Top Five Thoughts on High Fidelity (11.07)

February 26, 2011

Let me start by saying that High Fidelity is one of my top five all-time favorite films. And it has been, I think, ever since a friend and I first snuck in to see it, following a (free) red-carpet screening of American Beauty. It was a good day at the movies. And hopefully I’ve paid my dues for that one, since I own the DVD and have told hundreds of people that they need to watch it. In fact, I even wrote an essay about it in college, arguing that those two movies, along with Wonder Boys, were part of a new genre of film, the “mid-life crisis melodrama.” I don’t remember much of the details, but I’m sure my essay was brilliant. Anyway, I digress.

Last week, I found, bought, and read the book on which the movie was based. Something I knew would be a good read? Yes. An exercise in adaptation study? Yes. So here goes:

1. Movie takes place in Chicago, the book in London. I really have no preference. I liked that Rob’s parents live near Amersham (which I lived about 15 minutes away from, when I lived in the UK), but I also like the line from the movie, “John Dillinger was killed in a hail of FBI gunfire right outside that movie theater. You know who tipped ‘em off? His fucking girlfriend. He just wanted to go to the movies.”

2. The DVD contains my favorite delete scene of all time. In it, Rob goes to the home of a woman in her fifties who’s selling her husband’s record collection. It’s thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, and the woman wants to sell it to Rob for $50. Apparently, her husband is on a tropical island with a 26-year-old, and asked her to sell his record collection and take a 10% commission for herself and send the rest to him. Rob refuses to buy it for so little, because he just can’t do that to another record collector, and so ultimately leaves (mostly) empty-handed.

Why is this my favorite deleted scene of all time? Because it’s a really, really good scene, that’s well-written and entertaining … which doesn’t belong in the movie at all. It doesn’t forward the plot, so they were absolutely right to cut it. It was watching that deleted scene that I first got one of my mantras: anybody can cut a bad line and replace it with a good line, but a great writer can cut a good line, because it’s not the perfect line.

Here’s the interesting thing: in the book, that scene is absolutely necessary. Why? Because it shows Rob’s character in a way that we haven’t seen yet. Rob is written to be a whiny, self-centered, self-righteous loser, so in the book, this scene serves as a “save the cat” moment — something that makes him likable, so we actually root for him moving forward. But as portrayed by John Cusack, the guy is really quite charming, which makes that moment totally unnecessary.

3. It’s interesting that the movie and the book start off almost identical to each other. The way the book starts:

My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order:

  1. Alison Ashworth
  2. Penny Hardwick
  3. Jackie Allen
  4. Charlie Nicholson
  5. Sarah Kendrew.

These were the ones that really hurt. Can you see your name in that lot, Laura? I reckon you’d sneak into the top ten, but there’s no place for you in the top five; those places are reserved for the kind of humiliations and heartbreaks that you’re just not capable of delivering. That probably sounds crueler than it is meant to, but the fact is that we’re too old to make each other miserable, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing, so don’t take your failure to make the list personally. Those days are goon, and good fucking riddance to them; unhappiness really meant something back then. Now it’s just a drag, like a cold or having no money. If you really wanted to mess me up, you should have got to me earlier.

Sound familiar? The next fifty pages or so are filled with scenes that I recognized from the movie. (One exception: we do actually get to meet Jackie Allen.) But as the story progresses, it diverges more and more. One of the most notable differences was that Rob and Marie de Salle actually become friends after their one night stand. One of my favorite passages from the book comes from when she walks into the store following their night together. After a few lines of dialogue:

This, it seems, is what you get for sleeping with an American, all this up-front goodwill. You wouldn’t catch a decent British woman marching in here after a one-night stand. We understand that these things are, on the whole, best forgotten. But I suppose Marie wants to talk about it, explore what went wrong; there’s probably some group-counseling workshop she wants us to go to, with lots of other couples who spent a misguided one-off Saturday night together. We’ll probably have to take our clothes off and reenact what happened, and I’ll get my sweater stuck round my head.

She ends up doing a gig at the record store, which proves to be a huge success, and he never starts his own record label with anyone who comes into his store. I think I like that better, although I can see, in filmmaking terms, how it’s stronger to have your protagonist take a giant leap like that, rather than a little step toward success.

Rob’s parents have a more active role, Ian/Ray is portrayed more like a regular guy, rather than the hyperbolic buffoon depicted by Tim Robbins. The visits with his exes are less … conclusive.

4. The tone is frickin’ identical. That scene in the movie when Rob pictures all the ways he could have responded to Ray’s visit to the store? Yeah, in the book that scene is a phone call, but it’s pretty much written exactly the same way. I wanna find a book like this to turn into a movie. Because it more or less writes itself.

5. Okay, there is no number five.


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