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Choke and Cinema's Most Adventurous Book Adaptations
David Moats , November 24th, 2008 03:26

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk's work is notoriously difficult to translate into film. Dave Moats reviews the latest adaptation Choke and collects the 10 most adventurous book to film adaptations.

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Chuck Palahniuk once said in an interview that his goal as a writer was not to make books which people liked but ones which people would never forget. David Fincher made a similar statement of purpose with the opening credits in his adaptation of Palahniuk's first book Fight Club by famously zooming from the cellular depths of Edward Norton's brain out to the barrel of a gun. Maybe not everyone liked Fight Club but it's certainly not a film the viewer easily forgets. Fincher's greenish tints, short attention span editing and gratuitous use of CGI to peek inside bodies and buildings have now become the obligatory calling cards of edgy TV dramas such as CSI, but at the time the combination seemed fresh and eye catching.

Choke begins far more modestly with some standard titles over a slow pan around a support group for sex addicts, which is essentially the way Fight Club begins (chronologically that is). Sam Rockwell, in a break-though performance, plays the sex obsessed historical interpreter (he pretends to be a colonial peasant on a heritage site) who scams people out of money to pay the doctor's bills for his ailing mother. Hi favorite scam is pretending to choke in up-scale restaurants and soliciting money from his saviours, who become tied to him by a kind of maternal instinct. His mother (Anjelica Huston in a perfect bit of casting) is a former outlaw of sorts who continually abducted the young Victor from potential foster parents. Now she can't even recognise her son and her dementia is rapidly accelerating. A young doctor in the mental health ward (Kelly Macdonald) promises an unlikely cure and the potential for a relationship beyond the fleeting satisfaction familiar to the sex addict.

One will recognise from Fight Club the theme that modern life is so isolating that we need to invent scams and elaborate pretences just to connect with other human beings. We also, of course, use those same scams to protect ourselves from being hurt. But if the themes and some of the situations seem familiar, it becomes immediately apparent that Choke won't employ the same relentlessly dark tone as it's predecessor. Director / screenwriter Clark Gregg explains in the production notes that he wanted to present Choke like a perverted Romantic Comedy, subverting the genre from the inside. Unfortunately, unless you are a film critic and have a copy of said production notes, or the director was sitting next to you in the cinema nudging you when something was done ironically, this clever conceit could easily be lost on you. One could just as easily, as I initially did, see the blatant Rom-Com format not as iconoclasm but as a half measure to appease the studios who wanted the film to be easier on the palette.

This is always the danger with pastiche that if accurate enough if just becomes what it mocks. If it mocks the format too much though, you are left cold. It's sad that it is even necessary to rely on formats. Books, or at least good books, are not as constrained by genre as much as films. A book like Choke can jump from humour to drama to trash without blinking but as a film it must become a comedy with dark overtones or a drama with comic touches. It's strange how we have to rely on conventions to tell us that something is funny. Audiences seem to need permission to laugh in the form of upbeat music and pauses after jokes. It is amazing to sit in a cinema and hear people stifling their giggles because they think their laughter is misplaced. If it's funny, it's funny. Choke does not need the comedy tropes because it revels in the natural absurdity of life and relationships. The director's impulse to make a rom com is not wrong it's just unnecessary.

But if the director has not, in my mind, succeeded in subverting the romantic comedy format, he has succeeded in making one of the very best true romantic comedies of the year. The strength of the genre is its ability to quietly smuggle in genuine emotions, concealed under a cloak of puerile humour and cynicism. The best rom coms out flank the audience by playing to their jaded side and then tugging at their heartstrings while they are distracted.

Choke is probably the most jaded romantic comedy ever and that is why the emotions are so believable and unexpected. The goal for the romantic leads is companionship more than love and the obstacles are more psychological than external. The film's central relationships are all unconventional but are not judged by the film as such. Even in their extremes we can all see aspects of our own behaviour in the main characters.

Choke doesn't have the flair or the audacity of Fight Club but in many ways it is a better film because it doesn't live or die by its style. It is also a better story. Where Fight Club was immature and cold, Choke is full of humanity and surprising wisdom. This adaptation might fail Chuck's test by being ultimately forgettable but I, at least, really liked it.

Click the numbers bellow to see out gallery of the top 10 most adventurous book adaptations.


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Kevin Bosch
Nov 25, 2008 7:57am

What about Adaptation. (The Orchard Thief)?

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Karl Hungus
Nov 25, 2008 8:54am

You could've made sure to spell Kubrick right.

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John Doran
Nov 25, 2008 9:17am

You're right. Moats has been keelhauled.

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Ara Michael
Nov 25, 2008 9:59am

Or at least to spell the titles of the movies right...

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Justin Jones
Nov 25, 2008 10:22am

First off, "Breakfast Of Champions" is horrid. I am sure that you could have picked good AND adventurous adaptations. There is enough of those to fill a list, rather than getting lazy about it. You spelled David Cronenberg's last name "Cronenburg" repeatably. "Crash" was made and released in 1996, not the 80's. You suck.

