself a job on a third-rate and barely solvent Puerto Rican daily. There are some bits about the conflict between the ethics of pure, objective journalism and the realities of the business aspects of running a paper, but the book is notable mostly for Thompson’s keen observations of people and his already jaundiced view of the world. More a series of nightmarish vignettes of rum-fueled debauchery and hungover assignment writing than an actual novel, The Rum Diary serves as an admirable prelude to what will eventually become the world of the legendary Hunter S. Thompson.

Johnny Depp in a pensive moment from The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp as the young Thompson

Johnny Depp, who comes to the project well-prepared (he lived with Thompson at his Colorado house in preparation for his role as Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and attended Thompson’s funeral where he fired the deceased’s ashes from a cannon off a mountain into the air over the desert), puts in an earnest performance. He seemingly effortlessly captures the spirit of an already debauched and cynical young writer who manages to maintain an idealism that somehow doesn’t seem incongruent. All the elements are there, the acting is uniformly fine, but sadly the movie, much like the novel, never quite comes together.

Apart from the fact that Thompson’s growing cult following, which has increased by quantum leaps since his suicide, provides a built-in guaranteed minimum audience, this is a picture that probably never should have been made. As a novel, it is immature and somewhat lightweight. All the portents, however, are there in the actual writing. The flashes of observational and analytic genius, couched in the unmistakeable voice that would characterise Thompson’s later writing can already be seen in the novel, but don’t really translate to the screen. By the time Thompson realised that his real strength, even his genius, was in unashamed non-fiction writing, he would be a voice that would forever change the world of journalism.

He is often and deservedly credited, with having created “gonzo” journalism. Taking the principle that the simple act of reporting on a story affects it and that therefore the idea of purely detached, objective, observational reportage is impossible, and even a pretentious myth, he pushed the envelope so that the reporter not only drives the story, but actually becomes the story. Without the reporter and his participation in the events being reported, there simply is no story; and when the reporter is as fascinating and unrestrained a character as Thompson was, the story is worth reading.

People initially come to Hunter S. Thompson’s writing because of his justly famous accounts of epic substance abuse and criminally dangerous, self-destructive mayhem. But they stay for the brilliance of the writing and integrity of the insights and the honesty of Thompson’s outrage at hypocrisy, corruption, and straight society. Thompson was a brilliant wordsmith and a supernova in the world of journalism. And like a supernova, he glowed fiercely for all too short a time and then burnt out; but he left a legacy that will endure. Unfortunately, that legacy wasn’t made for the cinema…he was the quintessential word guy.



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