America’s infamous outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson was, like many of his generation, a bone-deep admirer of author Ernest Hemingway, so much so that he even typed out word-for-word two of Hemingway’s novels — “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell To Arms.” Thompson wanted to feel the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing, to grok the flow between thought and page.
Thompson would also go on to imitate Hemingway’s head-on immersion in his topics, his macho drinking habits, and eventually, his gun-to-the-head suicide. He never quite managed to emulate Hemingway’s success as a novelist, though, instead finding fame with his own brand of “gonzo” first-person journalism.
Thompson did nurse a number of novels, he just rarely finished them, a product of both his own impossibly high bar and the many years of substance abuse. The irony is that Thompson’s earliest effort at fiction — “The Rum Diary,” written at age 22 and tinkered with extensively in the decades that followed — is not only as good as anything else he’d written, it’s probably truer to his own experiences than much of the “journalism” that propelled him to fame, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Thompson — again imitating Hemingway — went tropical in 1960, trying his luck as a hack journalist in the just burgeoning Caribbean resort of Puerto Rico, where he drank heavily, wrote puff pieces, chased tail, witnessed the Ugly Americans who were devouring the island’s beachfront real estate, and drank some more. It’s in this milieu that the book is set, and while it’s a rough-edged work, it’s also one with some sharp insights and clear proof of Thompson’s iconoclastic, armor-piercing style. Yet it took Hunter’s A-list Hollywood buddy Johnny Depp — who had played the author’s alter-ego “Raoul Duke” in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — to convince him to dust off the old manuscript and get it published.
Depp has now managed to bring the book to the screen and, with director Bruce Robinson (of British cult classic “Withnail & I”), fashions it into the HST “origin story,” nailing the point in time where Thompson went from aimless, struggling writer to passionate journalist who finds his voice. The line between the author and his story’s fictional lead, Paul Kemp, is blurred entirely, as Depp — who probably knows better than most of us — chooses to play him as another Hunter alter-ego.
“The Rum Diary” is a decent flick, not least thanks to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Prometheus”) and production designer Chris Seagers, who capture the sun-drenched island at its extremes, with the gleaming pools and airy lily-white mansions of the elite offset by the sweltering flats and dusty lanes of San Juan. Depp — doing more than just wearing a silly costume for a change — is cagey and cool as the young Hunter, and he’s backed by a great supporting cast that includes Aaron Eckhart as a charismatic but sleazy property developer Sanderson, Amber Heard as Sanderson’s wild thang lover who also toys with Kemp, and Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi as low-life journalists so sketchy and strange they make Kemp seem like the normal one.
Even so, HST fans have gone after Robinson with the zeal of a mechanical shark, ripping him apart for the “artistic license” he took. In truth, Robinson’s screenplay messes extensively with the source material, eliminating a central character, removing a very funny opening scene, gratuitously adding an LSD trip sequence (as if you can’t make an HST movie without one), and generally making the Kemp character more of a softie, whereas Thompson had a knack for portraying his alter-egos as selfish and bloody-minded as they were amusing and idealistic. (Recall the scene with the diner waitress near the end of “Fear and Loathing.”)
And yet, if you accept “The Rum Diary” for what it is, it’s a perfectly good encapsulation of what made Thompson unique, right down to the scene where he gets a telepathic message from a lobster. (“Human beings are the only creatures on earth that claim a God, but act like they haven’t got one.”) The film is even better at capturing the point in any young man’s life where he has to square his ideals with a need to get on in the world: As the young HST, consistently fired from job after job for insubordination, once put it in a letter, “I sometimes wonder how important it is to be right … instead of comfortable.”
Japanese audiences will probably go to see Depp, who looks dashing in his vintage sunglasses and hot-climate suits; Puerto Rico, let alone HST, are not well-known over here. But hopefully locals will note the scene where a consortium of shady businessmen conspire to acquire some pristine and protected land for development. They ask Kemp to write opinion pieces in favor of allowing their plans to proceed, for which he will be well rewarded. “Isn’t that illegal?” asks Kemp, only to be met by glares and someone barking “that’s an inappropriate comment.” That sounds a lot like journalism in Japan — just look what happened with Tepco.