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Paul Nelson
Nov 25, 2008 10:34am

how can you say platoon is better? i understand everyone has different opinions, but apocalypse now is one of the most intricate movies ever made... look past the pro-war, anti war crap... really the film is not even about war, thats just the backdrop

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John Doran
Nov 25, 2008 10:38am

We originally printed the wrong version of this article. The subbed version is up now. Apologies.

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Daniel Link
Nov 25, 2008 1:37pm

Kubrick's take on The Shining may be a good film and of itself, but it pales in comparison to the source material. While I guess there is some benefit in ambiguity - and the climax is notably more subtle - Kubrick essentially gutted the emotional aspects of the characters and made them caricatures in the process. Nicholson plays himself - as per usual - though he stands out in the "Give me the bat" sequence. Danny Lloyd couldn't do much more than stare at the camera, and don't get me started on Shelly Duvall's take on Wendy. Wendy in the novel was a strong character and reduced to a screaming wench here. Only Crothers' performance lived up to the character, and he was simply killed off upon his return.

King's own adaptation was crippled by budget and an inability to hire more seasoned actors - that and it was basically a TV movie. The story wasn't the problem there.

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John Doran
Nov 25, 2008 1:40pm

Delbert Grady was good.

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Andrew James
Nov 25, 2008 3:46pm

I think at Terry Gillam's adventurous attempt at adapting Don Quixote was worth a mentioning... or how about the longest and most expensive adaptation to date: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy? These movies may not have been artistically better than those on the list, but they are certainly more adventurous.

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Humbert Humbert
Nov 25, 2008 5:55pm

i'm sorry i think i just read that the film lolita improves on the source material? are you out of your fucking mind? lolita is not even a good movie. to call it an improvement on the source doesn't improve on the cliffnotes of nabokov's novel.
and platoon better than apocalypse now? really? trying studying film a little. i guess things like groundbreaking sound design mean nothing considering you're the hack to end all hacks
also naked lunch sucked. completely mired in its own "cleverness"

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Nov 26, 2008 12:30am

Looking for "adventurous" adaptions is a difficult thing to qualify because to be adventurous the new product must stray a certain amount from the original text or try to encapsulate sprawling works into two hours of screen time.

I don't think A SCANNER DARKLY is very adventurous. The film is good but roto-scoping doesn't make the work all too intrepid since the text was closely followed.

I would look to works that appeared unfilmable because of stream-of-consciousness narration or meta-textual writing. Some things that come to mind are A COCK AND BULL STORY, AMERICAN PSYCHO, and ADAPTATION. ADAPTATION could probably be left off the list because everyone knows about it and has talked about it on end (myself included; I love the damn film.).

Also any adaptations of Joyce or Faulkner works are probably adventurous because they are unreadable and would therefore be unfilmable. I love 'em but damn were they difficult to study.

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Daniel R
Nov 26, 2008 12:57am

Someone should explain to this guy that Nabokov wrote both the book "Lolita" and the screenplay for the film. Any changes from the book that made the film better were made by the author of the book himself, so I'm not sure how much Kubrick would have had to do with it... And anyone who's actually read the book "Lolita" would understand that the "neat pseudo-psychological justification for his 'appetite'" isn't really that.

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Mark Cunningham
Nov 26, 2008 1:09am

I know most people do not understand it or even like it, but I think Jonathan Demme/Oprah Winfrey's adaptation of Toni Morrison's superlative novel "Beloved" bares mentioning. Not without its flaws, the film version is extremely ambitious and features some sublime work by Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise and the late and great Beah Richards (and many others). Ambition is film these days is a lot more than we usually get from these lazy filmmakers and this film is anything but lazy. I wish people would reevaluate it.

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John Doran
Nov 26, 2008 10:39am

I think there is the merest whiff of agent provocateur about Mr Moats' views on Nabokov there. At the end of the day though, this is a matter of opinion not fact.

I'd have Naked Lunch in my list just because it was such a massive undertaking. It's a dog's dinner of a film but we're not saying that these are necessarily good adaptations.

I'd have 'A Cock And Bull Story'; Jonathan Sterne, post modernism's John The Baptist, wrote an equally 'unfilmable' book but this time making for a fine work.

Also on my list I'd have 'Short Cuts' because of its bravura plotting; 'The Lord Of The Rings' trilogy, which gets even more points for having failed as a film adaptation once already in cartoon form.

Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy for incorporating Douglas Adams' homespun propensity for shaggy dog stories without losing the plot.

Trainspotting also just about gets away with condensing the multiple strands and feel of the far superior book.

I have a feeling we may come back to this subject after Watchmen.

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David Moats
Nov 28, 2008 4:10pm

In reply to Humbert Humbert:

I didn't say that Kubrick's version improves upon the source material. _Lolita_ is one of my favorite books. I simply thought it was interesting what leaving out that detail did to the story, regardless of who's decision that was.

_Platoon_is not the better film on some absolute film studies scale of innovation but I think it is a more responsible and more emotionally affecting take on Vietnam. I like _Apocalypse Now_ alot in an intellectual way, but it leaves me cold. I should have been clear how I was comparing apples and oranges but I knew dissing _Apocalypse Now_ would get a discussion started.

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