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Is Any Writer More Inappropriate To Adapt For Film Than David Foster Wallace?

By Gabe Delahaye / January 20, 2009 - 2:48 pm

The Los Angeles Times has some of the first footage from John Krasinksi’s adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It’s a montage of a guy giving the same speech to various girlfriends explaining why the relationship isn’t going to work out. It’s painfully incomplete, ending with a real “WHAT’S IN THE HATCH” moment, and it’s impossible to really read too much into it as far as whether or not this would be a good or enjoyable movie to watch. There’s just not enough here.

And even if it were easier to make some kind of early, poorly-informed judgment call on the movie, I wouldn’t. I have no fight with this movie. It has a good cast (Will Forte, Timothy Hutton, Bobby Cannavale, and…Ben Gibbard?), and I am sure that Mr. Krasinski’s heart is in the right place. I’m curious to see what it’s like, and will reserve my judgment until then, even if this does remind me an awful lot of Liev Schreiber’s well-intentioned adaptation of Everything Is Illuminated, which is the only movie I have ever ejected from the DVD player (after only 10 minutes) and placed directly in the garbage. That thing was the absolute worst thing.

But even if the movie turns out to be great, and it’s a hopeful day, so let’s extend our optimistic enthusiasm to this project, that still doesn’t mean it should exist.

Something just feels…incorrect about adapting David Foster Wallace. I would be hard-pressed to think of a contemporary writer whose work was less prone to adaptation than his. And it’s not because it isn’t filled with lots of vivid imagery (it is), or that he can’t tell a cohesive narrative (he can, kind of), but because his writing is so obviously a celebration of the written word. Not to be such an over-shushing library nerd about it, but it seems to me that his books, all of them, with the possible exception of that laborious treatise on the concept of infinity, were as much about how language works as they were about their subjects.

So, to render a collection of stories that was, rightly or wrongly, roundly criticized for its near impenetrability (in places) into something that at this early stage looks like He’s Just Not That Into You* feels like a betrayal. I’m not normally one prone to the suggestion that subjects are off limits. Nothing is precious. I shy away from the very suggestion that this post is obviously making that somehow Krasinski should not be allowed to take this book as his inspiration, which is obviously what this has to be, a movie inspired by the book, not an actual faithful rendering into film, if we agree that a faithful rendering is impossible based on the huge disparity between the written word, particularly in Wallace’s case, and the filmed image. And yet I am obviously making that suggestion. Not so much that he shouldn’t be allowed to take this book as inspiration for his movie, but simply that there’s no conceivable need, at least in my mind, to do so.

Maybe this is going to be the best movie, like the titular Entertainment in Infinite Jest; a movie so good that it drives people crazy. Even then, I am not convinced that we need it. If you make a great movie based on a book that fundamentally stands in opposition to the movie itself, does a pope shit in the woods, or whatever? And, I mean, what’s the point, when we can just remake The Honeymooners again.

* Which is itself adapted from what should theoretically be an unadaptable book: a humorous self-help relationship guide.