The Rum Diary: Hunter Would Turn In His Firework Display

Why Johnny Depp and Bruce Robinson fail to capture the magic of Hunter S. Thompson's long-lost novel...
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Never judge a book by its movie. That's a fair maxim. I can't recall a single narrative improved from page to celluloid. The Rum Diary, one of my favourite novels, has just made this transition.

It's not the most accomplished book I've ever read – it doesn't have the best plot, characters or prose. It doesn't even compare to Hunter S. Thompson's best work – he's yet to truly find his voice, to focus the venom.

But, from start to finish, first page to the last, The Rum Diary is imbued with a unique and seductive charm. It makes you want to pack up your life and fly to Puerto Rico, like protagonist Paul Kemp. It dares you to exist on a diet a of rum and hamburgers and degeneracy, like Kemp and his nefarious cohorts do. The sweat and struggle of their hand-to-mouth existence under the Caribbean sun seems like the most exciting thing in the world.

If there's one person I would trust to do this book justice on the big screen, it's Johnny Depp.

Depp discovered the manuscript of Thompson's lost novel while working on the movie adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the author's Woody Creek home. He persuaded him to publish it – almost 40 years after writing it – and together they made plans to make it into a movie.

It's almost six years since Thompson committed suicide; but through the semi-autobiographical eyes of Kemp, we relive his time as a newspaper journalist in Puerto Rico, during the early-60s.

Thompson moonlighted as a male model while in the Caribbean, so the ever-debonair Depp is well suited to the role of Kemp – aesthetically, at least. We find him hungover in the trashed hotel room his new employer, the San Juan Star, is footing the bill for. His first day in the newsroom introduces fatalist-photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli), perturbed editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) and PR man Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart).

It makes you want to pack up your life and fly to Puerto Rico, like protagonist Paul Kemp. It dares you to exist on a diet a of rum and hamburgers and degeneracy, like Kemp and his nefarious cohorts do.

Kemp's opening dialogue with Lotterman feels flat, as does his first proper conversation with Sala at Al's – the watering hole frequented by San Juan Star hacks. He returns to his hotel for a nightcap. At sea. On a pedalo. For some reason. One of numerous seemingly pointless deviations from the original story.

Kemp's Freddie Flintoff impression is interrupted by Chenault (Amber Heard), Sanderson's girlfriend, swimming around him in the sea. (In Thompson's novel, Chenault is the girlfriend of Yeoman, an unhinged journalist and pivotal character. His absence will be conspicuous and confusing to fans of the book.)

With one line, the film nosedives from mediocrity to inanity: “Oh, God,” Kemp says out loud to himself, over schlocky meet-cute music. “Why did she have to happen? Just when I was doing so good without her.”

Matthew McConaughey has excreted less clunky lines.

Bruce Robinson, the genius behind Withnail and I, wrote the screenplay and directed this movie – making such turgid language all the more shocking. Depp talked Robinson out of virtual retirement for The Rum Diary. He needn't have bothered. Less then 20 minutes into the movie and it's clear they're both – as Kemp fears he is – “over the hump”.

Occasionally, though, the unavailing plot adjustments and dodgy dialogue tapers, revealing moments of class: “The only eventuality worse than him,” Kemp says, watching Nixon speak on TV during the 1960 presidential election campaign, “is that you know, one day, some filthy whorebeast is going to show up and make him look like a liberal.” He continues his prescient tone: “The Irish guy's going to win, but they'll never let him live.”

This scene is quickly forgotten when Kemp arrives at Sanderson's beachfront house for a meeting. Peering through a telescope, he observes Sanderson and Chenault in a copulatory clinch in the sea, near their boat. He's interrupted by businessman Zimburger and his wife, also there for the meeting. A flurry of innuendo – tawdry by Scary Movie standards – follows: “She's a sweet little beauty. You been aboard?” “We've all been down on her.” And so on ...

Less then 20 minutes into the movie and it's clear they're both – as Kemp fears he is – “over the hump”.

The two most incendiary moments in Thompson's Rum Diary are Kemp and Co.'s beating and subsequent arrest at the hands of the Puerto Rico police, and the carnival they attend on a neighbouring island. These events take place in the movie – sort of – but they are castrated and underwhelming by comparison. (Again, these scenes suffer severely as a result of Yeoman's omission from the script.)

It's infuriating that Robinson's Rum Diary deviates so dramatically from the source material, inexplicably overwriting key storylines, themes and even characters with convoluted replacements – seemingly just for the hell of it. Worse still, what's left saunters between boring and cringeworthy.

Depp, too, must shoulder some of the blame for this poor show. With the exception of the odd deftly delivered line, his performance is rarely anything better than average.

If you haven't read the book, this movie is watchable. It looks good, is occasionally funny and has a solid supporting cast. If you have read it, and were thrilled at the prospect of a Depp-Robinson duet bringing it to life, you will be disappointed.

The Rum Diary is, by some distance, the most deficient of all Hunter S. Thompson's works rendered to film. However, Robinson and Depp aren't entirely at fault.

Yes, it's true, this movie could – and should – have been infinitely better; but, even at a canter, as it is in The Rum Diary, before Gonzo, before Raoul Duke and before the rabid Doberman he was found the bite to match his bark, Thompson's voice proves impossible to translate. He was just too good.

A Brief History Of Johnny Depp’s Sunglasses

The Real Hunter S. Thompson By The Man Who Knew Him Best

Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

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