400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Frankly, I'm a little surprised at the reception to Clark Gregg's Choke (12 screens). It has pulled in nearly $3 million, which is fairly respectable, although it's apparently still shy of recouping its production budget. Critics have banded together to rate it a low 56% on Rotten Tomatoes (I contributed a "fresh" review), but fans have ranked it a high 7.3 out of 10 on IMDB. I guess this means that the film has its fans, but only a small group of them. And so it goes when filmmakers try to adapt cult novels.
Cult novels are a far more difficult prospect than a mere best-seller or Pulitzer Prize winner. These are novels that people love fiercely, oftentimes written by a novelist that they love fiercely. Many of these novels resist filmic adaptation for some reason or another (The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Crying of Lot 49, Kitchen, Snow Crash, etc.). But when a movie of a cult novel hits, it hits big. It crawls under the public's skin and nestles there beside the novel itself. David Cronenberg made a classic out of William S. Burroughs' "unfilmable" novel Naked Lunch. Danny Boyle made an energetic, powerful, disturbing crazy-quilt out of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, and Ridley Scott made a flat-out masterpiece out of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (a.k.a. Blade Runner).
Where things get squishy is when a cult author has more than one novel or story adapted for the screen. Welsh's The Acid House was filmed two years after Trainspotting, and caused about 1/10th of the splash as its predecessor. Both films are filled with the same bizarre imagery and ideas and the same black humor, yet one film caught on and the other didn't. The same goes for Bret Easton Ellis; the film of American Psycho (2000) is beloved, but not Less Than Zero (1987) or The Rules of Attraction (2002), even though they all contain roughly the same elements. Is each cult author allowed only one movie? Did Chuck Palahniuk use up all his movie clout on Fight Club (1999)?
I think it goes further than that. I think that a filmmaker has to have a hint of that same craziness and passion that made the author write the book in the first place. Watching Trainspotting and The Acid House side-by side, you can see many of the same authorial touches, but Trainspotting just pulses, whereas The Acid House does not. The same goes for Fight Club and Choke. The writer/director Clark Gregg is a comic character actor (he has a small role in Choke), and he has made a good, coherent movie with lots of insane ideas and brilliantly funny lines and moments, but his movie just doesn't have the unhinged, surging, gurgling life-blood of Fight Club. A cult novel or movie is more than just a well-written, well-made entity; it has to have something special, almost indefinable to reach audiences in the spiritual way it does. The people that make them have to be obsessed, heavenly, driven and perhaps even a little loopy. Choke is happy to sit back and listen, but Fight Club can truly see.Have a favorite/least favorite movie version of a cult novel? Let us know!